This summer, as part of my participation in Talbot’s Kern Foundation reading group, I had the opportunity to travel to Grand Rapids and attend a 4-day think tank called Acton University. This was my first time participating in a think tank (unless you count my years watching MacGyver problem-solve for the Phoenix Foundation), and it was an experience! The annual event brings together around 1000 scholars, students, businesspeople, and leaders from over 75 countries and seeks to provide “an opportunity to deepen one’s knowledge and integrate philosophy, theology, business, development – with sound, market based, economics” (http://university.acton.org/). The daily program consisted of several parallel presentations (in fact, Talbot’s own Dr. Scott Rae was a presenter), a fabulous dinner designed to foster new relationships and stimulate conversations, and it closed each night with a plenary talk.
For much of the week, I felt as though I was one-foot-off-the-merry-go-round in a conversation that many at Acton had been involved in for many years now. Nevertheless, by the last day, a few concepts really began to solidify in my head, and none more powerfully than a timely reminder from Dr. W. Madison Grace II (Assistant Professor of Baptist History and Theology, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) in his session entitled, “The Church and Human Flourishing” (6/23/17). In this session, Dr. Grace sought to first define “human flourishing” before discussing the role of the church in the latter. While the main arc of his argument—which I can’t do justice summarizing here—was though-provoking, a few points Dr. Grace made along the way proved most refreshing to my professor/pastor’s heart and mind. I’ll try to reproduce these from my (often chicken scratch) notes here:
1) True human flourishing is dwelling with God in peace (shalom).
2) This human flourishing is an end in and of itself.
3) Human flourishing is an end only perfectly experienced at the eschaton.
4) Vestiges of this flourishing can be experienced today.
5) The vestiges of human flourishing most fully experienced today are experienced in the context of the local church.
There’s so much I absolutely love about these points, but perhaps my favorite element is number 5. On this point, Dr. Grace seems to flip on its head an assumption that is all-too-common among 21st century evangelical Christians in the West—namely, that the local church exists primarily to equip individuals for human flourishing in their individual lives outside the context of the church gathering. Instead, Dr. Grace resituates the local church in its rightful—and I would argue, scriptural—place: as the primary site of human flourishing. That is, we flourish in community. We flourish as we, together, worship, serve, pray, laugh, lament, and commune as followers of Jesus. Put differently, “church” is not, primarily, a sort of spiritual salad bar designed to nourish the hearts and souls of individuals so as to send them about their individual business of human flourishing. It certainly can function in this way, but the primary aim of the local church is to be that beautiful, Spirit-led gathering wherein and whereby God’s children can participate in the already/not-yet Kingdom of God. The local church is exactly where and when a vestige of human flourishing should be tasted.
While I have much to reflect on as I continue to digest Dr. Grace’s talk (as well as the many presentations at Acton University), his showcasing the local church as the primary site of human flourishing in the here-and-now certainly aligns with the New Testament’s preoccupation with church life, church health, and churches--not just individual Christians. As I fly back from Grand Rapids, I’m eager to—as our ancestors in the faith have done for millennia--gather with my sisters and brothers in Christ this Sunday. I’m eager to flourish.