What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church. (1 Corinthians 14:26)So what is "church," anyway?
That's the question a lot of us seem to wrestle with these days. We see evidence in the New Testament that the early church met in homes, so we reason that maybe the organizational church these days that most resembles a corporation is "off base" and we don't need it. We wonder why our small group can't be considered as valid as the traditional gatherings that happen on a weekend since they seem more "biblical" in their set-up than sitting down, hearing a message, singing some songs, dropping in some money somewhere, and shaking someone's hand on the way out.
Unfortunately, that's how some of us would describe what happens in a church service.
His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms. (Ephesians 3:10)
But perhaps the real question beneath that one has to do with why we're even wrestling with all of this in the first place.
For many of us we find great comfort in the early church's structure (or lack thereof) because we've been hurt too many times in environments where we didn't get to choose the people around us or make the rules of the room. We see the large group as a relational risk and clique of sorts, where you have to act a certain way or you're not considered "cool." Maybe we don't use this language, but honestly... sometimes don't we turn the weekend gathering into a behavior management classroom that resembles elementary school - administrated by teachers and monitored by peers?
I remember my school days with some measure of awkwardness. I wasn't the cool kid, nor was I wasn't the dorky kid. I was kind of in the middle, actually, because I would drift between those extremes and never could settle into one. Perhaps that's why when I walked into the doors of a building that didn't resemble any church I was familiar with and experienced an acceptance from people and God I'd never tasted before it completely blew me away when I found it it was a "church." All I'd known of such religious experiences prior to that point were hypocritical, stuffy, and not at all anything I'd want to be a part of.
And yet on that day (and without even knowing it), a teenager named Tony Myles wearing a baseball hat and ripped jeans fell in love with the Church through the church.
What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? (1 Corinthians 5:12)As many do, I initially struggled with the behavior management issue. I'd look around and ask, "What are the rules for this room? Who do I need to be when I'm with these people? What do I need to hide in order to not be ridiculed?" After I figured that out, then I became one of the self-appointed gatekeepers, keeping an eye on those who fit and gossipping about those who didn't. In an odd way, I was like the disciples who were in the presence of the One and couldn't stop asking, "Yeah, but how do I get to be the one who sits closest to you in the kingdom to come?"
Perhaps the next step for many is what it was for me... I became a good church consumer. Just as we treat a restaurant who gives us bad service, I would critique the band's music, the preacher's sermons, the organizational administration, and everything else. "If they don't get their act together," I'd reason, "then I'll find someone down the street who will serve me better."
I'm sure you can't identify with any of that.
When you come together, it is not the Lord's Supper you eat, for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk. (1 Corinthians 11:20-21)
I don't mean to discount the disappointment we can experience, but to use the restaurant metaphor again we shouldn't expect an eating establishment to never burn the food. Granted, if they keep burning the food we need to speak up about it and let them know something is wrong. If they don't or won't fix it, then it's time to consider moving to another place to eat. Interestingly, though, even after a few bad experiences around town we are more inclined to keep going to restaurants than we are to keep searching for a healthy church when a few others have let us down.
I am moved by this thought I recently read:
Are we so busy deconstructing the church that we forget it was established by Jesus himself, who promised that “the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.”Yet our attendance still is unpredictable, our offerings are often flippant contributions (and only when the sun is shining "just right"), we ignore the other church buildings in town instead of validate their existence, and seldom make any personal sacrifice unless we know what we're getting out of it. So much of this rises and falls on leaders, which - by the way - you can be simply by choosing to serve instead of be served.
David Letterman I watched as Barbara Walters shared about her upcoming special regarding the ten most fascinating people of the year. She spoke about how Joel Osteen will be one of them, not to mention how they will be adding Osteen's thoughts to a show on heaven they filmed and showed last year in order to edit out comments Ted Haggard made (in light of his recent issues). Walters added that "you can't have someone commenting on heaven" if they themselves are not walking the walk. Interesting.
Letterman didn't know who Osteen was, so Walters shared (my closest paraphrase), "You may have seen him on TV. He's the smiling preacher, has a megachurch of thousands, tells us that God wants us to be rich and wealthy and prosperous, a best selling book..."
To which Letterman interrupted, "...and, what, about two months away from a sex scandal?"
Unfortunately, we deserve that cynicism.
Here is a trustworthy saying: If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task. Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God's church?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil's trap. (1 Timothy 3:1-7)This past week I received a gift from the current and founding pastor at the church I will soon be going to serve as its next lead pastor.
Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Hebrews 13:7)
He surprised me with two boxes, each containing several business cards that I assumed had my name and title on them. I slowly pulled one out, staring only at the back for the longest time. Somehow I couldn't just flip it over... this was becoming some kind of a sacramental moment for me in more ways than one. My wife watched me from across the room as I labored for the breath and strength to turn it over.
Then suddenly... I started to turn it over... and there was my name...and there was my position... and suddenly this became the heaviest business card I've ever held. The weight of responsibility c0ntained in this assembling of letters absolutely blew me away and was held up strictly by the power of Christ alone. I'm no longer allowed to deconstruct from the sidelines... I"ve accepted the task of reconstructing from within.
It's a responsibility to be the kind of Christ follower who actually follows Christ and not my version of Christianity. A charge to help wake up a sleeping world, guide people forward to their next step with Jesus, and prepare others for service by serving them myself. Understanding that in all my imperfections I am accepting the task to talk about a perfect God that a fallen world has trouble comprehending.
Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. (Acts 20:28)
Who needs the church? I do. I absolutely do.
Not because I want a paycheck or a platform to feel good about myself, but because some time ago I tasted what it was all about and I would be lying to myself everyday if I let the bumps and bruises to be bigger than God himself. Even though the years in between then and now have included wounds from the very same people that have scarred me in places deep within, it doesn't discount the reality that in a broken world we will at times experience a broken version of the church.
I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought. (1 Corinthians 1:10)
What is the church?
It what happens in a service... or a small group... or on Monday when I'm heading to the grocery store... or on Tuesday when I decide how I'm going to treat the people I work with... or on Wednesday when meet in my basement with a group of guys at 5:45am... or on Thursday when I decide to help the neighbor kid whose dad recently moved out with his yard work... or on Friday when I play video games with some inner city kids... or on Saturday when I flip through the TV stations in the privacy of my own home... or on Sunday when I pull in for another service somewhere and ask myself if I'm here to serve or be served.
So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch. (Acts 11:26)
Greet also the church that meets at their house. Greet my dear friend Epenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in the province of Asia. (Romans 16:5)
Can someone be a Christian without the church? If we look for a loophole, I suppose so.
But what kind of Christian would that person be?
Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord. (Acts 9:31)