“Christianity is more than a matter of a new understanding. Christianity is an invitation to be part of an alien people who make a difference because they see something that cannot otherwise be seen without Christ.” – Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon
We get dressed for church. We go to church. We belong to a church. We pass the church on our way to Costco. The language of “church,” even among the faithful, brings to mind an event, or a destination, or maybe a social gathering where people eat strange casseroles. To those on the outside, the church must seem like an ancient manifestation of the local Rotary Club, a place where myths are kept alive by strange rites and oaths.
About 75% of Americans self-identify with the Christian faith, according to the latest Gallup poll. The Pew Research Center has found that 81% of people who attend church do so in an attempt to be closer to God, with about two-thirds saying they go to give their children a moral foundation, to find support in times of trouble, and to become a better person.
Americans seem to take a consumer’s view of church; we go because we hope to get something in return. And in response, many American churches present themselves as the religious equivalent of your local Quick Mart.
But the church is not a club, or an affinity group, or safe place to look for love and human connection. The church is not a political movement on the march to bring about good government and a just society. Rather, the church is a community of people who have been reborn in faith to a new identity: The church is the living, royal family of the King of kings.
Let’s be clear: The church is not where we go, it is who we are.
In their book, Resident Aliens, Hauerwas and Willimon describe the church as a colony, a peculiar group of people holding to odd beliefs and practices, residing in a place that is only temporarily their home. They are not separatists; they are simply loyal to their King and Father, and conduct themselves wherever they are as representatives of His royal family.
We don’t have royalty in America, but we do enjoy following the lives of the royals, especially the English royals. To outsiders like myself, Great Britain seems practically overrun with dukes and duchesses, earls and countesses, barons, viceroys, and an ever-growing number of princes and princesses. Gossip rags like the Daily Mail are chockablock with stories of royal weddings, royal birthdays, royal outings and the latest royalty-endorsed causes and events.
But the thing about royalty is that it’s a strictly hereditary club. No amount of money or knowing the right people can get you past the royal doormen. If you’re not born into it, you’re just another commoner.
Royalty is in the blood or it isn’t there at all. Wishes don’t make one royal, nor do medals earned, nor glorious achievements accomplished, nor is royalty granted to one after a long night of earnest introspection. Royalty is all about who your father is.
Fortunately for us, the church is the one place where the ancient rules of royalty get bent in our favor. Jesus Christ made a way on the cross for us commoners to be adopted as full sons and daughters into God’s royal family.
“So now you Gentiles are no longer strangers and foreigners. You are citizens along with all of God’s holy people. You are members of God’s family. Together, we are His house, built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. And the cornerstone is Christ Jesus Himself.” – Ephesians 2:19-20 (NLT)
“[F]or you are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for He called you out of the darkness into His wonderful light. ‘Once you had no identity as a people; now you are God’s people. Once you received no mercy; now you have received God’s mercy.'” – 1 Peter 2:9-10 (NLT)
The church is not a Sunday, clubby workout thing for people who want to tone up their moral muscles. The church is the minute by minute work and life of the men, women and children who have individually pledged their faith to Jesus Christ. The church is the movement of the living God in history, continuing the redemptive ministry of Jesus Christ in every community and every age until He returns. From Hauerwas and Willimon:
“Our biblical story demands an offensive rather than defensive posture of the church…. Jesus Christ is the supreme act of divine intrusion into the world’s settled arrangements. In the Christ, God refuses to ‘stay in his place.’ … An army succeeds, not through trench warfare but through movement, penetration, tactics. Therefore, to speak of the church as a colony is to speak of the colony not as a place, a fortified position, be it theological or geographical. The colony is a people on the move.…” – Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony
If the modern church is underwhelming or ineffective, it is probably because we who claim to love the church have nevertheless failed to be the church in our homes, in our neighborhoods, in our schools, at our jobs, in all the private and public arenas of life. We have forgotten that a royal is always a royal: Everything he does reflects, for good or ill, on the royal family.
The church is God’s colony, setting up camp in an unbelieving world where it should be a living example of faith, hope, and especially, the extraordinary love of Jesus Christ. It is a colony without walls or gates, where, because of the cross, anyone can walk in at any time and join this movement of the family of God.