Who needs the church?

John Bowen

Business guru Peter Drucker used to advise every organisation to ask itself, “What business are we in?” So what exactly is the business of the church? Are we in the religion business? The business of teaching “values”? The business of adding a spiritual dimension to life? The business of promoting justice? In these days of church decline, we had better know the answer.

Let’s start with what the church actually is. Steve Croft is Bishop of Oxford, the biggest diocese in England. When he was in Toronto a few years back, he suggested a very simple definition of the church that I have never forgotten. He quoted Mark 3:13-15. “Jesus went up the mountain and called to him those whom he wanted, and they came to him. And he appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message, and to have authority to cast out demons.” 

It’s a good summary: Jesus called people, they responded. Their job was (a) to be with him and (b) to be sent out as his apprentices. Their job as they went out was to speak the message and to demonstrate the truth of the message. What was that message? In a word, it was the Gospel, the good news that through Jesus Christ God is putting right in the world all that we have put wrong, a message that Jesus summarized as “the kingdom.” 

It’s a very stripped-down definition, I realize. If it is that simple, we might ask, what is the place of buildings, clergy, synods, liturgies, budgets, seminaries, and everything else that goes into what we think of when we think of “church”? 

Let’s begin with the Gospel: God’s promise to renovate all things through Jesus Christ. One image Jesus uses for the Gospel, for that renovating work, is water, living water (John 4:10). This water is pure, refreshing and life-giving. But water of any kind only does its job when it remains pure H20. There are other compounds whose components sound very similar—H3O (Hydronium); H2O2 (Hydrogen Peroxide); Ho (Holmium); and so on—but none is a substitute for H20, and some of those things would be very bad for you. Hence Paul’s strong reaction against those who “want to pervert the gospel of Christ” (Gal. 1:7). Of course he’s upset: they are trying to sell contaminated water to thirsty people.

And the church is the guardian, the steward, of that precious water, to make it available to the world. All the structures of “the church” are to make sure the water stays pure and accessible to all. Let’s push the analogy one step further:

  • One Christian says, “All my life I’ve drunk the water from the best cut-glass wine glasses. To me, that represents the preciousness of the water, and links us to the generations who drank from those same glasses before us. That’s really the only suitable way to keep the water.”
  • Then someone else responds, “But I need the water while I’m driving around, and I really can’t carry an expensive wine glass around in my car. It’s asking for trouble. Why can’t I carry the water in a travel mug?”
  • Perhaps a third person only has a cheap plastic tumbler from a convenience store. Will that do for carrying the water? It is far from aesthetically pleasing, it’s bad for environment, and it hardly conveys a sense of dignity or tradition. But actually, it does the job. 
  • Finally, if you’re stuck out in a scorching desert with nothing to drink, and someone offers you water in a flower vase, would you drink it? I suspect you would. Not under normal circumstances, of course, but those are not normal circumstances. 

You can probably think of other water containers, and when they might be appropriate, but you see my point. What is important is the water, the container not so much. We have our personal preference for one container rather than another, depending on our taste and our tradition, but the important thing is that the water be available to those who need it.

Of course, there are some characteristics that all those containers have in common—I’ll say more about that next time—but for the moment I want to stress the diversity. They all work—for different people and in different contexts. 

So here’s the question: what are the forms of church that will make the living water Jesus offers accessible to people, particularly young people, in our culture? Are we bold enough, passionate enough—progressive enough even—to explore different models of church? 

Yes, it will be uncomfortable. And disturbing. It certainly won’t be your grandmother’s church. But it could be your grandchildren’s church. 


John Bowen

John Bowen is Professor Emeritus of Evangelism at Wycliffe College in Toronto. He is a parishioner at St. John the Evangelist in Hamilton.