The church exists to help people in every place live better and more meaningful lives. God has given us a rich and transcendently ‘true’ text (scripture + church practice) or ‘Word,’ whose focal narrative is the acts and teachings of Jesus. The church invites all people to experience the Word as preaching, music, art, and ritual (including the sacraments). We value this Word because within it we have found personal healing, salvation, and eternal life. We also believe that Christian revelation joins with the texts of other great faiths to offer healing for social ills and to speak truth against the sinful powers that exert themselves in oppression, materialism, and the neglect of those who are weakest in our world. Like the other great world religions, Christianity allows each individual to participate in a larger human memory, thereby overcoming the limitations of our brief earthly life.
The church acts in the world by forming worshiping congregations. These communal gatherings reflect on the Word and join in the praise of God. Repeated in our Word is the understanding that God deserves to be praised both by individuals and in public gatherings. Also, fellowship seems to be central to an authentic Christian life. Each communal gathering or congregation develops its own culture to mediate interpersonal relationships and share the Christian Word. Congregations without physical space, such those that meet in cyberspace or in transient locations like coffee shops, must develop new cultural forms for insuring the continuity of fellowship.
When we speak of Christian Word, we are aware that it is at its core a revelation from God that we dialogue with and mold to fit our current context. When we lift up any part of the Word and claim it to be essential or fundamental, we diminish our relationship with the ongoing work of God’s spirit. The Word can be expressed in scripture, art, music, and ritual (including the sacraments). We can think of our revelation this way: The Word of God became flesh and lived among us as Jesus. The early church preserved this experience for us by translating it into scripture, ritual, and creed. Primarily in the context of a congregation, but also occasionally as individuals, we translate the Word back into an experience of God in Jesus Christ. In every place and time the church must add to the text (and so inadvertently edit it) that which makes it more appropriate to its context. The church does this with fear and trembling knowing that what it neglects may be more holy than what it adds.
The church also exists to ease suffering and to be the ‘Word of God made visible’ in loving ways in the midst of their secular community. To be compassionate is to offer help to others without strings or expectations of gain for the church institution. To be evangelical is to believe that the Christian Word is ‘good news’ and of benefit to all. To be ecumenical is to recognize that the outward form of our texts may vary but the experience of God in Jesus Christ unites us. In order to participate in the world’s religious dialogue we must be respectful of other texts even though the integrity of our personal relationship with God depends upon being exclusive and faithful to our Christian text.
Religious institutions become evil when they neglect their call to help people live better and more meaningful lives. Christian individuals must grow in compassion and service to others in order to grow in faith. Congregational leaders must devote equal attention to the problem of helping the church do good and the challenge of making their worship relevant and true.