For whom does the church exist?
Brad East on the church for normies.
There’s a common ecclesiological question that serves as the locus of many seminary debates revolving around who the church is for: is it for the “churched” or the “un-churched”? If one determines that the function of the church is to serve the former, one might be given to a discipleship-driven model of church mission and vision. If, however, one clings to the latter, one’s ecclesiological structure is often broadly categorized as evangelistic or, in some cases, consumeristic. These two poles operate on the spectrum of ecclesiological formation and philosophy, categorizing the church’s mandate into broad brush strokes. That old dispute between “traditional” or “contemporary” worship styles is a cousin of this same contest.
Indeed, this serves as the basic premise for Jared C. Wilson’s trilogy of books in which he examines what makes a church and its ministries “gospel-centered” (see this one, this one, and this one). “The church,” Wilson posits, “is not called to be successful by attaining certain numbers or meeting a preset standard of growth, but we are called to be faithful” (Gospel-Driven Church, 67). Over and above the marketability of consumer-driven ecclesiology stands the biblical mandate for a steady, faithful resolve to equip and edify the saints. And that resolve can’t always be ascertained by metrics. “Biblical credibility,” Wilson writes elsewhere, “is not found in big stats” (Prodigal Church, 152). Perhaps I’m playing my cards too early, but if the spectrum proposed above is the one that matters, I would definitely align myself in the former.
However, if I’m honest, I’d rather not use “churched” vs. “un-churched.” Instead, I prefer simply sinners. Sinners are the reason the church exists. “The church,” asserts Robert Capon, “is supposed to be in the forgiveness business” (23). And, as such, its reason for being is the glory of God in the dispensing the message of forgiveness for those who desperately need it, a.k.a. sinners, a.k.a. everyone. In a recent post over on his blog, Brad East makes the same case, employing the term normie as the church’s target demographic. He writes:
Read St. Paul. He’ll disabuse you rather quickly of the notion that the church consists of satisfactory Christians. It turns out the church is nothing but unsatisfactory Christians. And if your Christian community is such that no normie would ever dream of visiting or joining it, because it’s clear that he or she is not and would never be up to snuff, then — allow me to suggest — you’re doing it wrong.
The church has to make room for the unsatisfactory, exactly in the manner I described above: the just-getting-by, the I’m-barely-paying-the-bills, the it-took-all-I-had-to-show-up-this-morning, the I’m-doing-my-best, the just-give-me-a-break folks. The holly-ivy Christians, who begrudgingly show up twice a year. The Kichijiros and Simon Peters and doubting Thomases. The addicts who relapse, the gamblers in debt, the porn-addled who can’t quit, the foreclosed-on and laid-off, the perennially fired and out of work, the ex-cons and adulterers and fathers of five kids by three different moms. Is the church not for such as these? “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you.”
Our churches may not, must not, fall prey to the temptation that such people have no place in them, because if we believe that, then we will make them such places. Worse, we will inadvertently make them havens for a different kind of person: neither “the least of these” (whom Jesus loves) nor the radical types who flock to intentional communities, but the sort of credentialed professionals who want that sweet, sweet upper-middle-class life alongside others who look and talk and live just like them. Such folks are all unsatisfactory to a person — that’s just to say they’re human — but they present the opposite on the outside. Either way, the undisguised unsatisfactory have nowhere to lay their heads: the well-to-do don’t want them and the radicals can’t receive them.
Brad’s piece is a wonderful read. I appreciated the verve with which he made his plea for the church to keep its doors open for “normies.” In my mind, this is sort of what Jesus was getting at through the bulk of his parables, especially the ones about the lost things (Luke 15). I’m always intrigued by the fact that that entire trilogy of stories was preceded by the Pharisees mumbling under their breath, “This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them” (Luke 15:2). Jesus’s unfettered welcome of “publicans and sinners” was the burr in the saddle of the Pharisees’ religion. They couldn’t get over his embrace of “those sorts of people.” The very ones they would pass in the streets were the precise ones that this Teacher was welcoming in his presence. And in that welcome is the invitation for every sinner and every normie, ones like you and me, to fall down in at his feet and find rest.
Grace and peace to you, friends.
Robert Capon, The Foolishness of Preaching: Proclaiming the Gospel against the Wisdom of the World (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998).
Jared C. Wilson, The Gospel-Driven Church: Uniting Church-Growth Dreams with the Metrics of Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019).
Jared C. Wilson, Gospel-Driven Ministry: An Introduction to the Calling and Work of a Pastor (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2021).
Jared C. Wilson, The Prodigal Church: A Gentle Manifesto Against the Status Quo (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015).