Spiritual Formation and Discipleship

Church, parachurch, or why church at all?

Church, parachurch, or why church at all?
(whole essay at Church, parachurch, or why church at all)

Questions: What means did Christ establish


  • for the proclamation and preservation of the gospel in biblical history?
  • for properly organized and structured worship, reception of the Word of God, and
  • the accountability of discipline and discipleship through offices of authority
    for properly administering to the needs of the fellowship of believers?

Answer: The visible church of those who profess faith in Christ and live in obedience to his commands. This was true for OT Israel living under a theocracy and monarchy, the same as it is for the NT visible church today. In the OT, the visible church was characterized by the Priests’ administration of the sanctuary worship and application of the Word of God, the Elders and Prophets’ ministry of proclaiming and teaching the Word of God revealed and written, and by the kings’ service of administrating justice by upholding the law of God and defending the nation. In the NT, the visible church is characterized by the (priestly) administration of the Sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Table, the exposition of the Word (prophetic), and the upholding of the law and protecting the people of God through the administration of discipline properly applied to preserve, protect, and restore by the elders. Further protection and service is provided by the ministry of the Deacons. It is often said that the church is a “human institution,” but that is not what it is: it is God’s divinely appointed means to accomplish his work of redemption through Christ of his people and his world.

A serious question then is, why do so many people today abandon the visible church, and membership in the fellowship, for alternatives (such as “para-churches”)? Some will answer that they do not need the local church, since they are already members of the universal and invisible church. Perhaps they have been deeply scarred in a local church, or they had some very bad experiences there at some point, or they were in a church that was not orthodox, and they left never to return to a visible and established congregation. In all of these cases, it is easy to understand the rationale and justification for leaving a particularly bad situation.[1] The question is, nevertheless, whether it is wise to exclude oneself altogether from membership in the visible church (or to attach to alternative organizations). The local church is the place where our Lord’s Table is celebrated regularly, and where his death and resurrection are remembered and celebrated every Sunday, and where the Word of Scripture is taught consistently and fully, and where structures for training in righteousness (discipleship) are in place, and where the people of God are held accountable to Christ and to one another by one another, and where elders and deacons are called to serve these ends.

Do people often leave the visible church planning to find a better alternative, one of the many more glamorous alternatives (such as “para-churches”), because they sincerely believe the church failed them, and is failing in its mission, because it has so many problems, because there are so many sinners there not living in obedience? With such claims, the question is do they really believe it will be easier to do the work of the Kingdom outside of Christ’s ordained means and visible institution (to use imperfect sinners living under grace), while working with different sinners in different contexts and structures that do not align fully with a biblical model or precedent?

What does Christ command us to do in the visible church? To remember him. To celebrate his Table of remembrance, to establish proper structure of authority, to obey his commands with accountability, to have his word dwell in us richly, to pray together. How is this possible? The best way, perhaps the only way, to experience the blessings of membership in his universal, “invisible” church is to be a member of his visible church. Indeed, I think it would be difficult to rightly claim membership in the universal church unless we are committed to real people in a real locale in a real and visible church under the real authority of elders and deacons given by Christ to serve the mission of the advancement of the gospel and the Kingdom through the visible body of Christ. In this way, our presence and service in the visible church is evidence (yet, not proof of salvation or a proposal of works-righteousness here) of our membership in the universal church. In this way, our membership in a local body of believers is the acknowledgement that we cannot do this alone, nor would we ever want to. It is also an acknowledgment that we do not create organizations that would supplant or replace the mission given to the church.

Nevertheless, there are some who say that membership in a local visible church is unnecessary. Actually, I would suggest that the term “invisible” (or universal) church is meaningless without a visible representation on the earth. Otherwise, it is nothing but some abstraction, a concept. So, this is sometimes people’s logic, “Oh, I belong to the invisible church that is universal, and which is by the way unseen (since invisible), and so it is unnecessary that I join a local congregation.” If this be the case, then it must be presumed your church is inactive and non-existent to anyone’s observation from the outside. And, for those who do not abandon the local visible church with such reasoning, it can lead to the rationalization to create something “new,” an alternative to Christ’s institution, to make the Kingdom hope more appealing and exciting, or just more glamorous than our boring edifices and structures and services, or to provide a more biblical alternative to what was seen as mostly dead church traditions or outright unbelief within the majority of denominations.

The so-called “para-church” organizations that proliferated during the later sixties and seventies, and continue today, often were seen as ways to address the perceived failures, lacks, and omissions of the visible church. Indeed, in many cases they were a response to the failed project of the Liberal and mainline churches that for a generation had largely abandoned the gospel. Succumbing to the unbelief of a purely socially oriented gospel, rejecting much of historic Christian doctrine, they bore the fruits of such theology in catastrophic spiritual (and physical) death around the world. In this context it not surprising that “para” organizations developed to seek to redress this state of affairs, but they typically went outside the organized and visible church and became “alongside,” an alternative. Offering what appeared to be exciting new opportunities to serve the Kingdom and the gospel of Jesus, they created focused ministries to the many and various needs of the world, such as evangelism, discipleship, worship, and serving the poor and oppressed. These para-church organizations have done a tremendous amount of good in the world, but too often the cost to our ecclesiology, and the strength of the believing visible church, has not been acknowledged. Since these organizations are not churches, having no official establishment of biblical structures and patterns and protections of the church, they have been subject to the many cultural and social forces prevailing in the broader culture. They have also been subject to all the same trials every organization of humans struggles with, yet doing so without biblical restraints (and training) on doctrine, authority, and morality. They so often supplant the Christ-given visible church’s responsibilities, and forsake proper structures for those of the business model or non-profit models, and in many cases a very-much-for-profit model.  Because they usually lack proper biblical officers, authorial checks and balances, such organizations are governed by strong personalities who can generate tremendous capital and interest around the causes of the organization, sometimes, and much too often, creating a sub-culture prone to the cult-of-the-personality, or sectarian style structures and strategies, and in some cases cultic, or cult-styled, local and national leadership teams. I claim no expertise on these organizations, but my observation over the years is that the most of them focus on the youth and young adults, and often at the local level they are led by the theologically untrained and immature. This being the case, the larger they become, the more insidiously authoritarian they become in order to control the inevitable chaos. To varying degrees they must compete with one another, in strictly business fashion, vying to appeal to the diverse interests of the young in the hopes of gaining new members by offering a product more satisfying than the other alternatives to the youthful yearnings and aspirations of those they recruit. In sum, I hope that this brief reflection on church and para-church organizations stimulates some reflection on the question of what is the church and how we understand those organizations that are not churches and yet which often supplant the church, Christ’s established and authorial means to fulfill his work. The visible church is Christ’s institution called to the Great Commission, to convey the gospel of the Scripture to the world, to train in righteousness, to disciple the nations, to properly celebrate the Lord’s Table, to baptize, and to guard all these things through biblical discipline.

Now, we must also consider that it is possible for the visible building (belonging to a “visible” church) on the street corner can be just as invisible to the neighbors as the so-called invisible church without a building, but that is another matter regarding the (oxymoronic) “dead church.” In this latter case, it is oxymoronic to think that a true church living in obedience to Christ could possibly be dead since they are energized by the Living Christ and his word of the Gospel and the hope of the gospel. If they are truly alive in Christ, and living in love and grace together, the neighbors will know. A visible church that is invisible to all around it has a spiritual problem, even if it is still present as a visible church. We would not say it is not part of the visible church,  only that it is seriously failing in its calling and mission.

In this sense, the visible church and each member is Christ’s “letter to the world” (2 Cor 3:2). As Francis Schaeffer was known to say, in regards to Jesus’ words on love, that the world will know that the Father has sent the Son on the basis of the love they have for one another. This we know will never be perfect, but that is no excuse for our sin, nor our attempts to replace Christ’s institution with something else; it is a recognition that we must live under grace and discipline together as apprentices of the Servant of servants who is teaching us to love God with a perfect love, as we learn to forgive one another with our presently imperfect love. As his disciples we seek to do his will, but we are still in training with much to learn. As someone else put it, we are learning the impossible task (impossible to us on our own) of loving as God loves and to love what God loves. I conclude that the best place, and most difficult, to do this is in the place Christ Jesus himself instituted, and that is his visible church. In this way, the church is to be as a light set on a hill, the salt of the earth.

“We cannot hope to restore the world if we are constantly reinventing the church.” J.K.A.Smith, You Are What You Love¸p. 178

“There is one body and one Spirit . . .” Ephesians 4:6

The visible church of Christ, is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure word of God is preached, and the sacraments be duly ministered, according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things of necessity are requisite the same.

Article XIX, The Thirty Nine Articles

The church “hath always three notes or marks whereby it is known:  pure and sound doctrine, the sacraments ministered according to Christ’s holy institution, and the right use of ecclesiastical discipline.”  E.S.C. Gibson, The Thirty Nine Articles of the Church of England, p. 495.

“The congregation is the hermeneutic of the gospel.” Leslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society, pp. 222-223.

[1] There are some difficult cases, nevertheless, as in the underground church in Communist China, and Muslim countries, where open church membership with your name on an official roster, can be a dangerous and unwise practice. This is not what I am addressing, since typically these believers associate closely with a local body of believers, though in secret.

Christian Responsibility Towards the World: Withdrawal or Involvement?

_DSC0430Oftentimes, I have been blindsided by attitudes in the Christian community that react to Christian efforts to seek justice, or to right wrongs in this world; it is an attitude opposed to those who work for righteousness and truth and love in the various avenues of social, political, educational, artistic, medical, and economic concerns of people in the world. On one hand, it may be from an understandable fear of diluting the gospel of Jesus to a “social gospel,” and on the other hand from a culturally separatist (otherworldly) attitude that believes we are only supposed to “preach the gospel” and get people on the bus to heaven. In both cases, I think there is a failure to understand the nature of the gospel-promise along with the gospel-responsibility: the promise of a new creation shows God’s love for his creation, that Christ is presently Lord of every atom, every grain of sand, and every galaxy in his creation, and that he is going to restore his entire creation at his return. Thus, all our activities and responsibilities in this world have spiritual significance; we are not just preparing people to get on and off the bus! We are to make disciples (of all the nations); that is, people who live in this world as the light and salt of this world, bearing good and lasting fruit, preparing us to live on the earth renewed forever. There is no such dichotomy between do we “preach” the gospel and/or rescue people from trafficking/slavery, brutality, or injustice in the courts . . . , etc. Rather, the gospel rescues us from both spiritual darkness and the darkness of human injustice and cruelty. Christ is deeply concerned with both the salvation of the soul and the body, he redeems the whole person within the entirety of his creation. “God so loved the cosmos . . .” (Jn 3.16). As Paul tells us, “The whole creation groans in travail . . .” and yet, “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God” (Rom 8.21-22).

In regards to this question of the relationship of Christ to the world, Christ and culture, John Stott summarizes most beautifully and profoundly the confusing tendencies in the Christian community to “withdraw from the world,” in what he calls various forms of modern Pharisaism.

CHRIST THE CONTROVERSIALIST. Responsibility: Withdrawal or Involvement? John Stott, IVP, pp. 182-188. To read the whole selection go to Stott, John.CHRIST THE CONTROVERSIALIST.
Christ’s fraternization with outcasts was interpreted by the Pharisees as an inexcusable compromise with sin; they did not see it for what it really was, an expression of the divine compassion towards sinners.

The attitude of Christian church
Leaving the first century and entering the middle of the twentieth, it is necessary to ask what the attitude of the contemporary church is towards outsiders, outcasts. Is it Pharisaic, or is it Christian? I fear that it is often Pharisaic. That is, the church tends (has always tended) to withdraw from the world and leave it to its own devices. Evangelical churchmen have by no means been free of this tendency, although indeed it is a denial of their true character. Many examples could be given, illustrating different causes of the same general attitude. Let me try to enlarge on what I think are the four commonest.

  1. “plain, unvarnished, Pharisaic self-righteousness”
  2. “the withdrawal of the church from the world is a genuine if mistaken fear of contamination”(a monastic type of self-absorbed isolationism)
  3. an unbalanced understanding of the relation between evangelism and social concern that can go in to both extremes: “The ‘evangelical’ thesis in its extremist form is that God’s chief concern is the salvation of individual souls; that the church’s sole responsibility is the proclamation of the gospel; and that therefore social action being the first cousin of the ‘social gospel’ must be firmly eschewed.”
  4. that “we stand aloof from the world is plain laziness and selfishness. We do not want to get involved in its hurt or dirt”

“Underlying these four causes of withdrawal there lurks a false view of God. The God revealed by Jesus Christ is a God who cares. He loves people who do not deserve to be loved. He makes His sun rise on the evil as well as the good, and sends rain on the unjust as well as the just. He made us body-souls and cares for us as body-souls. And He has taken action — sacrificial action — to supply a remedy for our sin. He has got Himself deeply involved in our predicament. So Jesus Christ Himself did not remain aloof, or refuse to get involved, or hide away in the safe immunity of heaven. He entered our world. He assumed our nature. He identified Himself our humanity. He exposed Himself to our temptations, sorrows and pains. He made friends with outcasts and was nicknamed ‘a friend of tax collectors and sinners’?13 He humbled Himself to serve people in their need. He washed His disciples’ feet. He never drew back from any demanding situation.”

To read the whole selection go to Stott, John.CHRIST THE CONTROVERSIALIST

“Those who lead the country into the abyss . . .”

Those who take the meat from the table
Teach contentment.
Those for whom the taxes are destined
Demand sacrifice.
Those who eat their fill speak to the hungry
Of wonderful times to come.
Those who lead the country into the abyss
Call ruling too difficult
For ordinary men.

(Dallas Willard in The Spirit of the Disciplines, p. 249, quoting Bertolt Brecht. Willard says we idolize leaders in order to believe — a self-delusion — that they are the kind of people who can solve the problems of human society, but in truth they cannot, since they are truly powerless to do so unless “they work in the power of God and have character to bear it without corruption.”

“We have one realistic hope for dealing with the world’s problems. And that is the person and gospel of Jesus Christ, living here and now, in people who are his by total identification . . .”, p. 237)

Christ restores all . . .

“Christ restores all things and all relationships. In terms of our macro-typology, Christ is the antitype of every aspect of reality: nothing exists outside this relationship. Everything the Bible deals with comes within this relationship. To put it another way, the incarnate God-man is the representative embodiment of every aspect of reality in perfect relationships. What God has done in Jesus is made to involve us as we are related to Jesus by faith and, by involving us, has ultimate implications for the whole of creation (Romans 8:19-23).” Graeme Goldsworthy, Christ-Centered Biblical Theology, p. 224.

Calvin on taking up our cross and bearing our pains

“And it is of no slight importance for you to be cleansed of your blind love of self that you may be made more nearly aware of your incapacity; to feel your own incapacity that you may learn to distrust yourself; to distrust yourself that you may transfer your trust to God; to rest with a trustful heart in God that, relying upon his help, you may persevere unconquered to the end; to take your stand in his grace that you may comprehend the truth of his promises; to have unquestioned certainty of his promises that your hope may thereby be strengthened.” John Calvin,
Institutes, III.VIII.3, Battles,  p 704.


To read entire essay, click here: THE SEARCH FOR SIGNIFICANCE

Stephen T. Hague

jamesWilliam James in Essays on Faith and Morals asks two big questions: “What makes life significant? And, “Is life worth living?” He notes rightly that there are many things (culture, ideals, heroism) that give some kind of significance to life, yet that they fail “when they pretend singly to redeem life of insignificance” (p. 306).                                     (right)William James

               Are we significant? Do we matter?
               Is life worth living?

A life worth living is a life that has significance, but one must know that significance. James argues strongly that life is worth living, yet he falls shy of affirming an unabashed Christian faith as the source of that significance. He rightly notes that pessimism is “essentially a religious disease” (p. 8), and that one stage in the recovery is the “exercise of religious trust and fancy” (p. 9). That is, there are possibilities. James quotes William Slater, “as the essence of courage is to stake one’s life on a possibility, so the essence of faith is to believe that the possibility exists” (p. 31). Surely, this is true so far as it goes, but does this take us far enough to know that (our) life is truly significant and worth living? Will “religious fancy” or belief in “possibilities” cure our disease? His exhortation to his readers is, “Be not afraid of life! Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact” (p. 31). Is this a sufficient ground for affirming significance, for living our life?

It is the rare person who is so low and without hope that they have no regard for their own significance, for in fact it concerns the very meaning and purpose of one’s existence. Indeed, there may be some who claim to care nothing for such a concern, since their life experiences, and faithlessness, have brought them to a point-of-no-return to significance. For the vast majority, the search for significance drives all that they think and do. This search is not necessarily a straight road in any particular (pre-determined) direction, since many seek in places where no significance may be found. And many seek it in ways that are self-defeating.

In reality, since all (finite) people need an “infinite reference point” for integration, all finite reference points will fail to provide any sufficient integration for human personality, relations, aspirations, longings, hopes, fears, labors, loves, and life. Significance matters to all of these, and much more. Even the hard-hearted atheist must find spiritual, moral, and relational significance in their denials of God. Even the Scrooges of the world seek an infinite reference point for their significance, though it is in the sand-castles of their wealth-hoards.

singer(left)Peter Singer
Significance is more than meaning, however, for it particularly involves the unique quality of one’s life that provides a starting point for the kind of purpose and meaning that “make it all worthwhile.” This is especially important for those who might by some (like the eugenicist at Princeton University, Peter Singer) be categorized as “not fully human,” for it means that every human life is indeed unique and thus worth living. Meaning alone is an insufficient foundation for human significance, for meaning can be found where there is no true significance. In fact, integrative meaning derives from one’s unique significance. Significance is what gives sufficient purpose to face even extreme personal suffering, physical deprivations, and handicaps. Significance “signals” that we are for a reason, that we do for a purpose, and that at the end of the day we matter.

Now, “to matter” can be understood in very diverse ways. For the atheist or agnostic to find significance, they must seek a source other than the source of significance, God himself. As noted, however, the atheist, needing to know significance, must and will find some fragments of it without faith in God. Though fragmented by an incomplete theology (of unbelief), it is real nonetheless. Certainly, it is wrong to think that the atheist and agnostic have a life with no personal sense of significance, or have a meaningless life. This is because significance, and the search for meaningful life, is the inescapable reality of all made in God’s image (Gen 1:27; 9:6). It is the reality (environment) for all people, that being made in God’s image they do have true significance. Everyone thus finds some kind of “meaning” or “purpose,” for who we are and what we do truly matters. This is true for all, and is therefore profoundly significant.

Nevertheless, only the Creator can be an infinite reference point for those made in his image, and those seeking significant integration in what is finite will be forever frustrated. That is, to find “meaning” or “purpose” in things finite is not to find one’s integrative significance. Yet, for all humans made in God’s image, what we are and do truly matters; we are truly significant. Who we are and what we do in this life causes real ripples in this world, in the heavenly realms, and for all eternity.  Such a concept is startling, since it means we live horizontally into all eternity. That is, our lives, our present being, character, actions, personality, and relationships are eternally significant, horizontally so forever. Our work, our thoughts, our loves, our whole lives will continue into the eternal space-time continuum of either heaven or hell. The end-game, though this is no game, is determined by our present vertical relationships – whether we love God or Baal. Our present lives have eternal significance now, in all the details, in regards to this question, since we presently live in eternity.

For many Christians, however, the life of faith is primarily vertical in perspective. Faith in Christ to them means deliverance from their body and all its life-woes. Faith means biding the time until death introduces them to freedom from this body’s life of trouble. Significance, in this case, resides mistakenly in faith-survival, or “muddling through,” to the end of one’s life. “Hanging on by the skin of our teeth.”  Certainly, undying faithfulness to Christ until the end of our lives is a paramount Christian calling. All the same, truly integrative significance in this life is largely absent from such a limiting vantage-point, since it excludes the totality of life lived under the Lordship of Christ, the telos of our being created: to glorify God and to enjoy him forever in his created universe. It is to live, work, create, and propagate as prophets, priests, and kings in his paradise on earth from creation to the new creation. It is to become master gardeners of earthly dominion. Though we live in the redemption-interval between the creation and the new creation, we are being prepared to live in that creation which Christ is preparing for us, forever. Actually, can we not affirm that our eternal life in creation is both now and forever? Our present lives will continue, though transformed by the renewal of all things, the resurrection of our bodies, in his created world (Isa. 11:6-9; 65:17-25; Mtt 19:28; Rom. 8:19-23; 2 Pet 3:13; Col 1:20; Eph 1:10; Rev 11:15).

The whole story of redemption of creation is thus the present context for our significance: how we treat our neighbors, friends, and enemies; how we think, work, create (or destroy); how we speak, plan, decorate, design and manage our world and lives; how we draw, sing, write, proclaim, testify, bear witness; how we study, use our time, love, laugh, suffer, and die. How we live, why we live, has to do with for Whom we live. We are all significant because God has made us so, since he made us in his image. Even our very words are all significant, since they are all spoken in his presence, as they flow out of us who are created with this marvelous gift of language to communicate.

Though feelings of insignificance are rife among us, since nothing is hidden from the One who made us, these have no merit in the reality of the Hidden One now more fully revealed in Christ. Nevertheless, a sense of smallness is prevalent among creatures living in a seemingly endless universe. Some even lovingly nurse this deep feeling of, or sense of, insignificance, since even this gives them some reference-point, some identity, some significance.  Similarly, there is the sad irony of those who find faith (and meaning) in their unbelief. This too is evidence of being made in the image of God, since all humankind must find their significance and purpose in an infinite God, or they will find a substitute.


francis-schaeffer-contemplatingFrancis Schaeffer (picture on right) once preached a sermon “No Little People, No Little Places” in which he described the human ambition to escape the feeling of being small (insignificant) in a small place. How much tragedy and heart-ache the world has known from humans seeking to be and do something big, to be what they are not: either as narcissistic gods or devils. Ironically, so often this flows out of a profound sense of smallness and insignificance. On the other hand, substitute theologies such as “worm-theology” (“I am just a worm”) that some Christians advocate is no more biblical than the self-exaltation of Narcissism. Significance cannot be found in a theology of total depravity (as wrongly understood as total on the ontological level) any more than in the total love of self encouraged in our therapeutic culture, the religious cult of selfism.

Significance begins with our creation in God’s image as social, spiritual, living beings who can create, love, and communicate. Despite the reality and effects of sin, being made in God’s image enables us to be living beings in relationship, to have real personality, will (choice, determination), communication (love, truth), emotion (affections of the heart), spirituality (worship of communion with God), rationality (logos, mind, knowledge, logic, hermeneutics), morality (conscience), creativity (aesthetics, work, beauty), dignity (personality), goodness (thought and deed), value (intrinsic due to image of God), dominion (vice regents, ambassadors, representatives) and authority (derived). As we live for God through Jesus Christ, we come to experience the fullness of our humanity. One central aspect of the image of God is that we are God’s representatives on earth. In essence, this is the purpose for which he created us.

Resurrection, Albrecht Durer (1471-1528)(left) Albrecht Durer (Resurrection)
Also, as his representatives, and as believers, we have the high calling of testifying to Jesus Christ and his gospel of redemption for the whole person and the whole world. True and complete significance derives from Christ alone who is himself the True Image (2 Cor 4:4 – ὅς ἐστιν εἰκὼν του θεου) of God. Christ is The image of God, not made “in the image of God” (Col 1:15a) (contra the Gnostics) (cf. Col 3:10). All who are made in the image of God are thus signs, signifying, pointing to Christ himself. We are not gods, angels, or devils but rather creatures made in God’s image. As humans born in Adam’s line, sin has affected our hearts’ wills, choices, bodies, relations, and minds, but it never “removes” the image of God. It can be affirmed without doubt that “there are no little people, no little places.” Hence, there are none without significance, since it does not depend upon us but upon the image of God in which we are each made.

Further, in redemption, we are “being renewed in knowledge in the image” of our Creator (Col 3:10). For the believer, integrative significance is known, and can be lived out, under the sovereign Lordship of Christ in the process of restoration, being transformed and conformed to the likeness of the Son (Rom 8:29; 2 Cor 3:18; 5:17; 1 Jn 3:2). This recreation-restoration corresponds to the image of God given in the Garden of Eden. It involves the  total person and total life of our creativity (reflecting the aesthetic of the creation-order of work). The utmost dignity of mankind’s work is thus affirmed. To work () and guard () the garden (Gen 2:15) involved being fruitful (Gen 1:28). It also involved having dominion by ruling and governing in the garden over all creation (1:28) (Jesus himself fulfils the Edenic mandate of work and creativity [Jn 5:17]). Restoration also involves family and community (reflecting the social-order of creation in fathering/mothering of children, love, community, church, society, and conveyance of the revelation of God’s Word).

One important significance of all humans is that each evidence the glory of God; we are the greatest evidence for the glory of God. Even those who deny his glory have this significance, since it derives from the living God, not from the various “meanings” or purposes they create or adopt for significance. How beautiful it is then, for believers in Christ, to know that life lived under Christ’s Lordship is eternally significant! How much more believers should grasp this, to know, live, and love such significance in this life; it is immeasurably more than for those who deny Him as the source of life and its significance. These are not nice, or abstract, platitudes about the Christian life as better than the unbeliever’s life. This is not just a pragmatic challenge to believe in Christ so as to have a happier, more fulfilled, life of meaning and purpose. This is an assertion that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the good news that we who are made in his image are invited to partake in God’s redemptive purposes to restore us and his creation.

Our message to unbelievers is not, “Your life is presently meaningless, therefore reject your life, accept Christ, and you will find your significance.” Rather, I suggest it is better to proclaim that God made all people in his image, and that all attempts to live apart from God are subject to varying degrees of futility. And, that all of the meaning, purpose, and significance of every person’s life can only find a sufficient reference point in Christ the True image of God. This more adequately accounts for the reality of significance, purpose, and meaning in all peoples’ lives, even if twisted by the consequences of sin. It also provides more of a common-ground, or point-of-contact, between unbelievers and those of us who have embraced Christ as Lord and Savior of our whole lives, all our significance deriving from, and pointing to, him.

For those who are lost in the self-made forest of finite insignificance, or for those captivated by their over-significance (the former thinking they are nothing in the universe, the latter supposing they are everything), both are trapped in a world without integration or redemption. Humans are neither just dirt nor are they devils; they are the “glorious ruin” of creatures made in God’s image, redeemable by God’s marvelous grace. True integrative significance is always the fruit of God’s loving grace, and thus always leads to both the Cross and to the empty tomb. Christ’s empty tomb opens into the garden of the new creation where the purposes of God are completely manifested, and where the present significance of our lives will be perfectly realized in our physical resurrection to continue living forever in God’s creation before his glorious presence.
perspective man
Biblical significance rests in biblical faith, being re-made whole and holy, not in William James’ “possibilities” of just believing in trust of religious “fancy.” This is not just optimism, or optimistic belief; it is knowing the Lord Jesus as the Christ and deliverer of our bodies and souls. He is the only infinite reference-point for complete integration of our selves and this universe. In Christ we are made whole again. There is nothing “large enough” in this world for our identity, our integration as body and soul made in God’s image, our personalities, our significance. Christ is the only One sufficient for the task. He is complete, and we are complete in him alone.

Col 1:15-20 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible,  whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

Rom 8:19-21 The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.

Quotes from Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy:

The obviously well kept secret of the “ordinary” is that it is made to be a receptacle of the divine, a place where the life of God flows. But the divine is not pushy. As Huston Smith remarks, “Just as science has found the power of the sun itself to be locked in the atom, so religion proclaims the glory of the eternal to be reflected in the simplest elements of time: a leaf a door, an unturned stone.”  It is, of course, reflected as well in complicated entities, such as galaxies, music, mathematics, and persons.
Now, considered apart from its Creator—which was never intended—the “ordinary” truly is so ordinary and commonplace that it is of little interest or value. No atom by itself radiates solar power. In its own right everything is always just “another one of those.” To be ordinary is to be only “more of the same.” The human being screams against this from its every pore. To be just “another one of those” is deadening agony for us. Indeed, it actually drives some people to their death. It was never God’s intention for anyone.

This is why everyone, from the smallest child to the oldest adult, naturally wants in some way to be extraordinary, outstanding, making a unique contribution or, if all else fails, wants to be thought so—if only for a brief time. The fifteen minutes of fame that Andy Warhol said everyone would someday have, in the modern media-saturated world, may give desperate souls an assurance of uniqueness that could protect them from being “nobody,” at least in their own eyes.

The drive to significance that first appears as a vital need in the tiny child, and later as its clamorous desire for attention, is not egotism. Egotistical individuals see everything through themselves. They are always the dominant figures in their own field of vision.

Egotism is pathological self-obsession, a reaction to anxiety about whether one really does count. It is a form of acute self- consciousness and can be prevented and healed only by the experience of being adequately loved. It is, indeed, a desperate response to frustration of the need we all have to count for something and be held to be irreplaceable, without price.

Unlike egotism, the drive to significance is a simple extension of the creative impulse of God that gave us being. It is not filtered through self-consciousness any more than is our lunge to catch a package falling from someone’s hand. It is outwardly directed to the good to be done. We were built to count, as water is made to run downhill. We are placed in a specific context to count in ways no one else does. That is our destiny.

Our hunger for significance is a signal of who we are and why we are here, and it also is the basis of humanity’s enduring response to Jesus. For he always takes individual human beings as seriously as their shredded dignity demands, and he has the resources to carry through with his high estimate of them.

Dallas Willard,The Divine Conspiracy, pp. 14-15.