Some might ask the question, "what is a church supposed to be?" as opposed to what the church is supposed to do. Anyway you ask it the question carries with it some theological and ecclesiastical implications as well as political ones. It has always been interesting to me how non-Christians seem to have some definite opinions about what churches are supposed to be doing, as well as opinions about what they don't want a church to do. Most communities, I assume, want local churches to be helpful and not a cause for trouble. I don't assume all communities are correct or even well meaning in their opinions about what churches should do, sometimes they just don't want a congregation to be on the other side of a pragmatic or political question.
Local pastors can find themselves caught between their theological positions and the need of the community in which they live. They can also find themselves caught up with their own political positions, emotions, and causes. I am not writing about national politics per se, or advocacy for national candidates and parties. I am speaking about boots on the ground issues. Obviously there are conflicts in a community that a local congregation should stay out of, and attempt to speak only to clear issues of morality or justice. Sometimes the church property is the pragmatic or political issue, and then great humility and wisdom is needed.
Good theology should be able to be universal in application (always true in every time and place), or else the universal principle must be that in some situations some applications are contextual. I am not advocating relative theology, just the reality that some principles of theology are always in operation and some can only be situation specific. It is the wisdom of the practicioner (pastor and leaders) and the guidance of the Holy Spirit through the Word of God that helps us to know the difference.
Much of this kind of discussion happens around worship, and sometimes around programs or activities of the church and its members. This kind of discussion covers everything from when we should have a worship service (versus the universal principle that yes, Christians should gather for corporate worship) to what kind of place should we worship in, what kind of music should we have, how often should we have the Lord's Supper, and what ministries or programs of mercy, education, justice, etc. should we participate in as a church body? There are many who advocate that the answer to some or all of these questions are already established Biblical principles and that to deviate from their position means that one cannot be Biblical or Reformed.
This is not to say that choices that are made by local leadership, even if basically Biblical, cannot still be confusing, distracting, controversial, and schismatic. Take for example when someone gets caught up in an opinion that a certain kind of music is better than another and suddenly changes it for a congregation, and does it without sensitivity to the sentiments of the congregation. Most of the congregation leaves, the church is reduced, the conflict is painful, but the person with the winning musical opinion feels that their idea of purity is a greater principle than unity. On the surface nothing un-biblical happened, the new music is not antithetical to the Gospel. The reality however is that selfishness, ignorance, obtuseness, and even meanness has prevailed. It might be a good thing if we had more discipline trials over being divisive than we have been in the habit of having.
The reader might think that I am an advocate therefore of "old music." Actually this is an issue that has affected churches going in both directions, those that had classical or evangelical hymns and went contemporary, and those that had a contemporary service and went to classical or even to strict Psalm singing. Ideological preachers and elders are usually the culprits here. I am not saying that things should never be changed, only that even if the change is not in itself bad, the way the change is made can be bad, even sinful.
Some choices are right, and always right, while some choices can be situationally terrible, bad, fair to middling, good, better, or best. Pastors and congregations have to make choices, and sometimes they make choices without knowing they have made them. They do what has been "normal" maintaining the status quo and have sometimes failed to realize that to continue to do business as usual has made a statement to the community they live in, and their own congregants as well.
This inevitably leads to conflict with the surrounding community, and the church is sometimes the last entity to know about it, until the church wants to do something and they find strong opposition in the neighborhood. This can be everything from enlarging the parking lot, or adding a drive way, or building a gym, or playground and sometimes the opposition comes because the church has failed to do anything about the poverty, violence, or community disintegration that has be going on around them.
Some of our churches have never bothered to do anything about the neighborhood except to call the police when they feel threatened or bothered.
Some pastors have been taught that they only thing they have to care about is their flock, and what goes on inside their building. They have a theology about those outside, and it can range from that of condemnation or fear of persecution from those who oppose the Gospel, to seeing those on the outside as lost and needing salvation. Even those with the sense to see that their neighbors "need" salvation are not necessarily ready to do anything to help meet that need.
Polemical arguments in a pastor's sermon about the bankrupt philosophy of the heathen surrounding the church, and giving a strong apologetic as to why Christian theology is correct does not translate into winning the lost to Christ. It does not translate into loving our neighbors as ourselves, it does not translate into doing good works before men so that they might give praise to our Father in heaven, it does not translate into being salt and light in a corrupt and fallen generation.
I go around the country saying things like, "we don't need any more irrelevant churches." An irrelevant church is one that ignores its community, it doesn't love anybody around them only those within itself. (My suspicion is that it doesn't even do that very well). Its only cultural influence is to tick off the neighborhood over parking spaces on Sunday morning. It doesn't know how to corporately practice what Paul modeled for us in I Corinthians 9 where he became all things to all men so that he might by all means win some. His goal was winning the lost. He always knew who he was, never compromised the Truth of the Gospel, but was willing to give up so much cultural baggage, and enculturate himself in new ways so he could win the lost.
Many of our people want the community around them to come to their church, but they want the community to accept the culture of the church, to change and accommodate themselves to the culture of the church (not accepting the fact that the present culture of of many of our churches is completely foreign to contemporary society). This has nothing to do with challenging the foundational truths of the Gospel, only the preferred tastes and spiritualized opinions of plenty of our ivory tower clerics.
My advocacy is not to be sensitive to anyone but the Holy Ghost, which means to be radically committed to winning lost and dying folks who are our neighbors, who are sometimes lying (figuratively and literally) beat up in the road, who need to see that we care and not just hear about it theoretically in a statement.
Randy Nabors is the pastor emeritus of New City Fellowship in Chattanooga. Randy was the organizing pastor in 1976 until his retirement in June of 2012. and the congregation continues its commitment to being centered in the gospel of Jesus Christ, living out the call of the gospel in racial reconciliation, mercy and development ministry to the poor, with a commitment to the city. Mr. Nabors is now Senior Staff with Mission to North America. He and his wife Joan are serving together to encourage the works of mercy in churches, and to develop the planting of churches within poor communities, especially the inner cities of America. To this end, he is seeking to build and establish the New City Network and the Ten Million Dollar Fund.