Scott Sunquist | Why Church?
1:02PM Apr 9, 2021
Jonathan J. Armstrong
Today we're thrilled to be speaking with Dr. Scott Sundquist, Dr. Sundquist is president of Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary and also professor of missiology. Dr. Sundquist earned his PhD degree from Princeton Theological Seminary. He has written extensively on global theology with an emphasis on Asian Christianity, and is also the author of the text that we'll be speaking about today. Why church a basic introduction, Dr. Sundquist, thank you so much for joining us today.
Thank you for giving me this opportunity.
Dr. Sundquist, at the beginning of your book, you say that the church has two foundational purposes, worship and witness how it How is it that you came to understand these two false sigh as really being the foundation of everything that happens in the church,
I used to be involved with intervarsity. And we had talked about the four basic purposes of the church. And I realized that education is not a purpose of the church. But that's a function of the church, the real purpose of the goal is twofold. And that's worship and witness. And they sort of interpenetrate one another, and that comes out of study of Scripture, church history, etc, that when the church begins to think that other issues Wednesday night suffers, nursery care, you know, whatever becomes Central, or a particular area of mission becomes Central, then it's become decentered, or eccentric. And so we have to do is say, stay clearly focused. And that's why I pull out, maybe started this when my missiology book, I pull out some basic scripture passages that are like I call them windows into what the nature of the church is. And that would be like Luke four, where Jesus of Nazareth Manor manifesto identifies his his mission, his purpose, which is to proclaim good news to the poor, and then it goes to the whole thing. And then another one is Matthew 28, are actually all of the last passages where Jesus Commission's, his disciples, and you find in all the Gospels, or some kind of commissioning, to preach to all the world, to the nations of the world, to preach forgiveness of sins, and so forth. And then acts one, eight, and then revelation seven, and those passages are windows into what God's purposes for us, and it is worship, you know, Revelation seven, Matthew 28, they worshipped him some doubted. And then its mission, he's given us a purpose or a reason for existing. There's a tell us that we're moving towards and and so all that the church does in this world is moving towards that tell us which is the kingdom of heaven. It is the glory route fully revealed. I just finished another book this week that maybe we can talk about next year. It's called time crossing glory. And it's a way it's a historiography or historian. It's a historiography that says, How do we read church history? How do we critique church movements? I think we're both very concerned about the unity that church, this is not a denominational thing. It's not a sectarian thing. But when we read church history, we can critique it according to whether or not it's moving towards that great goal of glory, or the kingdom of heaven, or the hope of heaven, we might say. So
thank you so much. Dr. Sundquist, Dr. Sang was in chapter two of your text. Chapter Two is titled How did we get here you chart out the church, his journey from the first disciples to the present moment through Christendom and then through what you call post Christendom. Would you be willing quickly to define those those moments for us in the church's life? What is Christendom? What is post Christendom?
This is so fascinating because we have a lot of people in the United States who longed for return to Christendom where in Europe it was the king or the prince or the Queen and the bishop or the pope working hand in glove together to create society to create the world. That was never Jesus intent. I think Jesus intent was to create the kingdom his kingdom which is not of this world, but it interpenetrates this world and so it is like that used in the love. But I think we have misguided mission that for many centuries, the missionaries goal was to see a nation became a Christian nation. They looked at Italy, they look at Spain, like Portugal, England, Netherlands, and that was the goal was that the king, the Emperor of China, they that's why I say Ricci went to Beijing was to make sure that there would be permission and then eventually to try to convert to the Emperor. Same thing was true in Vietnam, the same thing was true in Japan. you convert the Dinos, the leaders and eventually want to convert the Emperor. That's the wrong goal. That was the krisna go for about 1500 years, we're kind of shooting at the wrong goal. The right goal is to make sure that the gospel is proclaimed to all people, and all peoples and all languages. And then to expect the same kind of treatment that Jesus had to expect suffering and rejection in the midst of all that we're promised that Paul promises us that and but in the midst of that, because there's there can only be one authority. And that's the problem with Jesus is he insists on having absolute authority, and not sharing his throne with anybody else. And so as soon as we expect the President or the Emperor to share that authority, and leadership and society and cultures, we've compromised, and we often compromise, because we like being in control and power we don't like to suffer. But we can expect that because the world will push back from the final authority of Jesus Christ.
Dr. Sundquist, if I can turn our attention to one of these intractable problems in the history of the church? Maybe it's an unsolvable problem, and that is this should the church go back to being like what the church was in the first century? Or should the church emulate the and build off of the tradition in the intervening seven centuries? Should the church today look like the church in the book of Acts? Or should it look like something that developed over 20 centuries?
Yeah, I don't think we're called to create a particular model of what that church is supposed to be like, we're certainly not called to go back to any kind of thing in the history, God's God's kingdom is constantly moving forward. And so we want to be forward looking towards I would say, towards revelation seven towards revelation 21. That's where we're moving towards God's going to surprise us and how that that shows we never dreamed that it would explode the way it did as Kingdom growth in Africa. We never dreamed that the church in Latin America would become so Pentecostal. We never dreamed that the church in China would just not not not only thrive, but survive the terrible oppression of communism, we never dreamed that the church would not come back in places like the was the Soviet Union or Russia, two very different post communist experiences in those two areas of the world. So I don't think we want to kind of say, this is this, we're gonna do, we're gonna make this happen kind of thing. I think we have to be open to being surprised and being faithful. And that's why I wrote this book, really, is to make sure that we're faithful to what the church is supposed to be. And we get caught up in a lot of sectarianism, our particular theologies that are, um, this not that I'm this not that. So I'm saying no, let's all be this. Because the this that I talked about when I talked about the historic tradition, is the great tradition of the church, the things that we can all share together. I can just have one little comment about this. One of the reasons this is important for me is I was raised Presbyterian, I am an ordained Presbyterian pastor. I taught a lot of Baptist and amds ion, Amy, when I was in Pittsburgh, I taught a lot of Methodist and Anglicans when I was in Singapore. I've had a lot of independent church and Pentecostals when I was at Fuller. And now at Gordon Conwell, we are intentionally interdenominational, we have Anglicans, we have official relations with Anglicans and Lutherans. And with those other denominations, it we're not trying to erase the particularities, but we're trying to say we can all move together in this way. And in a post Christendom world that's absolutely necessary, that we don't view one another as competition, but we view one another's family. And I think in order to do that, the model that I have of what the church is under five basic body movements, it fits in with basically all of our liturgies. And it fits in with really good theology that goes back to the great tradition, whether it be the Greek, Latin or Syriac traditions of the early church. Our daughter is orthodox, Eastern Orthodox. And these same kind of body movements, though, it's a little bit more complicated after you know, 15 centuries of development of liturgy, but you find it all there. It's all there in their liturgy. And so we can say, Yes, I recognize that.
Let's dive straight into that, if we may. So Dr. sandquist. In your text, you help us understand what the church is by articulating these five body movements, these five postures churchly postures, if I may, Come, sit, stand, kneel, sit and go. And you correlate these five stances, these five bodily body movements to conversion, praise, confession, instruction and mission. If I can hone in on the first of those postures Comm. You talk about conversion and the way that we have understood stood conversion, some understand conversion, especially within the evangelical tradition as a moment as an event. And you present to us the reader also this understanding that some churches legitimately see conversion as a process. Would you share with us? How is it that you came to understand that conversion can be a process? And what does that mean for our churches today?
I think it came out of two things. It came out of Scripture, the disciples, I think it was kind of a process for them, it took him a long time to quite get the whole thing, you know, and, and even at the end, they were they were denying him and they came back. And so that's, that's one way of looking at it. Another way of looking at historically, I've written about the church in 2000 years. And been working on that since 1980, and 1995. And so I've been doing a lot of writing a church history. And so after, what's that 25 years of writing church history and reading it, I read some this morning, as a matter of fact, it's just so clear that that's the way it happens. Some people are discipled along into the kingdom. And then they say, Yes, I guess I really am a Christian, and I want to be baptized. They attend church and other people, like myself, Oh, it was just, oh, that's what I need. I need to actually make a decision to follow Jesus Christ. I was kind of wandering around going to church and not real serious about it. And then everything changed. When somebody said, well, when Jesus came, you know, he offered everybody a question. I said, Really? What's the question? Well, are you going to follow me or not? And you can't read the Gospels and not know that you've got to make a decision, am I going to follow him or not just like everybody else. And that following has a lot of curves and hills and bumps. And pilgrims progress is a great description of it, right? That we get off that the we go down the slough of despond, and we were tempted here and there. And that's that's the normal Christian life. Unfortunately, Paul described it also that way. So I'm not as concerned that we have a definite, this was a problem that Jonathan Edwards had, right, he says, I just need I need to know exactly when I was converted I, I need to be able to say that. And in some traditions, that early evangelical tradition coming out of the Puritanism, that was clearly the case, and also some precision ism, that was the case. But it's not always the case, we take a look at the whole church, the ages, there are many people who are discipled, along over a period of time. And so both are happening, the important thing is not so much that we made a decision this time, but the direction we're moving in, so I like to take a look at it not as bounded set, but it's centered set that we've turned around, and we're moving that direction, not so much where we are right now. But what direction are we headed? And I think that's that's good. discipleship. That's the way monasteries were established also is heading the right direction and making the right decisions on a daily basis.
Come, stand, kneel, sit and go. Let's talk about sitting for just a moment. It's under this heading that you talk about doctrinal instruction in the church and the church's responsibility to communicate doctrine to its people. the printing press, the printing press, shaped the way that we communicated and even thought about doctrine during the Reformation period. technology's changing a lot of our society today. What does preaching look like today? And is how does technology perhaps perhaps not reshape the way that we should understand doctrinal the doctrinal instruction in the church?
I don't think anybody has a definite answer about that. It's really exciting. But it's also a little scary, where we're going with this, it has to do with the development of the brain, and what's happening to technology, as we all know, because of people's switching real quickly, and Twitter and so forth. They're not embedding ideas and thoughts and thinking about them. And I think part of our Christian duty as leaders is to insist that people read whole chapters, and they read whole articles. And they actually read with physical books so that they will be able to read the Bible, and then be able to think, because if you're only taking things in in a shallow way, and not reflecting on it, not memorizing scripture, for example, it's not really going to change you and your behavior. And so good preaching it today is going to involve probably a lot more narrative illustrations and stories, where we don't want to be constantly switching back and forth. Hey, here's a little video clip. Here's another picture of this. And let me tell you about this story. Because then we're just completely adapting in such a way that people are not going to be formed deeply spiritually in their virtues. Virtue formation, demands, deep thought deep thinking, and not just quick, Twitter's in and out of ideas and images. And so we have to fight against that. And I'm struggling with that as a seminary president, at Gordon Conwell, I've had discussions with faculty about, do we require less reading, but make sure that they read every single word of it. And that's what I'm doing. So maybe we used to require like 2000 pages in the semester, let's go down to 1200. And every class, we're going to go over every chapter directly to help retrain the way that the Thank you, because if they're on social media, it's Click, click, you know, here, they're there. And, and that is shaping the brain. And so when it comes to preaching, we have to adapt some to that. So we might have to have some images, might have to have some PowerPoint and so forth. But we need to insist that people learn to think and read and listen to a talk. preaching is still powerful. We know political speeches are still powerful people do stupid things, because of what they heard a politician say. And they will listen carefully to the repeat things that are true or not true. And so we want to, we have been given the truth. And so we need to make sure that it's connecting, and we don't give up on the fact that people can listen, and they are able to be changed simply by words, words are powerful. Think about this. This is an illustration that I use to talk about how powerful words are. I used to coach soccer. And I remember so clearly one dad coming out when his daughter was playing the game. And if the other game says, oh, you're terrible, you're ready to embarrass the whole family.
Now, what did that do to her. In contrast, there was another boy who was not good at all. And like two or three goals was scored because he was playing fullback, he should not have been playing fullback he was last year. So two or three goals were scored against him. And the dad came out and said, Johnny, you did such a great job, I just love to watch you play. Isn't it fun to play soccer, let's go and get an ice cream cone. Now, words are powerful. And the word of God is even more powerful, because we find out of God's unfathomable love. And we need to communicate that. If I can return for just a second, we want you want to talk about sit. And that's the preaching. That's the listening that's absorbing. But I think the first movement of stand is something that is counter to every other religion. Because in Christianity, we come to worship. And we we feel guilty because we're coming to the presence of a holy God. But God says, Hey, now it's all taken care of you can see the the, the the crucifix, the cross, and Jesus is on it. I've not only knew that you had a problem, I've already solved the problem. And I poured out my love and my grace and mercy to you. And so when we enter worship, we enter with thanksgiving and praise. In most religions, you go into a Buddhist temple, you go into a Hindu temple, you go, you've got to make sacrifice, you got to appease the gods, you've got to, you know, watch the Buddha put on gold, flaking and so forth. Because you're not good enough. And God says, in Jesus, we know you're not good enough. But I've cleansed you, I've forgiven you, and I've accepted you. And so we enter with praise. And so we a whole different mindset. And that's empowering. When one of my faculty members read this book, she she does counseling. She says, this is a great book for counseling. And I said, Wait, I thought you read my church book. Just Yeah. Because you said it's only when we are standing before the Holy God, that we rightly placed ourselves and we know who we really are. And that's what's missing in counseling. Lots of times people are depressed, they're anxious. They don't know who they really are. And when we're in rightly placed before God, that's who we really are. And then there can be healing. So that that that receiving is receiving a lot of it's receiving grace, and it's receiving the love of God. It's not just saying you need to do this, you need to do this. We need to hear again, just how much we're loved in a world where there's so much rejection, anxiety, and loneliness.
Thank you so much for sharing those reflections. Dr. Sundquist, Dr. sunquest, in chapter seven of your text, it's the chapter dedicated to goal and that is the Christian mission. You spell out what is the nature of the church's mission? mission is obviously something that's also being deeply changed by technology today. What is your advice for future missionaries for missionaries and training today?
It's interesting, I think it's needs to start by studying the needs of the world alongside the the the Word of God and not give in to the false teachings that say well The Western missionaries now we've done our job. And now we need to sit back, let other people do it. You know, Jesus never said that. But I've heard many people say that they kind of back off from mission. Now, there's still people who've never heard the good news of Jesus Christ. I like to be driven by again, Matthew 28. In Revelation seven, Revelation seven said that the son will no longer scorch them, they will have living waters, he will wipe away every tear from their eyes. So these are the kinds of things that we're commanded to do until Jesus returns were to work, if that's where we're going, then we should be doing that. Now. If people are not going to have any more tears, then we need to wipe away those tears now, because then we become a signpost, of where we're going. And so I think it begins by by studying the world, and that means the world around us and our city block, and finding out where the needs are and find out where their needs for reconciliation, where there needs for women to be protected if they're being battered for children to be cared for if they're orphaned for racial reconciliation, when there's more violence and systemic racism around us, as well as people have never heard about Jesus Christ, and there's no dichotomy. It's not either or it's both. And Jesus didn't wake up in the morning said, You know, I did a lot of healing yesterday. I think I'll do some proclaiming today, you know, no, he just, he responded to people never there. And if they needed to hear the good news of Christ, he told them the good news of salvation. And if they were hungry, he fed them. And so they take on the mind of Christ about the world would probably be the first thing.
Dr. Nyquist I would be remiss if I didn't ask you a question or two concerning the Coronavirus crisis. We hear constantly that this is an unprecedented time in our nation's history and in the life of our religious communities of our churches. What does the Coronavirus crisis mean for Christian education today?
That's an excellent question. I think one of the things that means that the way that I like to put it is that it's not so much a pandemic, as we need to view it as persecution. What is the church doing is being persecuted. It's not we're being persecuted by government. We're being persecuted by this evil disease. And so when the church is persecuted, usually what it does is it begins to pray a lot more it confesses it sends, it begins to meet in smaller groups, and begins to support one another at a more grassroots level. persecuted churches don't demand that they worship in the 1000s. I visited many people in China and Vietnam and talk to them about their experiences during difficult times as well as in Myanmar. And they found ways of staying connected. also talk to friends, old older folks, when I was in Singapore, under Japanese occupation in Singapore, you know, what did they do? They found ways of connecting with one another. Bible women would go from house to house on the back of their bicycles and so forth. And so I had, I think we have to have that kind of mindset. What would the persecuted church do. And this is a limited persecution. But it's real. But we know it's going to end a lot of people in communist countries didn't know if it was ever going to end. And they were faithful and the churches grew. So there's no reason our churches can't grow at this time. By taking seriously outreach through small groups, there are neighborhoods and inviting people in. And some churches I've talked to have had more baptisms. And they had the last two or three years, because they've intentionally had to think again about how do we do outreach now. And so they have found new ways to connect. But that would be one thing. Another thing I just I'm very strong on Bible memory. We can't rely on somebody teaching us all the time we need to really work at knowing scripture well, and then that becomes the reflex way that we react, react and respond.
Dr. Sundquist, if I can close with a question that we've been asking all of the interviewees on this program, and that is this, what would it mean for the church today to be united? How would we even recognize this unity? And what is it that we as individual Christians can do to pursue the unity that Jesus prayed for in john 17?
They should all read my book. Because that's why I wrote it. I wrote it to bring Christians together with a common understanding. But if not my book, read scripture together I think is one thing. And another thing is to constantly study not just your own tradition. You know, when I went to seminary, I studied a lot about Calvin. I said a lot about Jonathan Edwards of john Knox, you know, the Presbyterian tradition and so forth. And then later on, I studied more the Pentecostal tradition and in Africa, and I was at Azusa Street in LA. I did more more study there, I think and then when our daughter converted to Orthodoxy, I did a lot more study there. And I'm Patristics guided Syriac Patristics and to develop an appreciation for those traditions is absolutely key and to see them not as the problem, but as part of the family. So a lot of it is a mindset to say, I'm coming to this Orthodox Church. I don't understand why they do this and that, but I hear him talk a lot about Jesus. They're very Trinitarian. And they're discipling and raising up these young kids, and they're meditating on the saints of the past. These are all good things. And then to reinforce that, and then find out what can I learn from them? Because one of the things we can learn from the Orthodox and they may have icons, but Protestants and we have icons, Billy Graham, William Carey, there, it's sort of our models and our icons that guide us, and it's good to have that.
We've been hugely privileged today to be speaking with Dr. Scott sunquest, President of Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, Professor of missiology, and also author of the text that we've been discussing today. Why church a basic introduction available from IBM IVP, academic 2019. Dr. sandquist, thank you so much for your time this morning.
Thank you very much. Good to talk with you.