The Agape Restaurant (Guest Post)
What’s So Great about the Church?
Opinions about the nature or the need of the church abound. You may have heard someone say that the church is only one generation away from extinction. I suppose what is meant is that in a generation, it is possible for the church or a denomination to abandon Christ and his teachings. This is not a fictitious threat. If you look at the letters written to the churches in Revelation 2 and 3, you get a sense of the reality of the threat of doctrinal unfaithfulness. At least one of the original apostles was still on the scene, and yet the majority of those churches already needed a course correction. Jesus warned them of the consequences of disobedience. In one case he warned that unless the church repented, he would “remove their lampstand.” We also have contemporary church history to verify the real danger of apostasy.
On the other hand, you may have heard someone ask, “Who needs the church? Salvation comes through participation in the kingdom of God rather than through affiliation with the Christian Church.”
Yet, in spite of all the threats to the church for the last 2,000 years, Jesus has not changed his determination to build the church nor allowed the gates of death to have any power over his church (Matt 18:16). The fact of the church in the world is evidence of the sustaining and more powerful grace of God.
The liturgy of the Agape Restaurant
Today it seems that the church faces the threat of marginalization or irrelevance. In a recent Wall Street Journal article by Alain de Botton entitled “Religion for Everyone,” the author attempted to make the case that “even those who aren’t religious can find religion sporadically useful, interesting and consoling and should consider how we might import certain religious ideas and practices into the secular realm.”
In a nutshell, the author’s article is a lament about the “loss of a sense of community” in America, which he admits was strong when churches were strong. However, not being a religious man, he proposed a way to recover “that spirit (of community) without returning to the theological principles that were entwined with it [and] without having to build upon a religious foundation.”
His recommendation was to borrow the best that Christianity has to offer: love. He proposed creating a restaurant called the Agape Restaurant, based loosely on the Roman Catholic Mass and drawing from the New Testament tradition of the early Christian “love feasts.” By “borrowing” from these traditions, Botton argues that recovering community could be achieved by “balancing a rejection of religious faith with selective reverence for religious rituals and concepts.” In other words, creating a place where people could enjoy the benefits of fellowship around an attractively designed interior, a modest entrance fee, and seating arrangements that split family members and couples from one another to be seated next to people they didn’t know or with whom they would normally associate. Their fellowship would involve prescribed discussions about such human problems as regrets, or perhaps a discussion of one’s inability to forgive another or an intimate conversation that reveals our deepest fears to one another.
The author suggests borrowing a religious term for these conversations: he calls them a “liturgy.” The ideas for topics come with the menu. The goal of the “liturgy” is to “inspire charity . . . and an impression of our collective insanity and endearing fragility.” Most of all, the Agape Restaurant would cause our “fear of strangers [to] recede” breaking down the walls of separation between economic, racial, religious and business opposites. The author envisions a society that relies less on the government as the first step in curing society’s ills and puts responsibility on individuals to “humanize one another in our imaginations.”
This may sound very odd to a Christian’s ears, but here’s what I found interesting about the article: by rejecting “religion” the author implicitly admits what is unique about the Christian church, namely Christ. Can Christ’s church be called Christ’s church when it lacks the presence of Christ? The answer is “no.” A group of people, Christian or otherwise, can come together and do many Christian-like things: talk about spiritual things and spiritual renewal, perform religious ceremonies, care for the poor and work against injustice and even share “family values.” However, Jesus said none of these things are in themselves evidence of the true church.
It is inescapable. The church is the church at those places where our secular culture criticizes us most intensely. For example, we say only God’s truth can set people free. For the church to concede that all individually preferred truths are equal is a denial of the Lordship of Christ. We say the Church is the community of God’s word, and that God’s word reveals and defines God’s plan and purpose. To say it is an out-of-date document and needing revision is to deny the Foundation of our calling. We say the Church has one message: to proclaim that there is only one Savior of the world. He is to be believed and obeyed. To say that the gospel of Christ is one of several good options for salvation is to demolish the “pillar and ground of the truth.”
The variety of threats to the existence of the church shows a Christian’s need for the church. In the fellowship of the church, we find renewed courage to stand apart from the world, to speak authoritatively to the world and to be unashamed of Christ’s claims. The church nurtures our witness so that our witness is about Christ and not about ourselves.
The church in an age of pluralism
Paul took up a similar challenge to the church in Colossae. The church made unique claims about who they were and what they were to do in this world. They needed to know that what set them apart from the surrounding religious and philosophic pluralism was not their fellowship, their morals or happy lifestyles. What set them apart as a unique people was the headship of Jesus Christ present in their local congregations.
The reality of the presence of Christ was what they spoke about and what brought them together with a powerful witness. It also brought persecution. They could have easily avoided trouble if they were content to let Jesus Christ be one of many religious options available to make people happy. The world would have left them alone. But the church would have died a slow and painless death drifting into mediocrity. Jesus would remove their lampstand and they might not even know it.
Paul wanted to encourage them with a vision of Christ as the Head of the church so that they would become unwilling to bow the knee to their culture. He wanted them to understand that the headship of Jesus Christ made the church unique from all other organizations. The ground for their confidence began with the hymn in chapter 1 verses 15-17 where Paul shows Jesus Christ as Creator and Lord of the universe. As Abraham Kuyper pointed out so well this hymn declares that “there is not one square inch of the entire creation about which Christ does not cry out, ‘This is mine! This belongs to me!’”
The uniqueness of the church: the Headship of Christ
As staggering as creation is, redemption is more so. The world was created to display God’s “invisible attributes, his eternal power and divine nature” (Rom 1:20) and the church was created to make visible the promise of God’s love and mercy, his power to overcome sin and death, and the way to live in holiness (Eph 3:7-12). And Christ is the interpretive key to understanding all these truths.
Routine sometimes dulls our understanding of the unique nature of the church. We get used to the place, the people, and the programs. But we must encourage one another to keep our eyes of faith fixed Christ who is the repository of the fullness of God’s riches. Christ’s presence in the church is a most precious reality. He alone separates the church from all other organizations or claimants to spiritual or political authority. He is the distinctive difference that makes a difference in the life of a church.