Tag Archives: ministry

The Church’s Underbelly


The Church and its “Underbelly”
By Charles Ringma tssf

This heading may strike you as rather strange. You may even think that there is something underhanded or even sinister about this. Or you may think that with the reference to underbelly that I am referring to something like a corrupt cohort of police in a police precinct or the mafia in a society, and that this somehow refers to the church. I have no such thing in mind. But there is something strategic and counter-cultural at play here.

I use the term underbelly, deliberately and provocatively. And this is because with our focus on the institutional nature of the church we often neglect thinking about the laity and their role in the kingdom of God and the goodness they bring to society. They might as well be the underbelly.

Let me get straight to the point. It is evident that more and more the church and its other institutions will have to function under increasing governmental regulations. I am not suggesting that this is bad. It is simply a fact of contemporary life, and these institutions should be safe and accountable entities.

However, there are a number of concerns. 1. Church and its related institutions will need to spend more of its time and resources on governmental compliance issues. 2. This could result in this becoming the “main” game. 3. And as consequence, the main game of being a servant of Christ and a witness to the world could get lost or compromised.

In the light of the above, I wish to suggest that the church and its related institutions should develop more of an underbelly. This underbelly is the laity as the “scattered” faith-community doing its informal activities such as friendship building, caring, practising hospitality, mentoring, praying, and acting into the world. All of this, while under the nurturing care of the church, is beyond any regulation by the state or other entity. No one can stop me from bringing someone home for help, or providing food for a needy neighbour. And above all, no can stop me praying or mentoring a friend or colleague. And building families of safety, nurture, care, and resilience with spiritual values, is thankfully also something one can do without outside regulation.

While the church and its related institutions, particularly as these continue to get government support, will need to be compliant because these are professional and social entities, there is another dimension to the church. This is the members of the church as they live their lives at home, at work, and in the neighbourhood. And these members can do a lot of good both informally, practically, and strategically.

These members of the faith-community constitute the “informal” face of the church – the underbelly. They are the “non-professionals” in the art of loving care.

What I am discussing here is something we see in the general community when there are bushfires or a flood or a drought. Ordinary people in these circumstances do a lot in helping their neighbours and they do so alongside of the governmental and other social-group supports that are provided.

We also see this in the life of the church. There are all sorts of friendship and other informal “groups” that exist in the broader life of the church, and there are many individuals who act on their own to help others.

Historically, when Hong Kong was to be handed back to China, the churches did a lot to form informal care and nurture groups in the life of the church. And in the long history of Christianity groups have been formed alongside of the parish church – including cenobitic communities and groups like the Clapham “Sect” just to name two.

Now it is true that over time informal groups can become institutionalised as was the case with monasticism, just to mention one. But this makes my central concern all the more pressing. And that is that we need to continue to facilitate, train, nurture the informal activities of the “scattered” church in its activities of Monday through to Saturday. And this means the empowerment of the laity. And it also means that members of the church need to gain a new identity – no only longer consumers of religious services by Christian professionals, but full participants in the joy of seeing the seeds of the kingdom of God springing up everywhere.

If this underbelly is not nurtured, then my concern is that the institutional church of the future may become a more and more hampered institution concerned with its own survival and less with its mission in the world.
And who would say that the church as institution only can do more than the combined activities of its members in the art of care and influencing others with the gospel and caring love?

Charles Ringma

Being priestly, prophetical and kingly

Christ: Prophet, Priest, King: Where Does That Leave the Church?
By Charles Ringma tssf

I believe that it is pretty much a given that Christ has everything to do with the church. In theological jargon, this is expressed as follows: Christology forms and shapes ecclesiology.

This simple phrase has several important dimensions. First, the person and work of Christ is the source and foundation of the faith community. People come to faith in Christ and form a community reflecting Christ. Second, the way of Christ in the world is the way the church is to be as disciples of Christ. If Christ is indeed the Prince of Peace, then the church should be a peace-making community. Third, what the church is, reflects back on Christ. The church as the “body of Christ” is a second “incarnation” of Christ. Thus, the church is to be an embodiment of and witness to Christ. Here the church is called to great fidelity.

In Christology, we speak of Christ as being Prophet, Priest, and King. And we usually spell this out as follows: 1] As prophet, Christ is the voice and reflection of God to humanity. He brings the new word, the new vision, the new way. And as prophet, Christ critiques the old way and its pretentious powers and shows the new way of redemptive suffering and the bliss that is to come in God’s final future. As prophet, Christ is the great disturber, the one who disrupts the status quo. 2] As priest, Christ is the bridge between God and humanity in his healing and restoring activity, and in his intercession for the church and world. As the Great Priest, Christ, agonises into birth the kingdom of God in people’s lives and in the world. 3] As King, Christ is Lord not only of the individual believer, and of the church, but also of the world and the world to come. Here there is the call for a faithful following of the one whose rulership is so different to that of the nations. He is the Servant-King and as the Lamb that was slain, he demonstrates a generative rulership which seeks to bring into being a whole new world.

So, what about all of this in relation to the faith community? What does Christ as Prophet, Priest, and King have to do with the church? Simply put, everything! If its true, as we have said, that Christology impacts ecclesiology then ecclesiology should not impact Christology. In other words, we can’t be reductionistic in making Christ fit our church paradigms. And we can’t favour the one ministry of Christ to the neglect of the other ministries.

Yet, this, seems so often to be the case. Let me illustrate this at a very broad level.

Roman Catholic and the mainline Protestant churches have tended, in their long commitment to the Christendom project, to emphasize the kingly work of the church in forming churches and institutions that seek to have social clout. This approach operates on the notion that the more powerful the church can be in society, the more good it can do. In this model, the church is always seeking political and social “capital” and influence. We have seen this with Evangelicals during the Trump presidency and with the Roman Catholic church in Poland.

Pentecostal and Charismatic churches while increasingly seeming to move in the same direction as described above, have traditionally emphasized the priestly ministry. They have sought to be a healing and restorative presence for people and have outworked in the broader community. In this, they have tended to be more a-political.

The prophetic ministry has tended to be more the domain of fringe groups such as the Anabaptists, Quakers, and para-church groups such as Sojourners, along with many other similar groups. Their orientation has been to question the major dominant paradigms in both the churches and the world, and to call for a new way of being in the world. Rather following the “triumphant” Christ into the world, they have tended to follow the “suffering” or “bitter” Christ into the world.

So, you may want to think about where you fit? Where does your church or organisation fit? And more importantly, where should you and I fit?

In wrestling with this, here are a few thoughts –
1] If Christ is indeed Prophet, Priest, and King, then the faith community should reflect these three “ministries” of Christ.
2] Can these three be held in creative tension?
3] Karl Barth, in formulating a theology that had to do with calling the church to resist the church’s Nazification, made the claim – not surprisingly given his context – that the prophetic work of Christ was primary for the church and the other “ministries” had to be understood in the light of that prophetic work. What do we think of this?
4] Does this mean that in differing settings, a differing ministry need to be the major focus?
5] And finally, how are we to discern in our world what is most pressing regarding the way the church is to be in the world?

Charles Ringma tssf,
Emeritus Prof. Regent College, Vancouver; Research Fellow Trinity College, Queensland; Hon. Assoc. Prof. The University of Queensland; Adjunct Faculty Asian Theological Seminary, Manila.