What is the church? Is it a place where people go each week? Perhaps the more accurate way to ask the question is, who is the church? Are they the people who show up and get the service together, plan and implement programs, and make key decisions; or are they the seat-filling people who show up, put money in the plate, and perhaps can be convinced to volunteer for stuff? Or maybe the church is a combination of both? Should everyone who goes to church or participates in church activities be considered the who part of that question, who is the church? What is the main goal of the church? Is it to bring God glory, equip and send believers into the world, make disciples, do good deeds, represent Christ, or a combination of these and other things?
Identifying the Church
Although the purpose of the church is not boiled down into one simple statement in scripture, there are definitely plenty of scriptures that describe the church. However, these scriptures are interpreted differently by various people. Some people say there is a visible and an invisible church, that the visible church is something tangible such as a building, an organization with leaders and members, a plan of action and purpose, and that the visible church may involve people who are not part of the invisible church. And some say the invisible church is specifically comprised of all those who participate in the visible church who are actually the called out ones, the elect of God who have been sealed by His Spirit, the true believers. Author and speaker Reggie McNeal says the church is “the people of God partnering in His redemptive mission in the world.” Personally, I think McNeal’s interpretation of those scriptures describing the church is the most accurate.
The proto-church (like a foreshadowing) is found way back in Genesis, where God says to Abraham, “blessed in thee have been all families of the ground.”
The synagogue, a meeting place for the Jewish religion, is contrasted with the ekklesia in such a way that the emphasis of the ekklesia is on a group of people, not a building or an organized gathering, in the Septuagint (a manuscript of the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures) in Joel 2:16 (and in many other places), “Gather [sunagogein] the people, sanctify an assembly [ekklesia], assemble the aged, gather [sunagogein] infants…”
Again, in Acts 7, Stephen identifies Moses and the Israelites using the same Greek word ekklesia that is often translated into the English word church, saying, “…Moses who did say to the sons of Israel: A prophet to you shall the Lord your God raise up out of your brethren, like to me, him shall ye hear. This is he who was in the assembly [ekklesia]in the wilderness.”
And one more example to hammer home the idea that the church is “the people of God partnering in His redemptive mission in the world” is found in 1 Peter 2:9-10, “…a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people acquired, that the excellences ye may shew forth of Him who out of darkness did call you to His wondrous light; who once not a people, and now the people of God; who had not found kindness, and now have found kindness.”
The focus of this blog is not so much about accurately identifying the church as it is about a situation in which one particular institutional church has an opportunity to do something spectacular.
I recently watched a video that one of my Facebook friends posted, entitled, “Umatilla High School Parent Upset at Local Church” about a situation involving a church that I attended for over a decade. The Facebook friend posted the following remark along with the video:
Thank you Larry Cheatham for the free press!! It would have otherwise cost us thousands of dollars to tell all of central florida about all the great things happening in Umatilla and the First Baptist Church!! Woohoo!!!
I am assuming that the excitement of my Facebook friend refers to the comment by Larry Cheathem in the WFTV online article that accompanies the video, regarding the conflict between Cheathem and the team coach. Cheathem says, “Team meetings, meals, bonfires, pep rally’s and whatever has to do with a football practice or game, it’s held at the First Baptist Church of Umatilla.”
Most people who attend church, who have invested countless hours and significant finances in the church, would respond in like manner to the idea that so many football activities are being held on their property for two reasons: the first is obvious and basically agreed upon by almost everyone, while the second has a deceptive flavor that people like Cheathem can spot from a mile away.
The first reason is that people who attend church are excited about the idea that their church is known as the church that hosts community events, where “unchurched” people show up during days and times outside the Sunday service. They can utilize an area that might otherwise be empty, wasted space. I don’t think the conflict has anything to do with this first reason.
The second reason people who attend church are excited about the idea that their church is known as the church that hosts community events is that, perhaps, since such a reputation has been established, the unchurched, recognizing their good deeds, will ask questions about the church, and perhaps visit the church, and in the best case scenario, respond to the alter call at the end of the service.
Of course, this “becoming a believer” thing has a long list of expectations attached to it – public profession of faith in baptism, joining the church, regularly attending and financially supporting the church, doing away with vices, participating in Bible studies or small groups (which usually involves purchasing pre-approved published materials), and perhaps climbing the hierarchy of leadership to become one of the people who has some real influence in the place. The problem with this idea is that the good deed is not done for the sake of one human being showing love or kindness to another human being; the good deed is a public relations decision by an organization that may result in an increase in numbers, status, and financial gain of that organization.
Free Advertisement or Public Relations Nightmare?
Have you ever recieved a letter in the mail offering you a free laptop or ipad in exchange for listening to an hour-long or two-hour-long sales pitch? The recipient of such a letter knows what to expect and can decide whether he or she would like to participate. In the situation with the coach and the angry dad, the dad feels as though the free offer that came in the mail is an offer that cannot be refused, literally.
My Facebook friend, who attends the church-in-the-ACLU-hot-seat, explained that the pastor “didn’t have anything to do with what the coach does with his team, and that is what all this boils down to. For instance, the FFA asked to use our place and we let them. Are we at fault because we have 3 crosses on our stage? It’s a tradeoff….they get a nice place to have their banquet but they have to tolerate all of our ‘stuff’.”
He also said,
We are just simple servants, doing what we believe to be right, with what God has blessed us with. The facilities we have don’t belong to us, they belong to God, right? The “Kingdom” we serve includes this community and the people in it. FBCU also donated $26,000 to disaster relief, to serve the people of Alabama. So, we do what we do, with no regrets. “The Church” was only serving. The offended person felt the Coach was forcing the players to do something “they” did not want to do. ‘The Church’ or it’s staff, or the pastor, or me, did not instruct him to do that. I don’t even know where the coach attends church.
So who is at fault here? Did someone do what they should not have done? These questions are irrelevant for the purpose of this blog. I’ll leave it up to ACLU and FBCU to figure out legalities.
I think, seeing the situation through spiritual eyes, that the real issue at hand here is that the angry dad speaks for many, many others who have a big problem with the pretenses that accompany good deeds. For example, does a group of people really need to wear their-brand-of-church-T-shirts when they hit the streets with shovels and potted plants?
A recent phenomena in the institutional church is to plan a date, make an announcement, hang a sign on the door with a message that is supposed to totally blow the mind of the unchurched person who shows up expecting the building to be full of people. The sign says, “The church has left the building.” The idea here is that instead of being a church-in-a-box, they are becoming a church-in-the-community. Perhaps the unchurched will see them as “normal people” with whom they can relate. Perhaps the unchurched will think differently about Christianity or Christians. Unfortunately (or perhaps, fortunately?), like the free ipad offer, unchurched people just don’t see it that way. They see a subtly deceptive publicity stunt disguised as good deeds with no strings attached.
I can imagine it now… The average Umatillian might say, “Why are you so bothered with FBCU, Cheatham? All they did was offer the use of their facilities.” Or the member of FBCU says, “Well, our pastor never suggested that the coach do this, in fact, he didn’t even know about it. The church is not at fault here.” But if church members are very honest with themselves, they will see a purposeful connection, a chain of related situations:
unchurched exposed to churched and/or church facilities/good deeds > unchurched contemplates the significance > unchurched responds positively > churched takes advantage of the opportunity to share faith > unchurched responds positively > churched invites unchurched to church or to make decision-for-Christ > unchurched responds positively > churched/church get brownie points for being effective ministers/ministry in God’s Kingdom. If a churched person does not make this connection, it is not because the connection doesn’t exist, it is because the churched person is blind to it or living in denial.
Opportunity to Change the Conversation
Right now, whether this particular institutional church likes it, agrees with it, is at fault – one thing is certain, the topic of conversation is a debate over rights: freedom of religion, separation of church and state, whether organized religion has once again crossed the line, and so on. Does the institutional church have a right to offer its facilities to the public? Does a school coach have the right to make attendance at an event held in an institutional church facility mandatory? If you look closely at these two questions, you will find two common elements: rights and an institutional church facility.
About the Christian’s Rights and Property
One of the most basic tenets of Christianity, exemplified for us very clearly in the life of Christ, is humility, and more specifically, the giving up of one’s rights. Jesus Christ gave up His rights regularly and purposefully. The “people of God” who are “partnering in His redemptive mission in the world” have no rights. Sure, they may have legal rights, even legal rights that they don’t deserve, such as tax exemption, but in God’s Kingdom, the “people of God” are called to take on the position of a servant or slave, if need be. Jesus gave up His rights when He allowed Himself to be nailed to a cross. The first disciples were sent by Jesus two-by-two, not all at once, and definitely not wearing disciple T-shirts. Jesus instructed them that they did not need funds or equipment; they didn’t even bring food (and this is a day-and-age with no McDonalds). Facilities were not even an issue, because He fully expected them to “stay there until you depart from there.” This is very reminiscent of God’s directing the Isrealites to live in tents. Believers are not supposed to get so comfortable in one certain way of doing things that we can’t function without our “stuff.”
How can the “people of God” who attend this institutional church best partner with God in the redemption of Larry Cheatham (here I am assuming for arguments sake that he has not already recognized that he is reconciled to God, but we’ll just suppose for the time being…), or the unchurched/dechurched/normal people of Umatilla? How can the “people of God” defuse this situation? How can the people of God shock the ACLU and probably the rest of the world with the outrageous love, humilty, and generous grace of Jesus Christ? In order to answer this question, I will ask another question.
Does the church need a building in order to accomplish its mission?
Do the “people of God” need to have a massive building in order to hear the word of God, to fellowship, and to pray with/for one another? Do the people of God need to meet by the hundreds on a weekly basis in order to carry out His purpose in the world? If every institutional church in the world “Left the Building” AND NEVER WENT BACK TO IT, would the church die or would it thrive?
I left this comment on my Facebook friend’s post:
…if you REALLY want to give Jesus Christ some positive publicity and shock the hell out of ACLU and the United States of America, give the building to the school. DO IT! I double dog dare you! Let’s see what you all are really made of, a Kingdom in a building or a building for His Kingdom. Matt. 5: 38-42. Luke 6:27-31. What are you willing to lose?
Hebrews 10:24 says, “…may we consider one another to provoke to love and to good works…” and that is the purpose of this particular blog. If the “people of God” give up the Sunday-Sermon-Binky, leave the buildings, payroll, politics, and chains behind them, what a different world this would be. I know it is scary for some people to even lend an ear to such conversation, but what a refreshing concept! Imagine WFTV’s follow up report…
FBCU, a church recently under the investigation of ACLU, has donated their building and property to the Umatilla High School football team. In an interview with the pastor, WFTV reporter Joe Schmo asked the pastor, “What will your church do now that you have no meeting place?”
And the pastor replies, “Umatilla no longer has one church of 900, they now have 900 churches of one.”
The reporter asks a follow up question, “Will you still continue to meet?”
And the pastor replies, “Of course we will. And all of the funds that were being used on payroll, upkeep of the facilities, electric, curriculum, equipment, etc. are now going to be put to use in the community and in the world as God directs each person. If every institutional church in the world followed suit, there would no longer be such a thing as world hunger. My hope is that God will use this situation to ignite a revolution in thinking about what it means to be a follower of Christ.”
Speaking from Experience…
About six years ago, at a conference with author and speaker Reggie McNeal, I realized that the way Christians were “doing church” wasn’t working as it had in the centuries prior. Between six years ago through two years ago, God took me through a crash course on what the church is NOT.
Eventually, I left the church, but really, I didn’t leave the church at all.
You see, there is this dichotomy that I touched on earlier – we have one word, “church” to describe two radically different concepts:
1. Church-as-religion includes all the trappings of religion: legalism, time-sucking, money-sucking, life-sucking, voluntary slavery that is cleverly disguised as God’s work, hypocrisy, building/program centered, a spiritually dead organization, fear-inducing dogma, love-strangling policies/procedures/protocol, spiritually segregated, hierarchical structure, etc.
2. Relationship with Christ and all of its benefits: freedom to mess up and learn without fear of people looking down on you, freedom to come and go as God leads instead of being tied to a schedule of religion-church activity, freedom to give generously as God provides/leads, abundant living, God does the work and His people join Him (no pressure there), being real and not giving two shits what church people have to say about it (yes, I said, “two shits” – case in point), Christ centered, alive!!!, fearless, overflowing with love, hands not tied by policy/procedure/protocol, spiritually integrated, accountable to one Shepherd, Jesus Christ, etc.
You Are Not Thinking Big Enough
One constant answer to prayers over those years that God keeps repeating to me: You are not thinking big enough. He is teaching believers to see the church as all believers everywhere, not just a group of believers in a church or in similar churches. God’s spies are everywhere, including the religion-church.
The religion-church has inherited a certain approach to Christianity. I touched on this in my previous blog, Pagan Gems and Christian Fluff, but I would like to expand on that now. For centuries, believers have duped themselves into thinking that if the majority of any given society is content to wear the label “Christian” (like the United States of America), then church can be defined in practice as a group of believers who build religion-church-buildings, create a religion-Christian-congregation who are trained/guilted/manipulated into putting money in the plate, and a small percentage of that money is used to send missionaries to pagan nations or to buy local generosity “bragging rights” and spiritual kudos. The life of Christ in them is reduced to a once-a-week meeting, with the possibility of a few God-moments in between. Meanwhile, the “us” versus “them” mentality solidifies in society. Now, there are the “churched” and “unchurched” and “de-churched” as if the whole world revolves around this monolithic religion-church tax-exempt corporation.
God is Doing His Thing, With or Without His People
Although there is a growing consensus among church-goers that something is amiss, they are rarely willing to peg their own organization as a part of the problem. From the outside looking in, I can tell you that God is doing something wonderful in the world, and the religion-church is missing out. But that is exactly what has been happening all along. A division between authentic relationship-Christianity and religion-Christianity took place with the rise of the religion-church, which painstakingly (although unwittingly) and systematically sought to snuff out the relationship-church. Fortunately, people are not able to stop God from doing His thing. He kept the relationship-church alive all this time, and the relationship church is experiencing increasing discomfort in the tight fist of the religion-church.
Now, God is doing a new thing.
Let me pause here to tell you about a dream that I had. There was a huge complicated machine, with so many different parts turning and moving in various ways. The purpose of this machine was to gather the light and dispense it in specific ways. I saw myself in the machine, as one of the moving parts. I didn’t even look like a person – I was made of metal. Suddenly, I fell out of the machine. I looked up into the machine-ceiling sky and saw that in the place where I used to be, a shaft of light was shooting through. Although it wasn’t much light, people on the ground took notice. They gathered around with me, looking up at the empty place, and collectively understood something they had never known before. They had always believed the source of light was the machine and accepted the fact that they had to rely on the machine to give them light. It had never occurred to them that the machine was simply dispensing the light from another source. Here and there, a few more pieces fell from the machine. People rejoiced as they saw the light shining through the holes, because they knew that they no longer needed to wait on the inefficient machine to supply them with tiny amounts of light. They could bypass the machine altogether and go directly to the source of light.
I don’t think that I need to offer an interpretation of this dream, as it is quite obvious. What happened in the dream is exactly what is happening in the world today. Those who are not part of the religion-machine are beginning to see the light without the help/control of the machine. And guess what else is happening… people who find their worth or sense of purpose in being part of the machine are now fearfully watching as their positions of authority, their power over the spiritual climate of the land-dwellers, their sense of importance and relevance is becoming obsolete. The whole world (including many of those machine parts) is seeing the machine for what it is and what is has been all along. The machine is dying, but the relationship-church is not dying. It can never die. God has established His Kingdom in enemy territory, and slowly but surely, He is filling all things with the light of life.
I know that much of this is way too over-the-top for some readers to handle. I probably lost them about three paragraphs into this blog. God has created some people to coddle and sugar coat for the sake of spiritual immaturity, but I am not one of them. Those who are meant to understand the ideas in this blog will understand. They are excited and scared all at the same time, knowing that in being willing to lose everything, they gain everything. This is just the beginning of the abundant life for such readers. And the rest of you, thanks for loving me despite my forthrightness. You can just write me off as a spiritual ____ (fill in the blank). I don’t need your approval anyhow.