Attentiveness: Church - Gordon Conwell

Attentiveness: Church

“We are looking for a new church that better serves our needs.”

“The new pastor’s sermons are a lot harder to listen to, so . . .” This consumerist mindset regarding the church is hard to resist. Even I, at times, forget that the church is not a product I consume, or a diversion I seek. And I ought to know better.

“I hear about these pastors who are egotists and even abusive, so I have just stopped ‘going to church.’” This is another type of false thinking about the church that is prevalent today.

As we start a new academic year at the seminary, we are quite aware that many people today are developing (or have developed) either a consumeristic mindset about the local church or a negative image of the local church. The press and social media have magnified the negative news and images of “church.” And it’s true that some churches have allowed abusive situations to persist while others have drifted from the faith. There are still too many churches that support and encourage narcissistic behaviors from their pastors.[1]

How should we think about this, and how can a seminary help? I believe the seminary needs to rekindle the biblical understanding and the Great Tradition of the church.[2] We must remember that the church is God’s idea (not ours), and there are clear instructions in Scripture about its purpose, structure, virtues, mission, and life.[3]

Let me repeat: the church is God’s idea for the redemption of all of humanity, even all of creation. The church is God’s only plan; there is no plan B. As many future pastors and ministry leaders are now preparing to lead churches, I believe it is important for them to cultivate something of the fear of God about how precious the church really is.

Here are some examples of the great value of the church on a human level:

  1. The church supports couples in developing and maintaining healthy marriages and families.
  2. The church supports parents raising children from birth to say no to sin and yes to the Lordship of Christ as they grow up.
  3. The church cares for the poor and responds to local and global disasters.
  4. The church cares for widows, orphans, and the fatherless.
  5. The church supports and guides its members through the dying process, funerals, and grief.
  6. The church is a loving community, a type of extended family, especially for single people, divorcees, widows, widowers, and individuals and families who have moved to a new area.

We could go on and on about how the church is a community of love, support, and guidance for its members, its local context, and even for the world! However, it is more important to remember that these important functions of the church come from its biblical identity, beginning with the clear commission from the risen Jesus Christ.

There are two classic books (written in 1953 and 1960) that are worth revisiting regarding the nature and importance of the church. The first is by J.E. Lesslie Newbigin entitled, The Household of God: Lectures on the Nature of the Church.[4] The second is by Paul S. Minear, Images of the Church in the New Testament.[5] These two books are worth the time for any local pastor to read today. Even though I myself have written a book on the church,[6] Newbigin’s and Minear’s books should be read first, and probably twice.

Why is this so important? Both authors’ books are deeply scriptural and attentive to the theological and pastoral issues involved in the life of the church. Both authors have great respect for the Tradition, rooted in Jesus Christ. They are a great reminder of something we have forgotten: Christ is found in the Church. Like Jesus, the church is both human and divine, but like us, she is fallen and in need of redemption.

Can we put an end to public consumeristic demands, disparagement, and dismay about the church and learn to love the church as the bride of Christ? We must. We must learn to love and serve her well for the sake of our families, society and for the nations. For the church is the incarnation of the Gospel for the world. If we stand on the gospel of Jesus Christ like this song so beautifully reminds us, we do so with, in, and through the church.

[1] Contrary to social media and the press, sexual and physical abuse is much lower among churches and religious leaders than in secular institutions, but any abuse is too much. Here is one such study.
[2] The Great Tradition of the Church is what has been taught at all times, and in all places by all churches. Generally, it is an affirmation of the early ecumenical creeds. I have written about his as the beginning of the “Great Church” in History of the World Christian Movement, Volume I (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001), 103-114. See also the “Great Tradition of the Church” blog post.
[3] Such as Romans 12:4-8; I Corinthians 3:16-17; I Corinthians 14, etc.
[4] Household of God (NY: SCM Press, 1953)
[5] Images of the Church (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960)
[6] Why Church? A Basic Introduction (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2019)

Dr. Scott W. Sunquist, President of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, is author of the “Attentiveness” blog. He welcomes comments, responses, and good ideas.


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