While in seminary, Teresa Lockhart Stricklen had a dream one night, she told the Moderator’s Colloquium on Ecclesiology April 25 at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. The event was organized by General Assembly Moderator Neal Presa and Vice-Moderator Tom Trinidad and co-sponsored by the Presbyterian Foundation.
In the dream, Stricklen said, she was serving communion when a gunman entered the sanctuary. The congregation disappeared and Stricklen crawled inside the communion table. “I felt safe,” she said, but after the gunman went away “there was a growing uneasiness stirring within me as I wanted to stay safe within the table but I could not. I HAD to get out. I crawled out from beneath the table and was nudged to process down the aisle of the sanctuary and out the doors into the dazzling light of the world beyond the darkened sanctuary.”
Stricklen called the dream “prophetic for me personally” and “perhaps a prophetic dream for the church at this time, too.”
The rapid changes facing the world and therefore the church are creating what feels like, as in Stricklen’s dream, “a disappearing church,” she said. “In all the changes that we are seeing, what is unclear is what form the church will take in the wake of its disestablishment,” she said.
The Reformer John Calvin concluded “that what constitutes the church finally rests on where the word is preached and heard and sacraments rightly administered,” Stricklen said, adding that the Great Ends of the Church and the section of the new Form of Government of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) entitled “The Calling of the Church” also offer instructive insights into the nature of the church.
“In short,” Stricklen said, “the church exists to embody God’s purposes, or God’s mission of redeeming and blessing the world through the Spirit of Christ the Lord.” And a close reading of scripture reveals, she continued, that “God’s purpose, or mission, is to move creation back into harmonious relationship.
That purpose is most often symbolized as the “Kingdom (“baslileia”) of God,” but because the Greek word denotes not a place but activity, “reign” is a better translation, Stricklen insisted.
“God’s sovereign activity is God’s creative mission of redeeming and blessing a fallen world. This is the gospel that Jesus preached: the Reign of God is at hand, working to restore right relationship,” she said. “Jesus not only preached it; he lived it. He was crucified for it, and with the resurrection vindicated and inaugurated to rule over it as Lord.”
God’s redemptive activity is incessant, Stricklen said. “It is through Christ that God is working to redeem creation,” she said, “and it is in the same Holy Spirit power that filled Christ that the church continues his work.”
But believers’ participation in God’s salvific work does not make it theirs. “The Reign of God is God’s, not the church’s,” Stricklen said, “though God graciously invites us to participate as instruments of that work like flutes through which the divine music flows.”
The Realm of God is what the church “is called to proclaim, live as servant/citizens of, and invite others to join,” Stricklen said, but “God’s Reign is so much bigger than simply joining the church and we are unfaithful to the gospel if all we welcome people to is church programs and not what the church itself exists to be ― serve the mission of God in the world.”
Like other speakers at the colloquium, Stricklen affirmed the centrality of worship. “Worship is the space in time where the people of God come together as citizens of God’s Reign … the place in time where we are caught up in God’s future … to enter, as Nicholas Wolsterstorff says, the sphere of God’s acting.”
Stricklen called this the “baptismal way of life” and it involves “offering ourselves and our gifts to God to be used of the common good in accord with the Way of God’s Reign.” Blessed by God in worship, she said, “we are sent out to be a blessing.”
All this matters, Stricklen said, because “we are in the midst of a time that is witnessing a great tearing of the fabric of ecclesial life. Indeed, we are like growling dogs fighting over the cloth of orthodoxy, forgetting that orthodoxy means ‘right praise,’ not ‘right belief’ or ‘right dogma.’”
What is currently happening in the church, she said, “is nothing less than a culture war over whose world view reads and interprets scripture, forgetting that we are all desiring to live faithfully within the Sovereignty of God even though we have different understandings of what that looks like in actual concrete circumstances.”
In her response to Stricklen’s address, the Rev. Kristin Saldine of the APTS faculty praised the idea that “worship is not a tool but a unique encounter with God’s own self.” She criticized that “utilitarian” view of worship that treats it like “a launching pad” rather than “an orientation to living in God’s Realm.”
The Rev. Sam Williams, pastor of Austin’s University Presbyterian Church , responded that he likes the concept of the Reign of God as more than simply joining the church, “but it presents a real challenge for preachers.” People come to church for many reasons, he said. “I wonder how we equip them for this larger vision?”