What is Church? (Part 1)
What is Church
WHAT IS CHURCH? (ACTS 2:41-46)
Church is not a building, an event, a series of progams, a social club, a welfare organization, a religious ritual, supernatural experience or unseen spiritual reality without local expression. We should be asking, not what does church mean to me, but what does church mean to Christ?
This morning I want us to consider the question “What is church?” I think many of us have lived for many years with a wrong or inadequate understanding of what church actually is and this pandemic is highlighting for us where our thinking about church is wrong. We’ve gone to church, we’ve done church as it were, but we’ve never really stopped to ask, “What is church” really, or how much of what we do is really church… I think this is one of the greatest spiritual benefits of the present pandemic – it’s forcing us to ask what the church really is and its significance in our lives, our society and our country.
Many of us as pastors are having to rethink – how we do church and how much of what we have been doing has not really been church. Many members are wondering whether they really need church at all, or at the least, whether they need to do church as they were doing it before this pandemic. Very few churches and church members will go back to doing church exactly as we did before this pandemic…..
So let me start with some of the inadequate views I think many of us have held to, by clarifying what church is not! 10 inadequate expressions of church….
1: What church is not
1: Church is not a place
· We say things like, “I’m going to church” and deep down we think of church as a place, as the building, and we often attach some special significance to the location. We sometimes call the building a sanctuary or a tabernacle or a chapel and we bring in Old Testament thinking that this is like some kind of temple where God’s glory can be seen and His presence felt in a more tangible way. The church building or location is like holy ground and there are certain things you shouldn’t do in this building because its set apart unto God. We don’t quite view a church as established until it has a building, with a sign and an address and a steeple and a cross. For many of us, our impression of the church is summarized in how the building looks.
· And now our building are standing empty, some already looking somewhat derelict, and for some, church is no more….
2: Church is not an event
· For others, church is not so much about the place, but the event. I’m going to church means really, “I’m going to this event.” Church is all about attendance, about being there. It’s like going to a concert, or a wedding, or a conference. We want to attend this event, enjoy it, and leave on time feeling better about ourselves. As churches we take attendance at Sunday service and follow up with those who haven’t attended. We’ve planned our online services for the same time and asked you to “check in” which only serves to reinforce the mindset that church is an event.
· Online events, virtual concerts, Zoom wedding banquets where guests attend without ever leaving their own homes – just doesn’t quite fulfill the criteria of an event. Sitting in your lounge in your pajama’s viewing an online service isn’t quite like getting dressed up in your best Sunday clothes and going to a corporate worship event which is filled with a buzz and excitement and other people who are also in their Sunday best.
· Many were so excited about on-site services opening up, only to discover that without singing, and music teams and coffee and fellowship – church just wasn’t the same, it was more of an anti-climax than the climax of your week. For some, as a result of this pandemic, church is no more…
3: Church is not a series of programs
· For some church is not “the event” but a series of events, a series of programs and for them it’s all about involvement. Church is like going to a theme park where you have all these various activities and shows and fun rides to choose from. To maximize church you need to consider the programs that are being offered and choose those that best suite your family and your needs. My youth will enjoy the youth bonfire this month, and then our whole family will participate in the fun hike and my wife and I will attend the parenting course while our children are entertained and I’ll be a part of the music team because I enjoy music and improving my guitar skills. We map out our month of church activities around other calendar events and feel satisfied that we are getting the maximum bang for our buck… And the church measures its success according to the number and variety of programs it offers and the popularity of those programs. A good healthy church is very much like a well run theme park…
· But of course with this pandemic most of the programs have been stopped. We’ve tried our best to offer some online alternatives, but we just can’t fill people’s calendars with as many exciting options as before and for some, church is no more….
4: Church is not a social club
· For some church is not about the place or the event, or the programs per say, its all about the people. They look forward to getting together with their friends, talking about the latest news or sports, or their latest shopping spree. They want to have a good laugh, or a good cry and then have them over for lunch. Church is all about having good friends who care about you enough to know when not to interfere with your life and decisions. Church is all about knowing the right people, establishing the right networks, building healthy relationships, finding the right kinds of friends for my children. For these people, the more everyone else looks like me, the more easily I can relate to them, the more I feel relaxed and at home with these people and enjoy their company – the better church is.
· And now social gatherings are banned, lunches are illegal and a phone call just can’t sustain a relationship. We can’t get together and have fun like in any meaningful way – so for some church is no more…
5: Church is not a university
· For others it’s not about the place, or the event or even the people, its about what they learn. Church is really like an academic institution in which we are all students trying to master a grand subject and graduate with spiritual honours. Church is all about what books you’ve read, or sermons you’ve listened to, or bible study courses you’ve completed, or what doctrines you hold to. They delight in discussions about every facet of doctrine and the latest controversy that is sweeping the church globally. For these people a church’s health is seen in how comprehensive their doctrinal statement is and how knowledgeable their pastor and members are. Spirituality is measured by how many books you’ve read and sermons you’ve listened to in the last month.
· For some of these people, church has just been ramped up into high gear with all the extra time to spend on social media platforms and interacting on blogs and feeding on an endless diet of online resources. But if church were an academic institution than the Pharisees would have been the first and best members – but instead, for the most part Jesus chose uneducated fisherman to be his apostles.
6: Church is not a religious ritual
· For some, church is a religious ritual. It’s all about the right procedure, the right form, the right dress, the right religious ritual. It’s about my connection with the past and passing on our traditions to the next generation. As long as I go through the motions, I will have fulfilled my religious duty and gained God’s blessing. It’s all about having my children christened, my house anointed, my plans blessed, my name enrolled, my dead buried and my eternity secured because I’ve followed the right procedures. For these people, the health of the church is measured by how well it stays with its traditions, how well it performs its rituals. Don’t dare bring in new songs, or new music instruments or update the liturgy, or refuse to enroll my name on the membership list.
· But of course those rituals have all but ceased during this pandemic and for these people church is no more….
7: Church is not a miraculous experience
· For some church is a power encounter. It’s about summoning the power of God to deal with my problems, be they poverty, or demons, or ancestors, or sickness or relationships or some combination of these. I go to church to receive spiritual power, to have a personal encounter with the miraculous, to be healed or slain in the spirit, or receive a prophesy over my life. Church is measured by how clearly I had an inexplicable encounter with the supernatural and for many churches, its all about trying to get people to that place, that moment, that state where such an encounter with God can take place.
· But then along comes a pandemic that the so called man of God seems unable to deal with. And along with it a host of problems that can’t be easily brushed under the carpet or explained away. And its that much harder to get whipped up into a frenzy when you’re sitting alone in front of your computer screen. And suddenly God seems to be powerless, and the church irrelevant and for many church is no more…
8: Church is not a social welfare organization
· Others have just the opposite approach, church is not about dealing with my problems by harnessing supernatural divine power, but by getting practical, human help. Church is a welfare organization which is there to help me deal with life’s problems. It’s a place where I get counsel, receive support, collect financial grants and make important business connections. For some it’s about receiving that help, for others it’s an outlet to help others. They find significance in helping those less fortunate than themselves, less educated, or less wealthy, less skilled or less connected. For them it’s all about feeling needed and seeing how their gifts and resources can be used to benefit others.
· For some, this lockdown has made church seem that much more real, because the need for practical help is that much more acute. The fact that I am getting my monthly food parcel from the church or being able to pack food parcels for those in dire need – makes me feel much more a part of the church. This pandemic is in some ways making church everything it ought to be. For these people church is measured by the social impact that it is having on the community, how well we are caring for the orphan and the elderly and creating jobs and influencing government policy.
9: Church is not an institution
· For others church is all about historical affiliation. I’m a Baptist, or a Methodist, or a Zionist, or a Catholic. It’s about wearing the badge, having your name on the roster, being associated with and identifying with the organization. Church is my identity, it represents something of who I am and what I stand for. I pride myself in what is being done even if I have had nothing to do with is personally. The health of the church is measured in terms of its reputation.
· For most of these people church hasn’t changed much at all, because it was never primarily about the place, or the event, or the people, or the activities, or the experience – it was just about being identified with this particular body, or denomination, or movement. Certainly this pandemic is asking the question – is the church, as an institution, relevant to our society, is it beneficial or is it just an unnecessary risk? If the church as an institution becomes irrelevant to or society, then so does our affiliation and so for some, church is no more necessary than having a members card for an outdating and dying political party and church is no more….
10: Church is not an invisible mystical reality
· For some church is this invisible, mystical reality. They acknowledge the reality of the church and even the importance of the church. They see themselves as members of the church, but not members of any particular church, not actively involved in any particular community or activity. They will be involved in this Christian organization here, occasionally attend this church over there, get involved in this activity or ministry with this group for a while and then do their own thing for a while. Every believer is their brother, but no specific community of believers is their home. The proliferation of denominations and parachurch organizations has only served to reinforce the idea that the church is not a specific, local community.
· The sort of nebulous cyber-communities that are emerging all over the internet on various social media platforms lends itself to this view of the church. It’s global and expansive and all-embracing and easy to move in and out without any real commitment or accountability or identity with any specific group or church or community. It’s the appearance of community without the substance to make it reality…. God didn’t send us a mime of his Son via WhatApp….but Jesus took on flesh and blood and made his dwelling among us as Jn 1 puts it. Unless the church finds expression in some tangible, physical reality, some observable community, then the church never has been nor ever will be anything more than a virtual reality, a figment of our imagination, an ideological concept without real substance. For some church is no more because church has never been….
So I’ve spend nearly half this message talking about what church is not and by now you should be saying – if church is none of these things, then what is church? The truth is that church is none of these things and church is all of these things. There is an element of truth in all these views of church. You should have found your own view of the church tucked away in one of these views, at some point you should have found yourself saying, but hold on, I think that is pretty much how I have viewed church, isn’t that what you’ve told us church is in some other sermon?
There is a kernel of truth in all these concepts of church
· Paul could write to the church at Corinth (1 Cor 1:2), or the church in Priscilla’s house (Rom 16:1) identifying the church with a specific region or place where it regularly gathered.
· Hebrews can say, “Do not forsake gathering or assembling together, as is the habit of some.” (Heb 10:24-25) because church is an event, a gathering of God’s people to engage in certain activities together. Christians began calling Sunday’s the Lord’s day (Rev 1:10) because it was the day they gathered to celebrate the death and resurrection of Christ, the pinnacle and highlight of their week.
Turn in your bibles to Acts 2 for a moment because we get a picture there of the early church and the picture there includes many of these elements.
· Acts 2:41 says these who received the word were baptized and 3000 thousand souls were added to them. So the church was certainly about affiliation and belonging and baptism was the official ceremony that Christ had ordained for bringing believers into formal membership in the church. They clearly knew who was a part of their number and who wasn’t.
· Acts 2:42 tells us that believers “devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” The Greek has the definite article in front of each of these indicating that these were a series of events or programs or corporate activities that the believers engaged in together.
· It says, they devoted themselves to the Apostles teaching so teaching and learning was a central feature of church life and activity. In fact Paul could describe the church in 1 Tim 3:15 as the church of God, “The pillar and buttress of the truth” and he would go on to say to Timothy in 4:11 “command and teach these things.” Becsuse although the church is more than an academic institution, it is certainly a place of learning and study and growth in knowledge and truth.
· It says they were devoted to the breaking of bread and along with baptism this was one of the ordinances or rituals which was central to the churches activities.
· The next verse says, “And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles.” So the early church gatherings were characterize by the miraculous power of God being evident and it did produce a sense of awe and wonder which overflowed in praise to God. In 1 Cor 5:4 Paul said to the Corinthian church “When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh.” So he clearly understood the church to be an assembly, a gathering, an event where the power and presence of Jesus was manifestly present which is why it was a serious thing to be put out of this community and excluded from this gathering.
· In the next verse in Acts 2:44-45 it says “And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.” So certainly the church was characterized by its personal, practical care for its members. In fact 1 Jn 3:16 can say “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” The church exists to forster and promote the wellbeing of its members in every sense of the word, it is not something other than a welfare organization, but it certainly is something more than that.
· Acts 2:46 says “And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” The early church was all about the people and enjoying one another and helping one another in the Lord and they did, often have one another over for meals. That is certainly the picture we get from these verses and Paul could go on to describe the church as the household of God, with every member being an indespensible part of a unified body. He could say in 1 Cor 12:26-27 “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it”. So the early church was certainly about the people and growing together in the Lord.
So what am I saying really? Have I just succeeded in confusing you?...
What I’m saying is that church is none of these things but in some ways it’s all of these things, its all of these things and more. These wrong views of church are not so much wrong as inadequate and incomplete. They are not so much a wrong view as a wrong emphasis. When we come to think of church as only, or even mainly as an event, or as the people, or the programs, or the rituals or the practical help – our thinking has become skewed and our emphasis one sided. That is the great benefit of this pandemic – its turning our world upside down, its challenging some of the paradigms we have of the world and faith and the church and it should be causing us to think more clearly and more deeply, to become more aware of where our thinking has been skewed.
If we can’t all gather together in one building on a Sunday – has the Coronivirus succeeded in killing the church?... If church was all about that one gathering for us, then it might feel like it….
Yet the church in times of persecution and places of persecution has had to forego the privilege of all meeting together openly in established buildings at specified times. Some believers in certain countries have never enjoyed that privilege and yet the church there is more vibrant and healthy and thriving than in most open countries.
If church is about this one thing and this one thing is removed or made very difficult by government restrictions – then the church is in trouble. But if church is about all these things and more, then when God allows one element or activity to be removed for a time, He does so in order to build us in other areas.
If the church is a body and for a time one arm is lame and not usable – then certainly the church is not going to be functioning optimally – but its definitely not dead.
So this has been part 1 and I want to leave you hanging this week with that question – “What is the church?” I want you to think about what the church has meant to me, what wrongs views or wrong emphasis am I holding to. How has this pandemic challenged my view of the church and how is it affording me an opportunity to be church and do church better than I did before.
Next week I want to get behind these various elements and consider what the church is in essence. Not just what does the church do, but who are we. As a church, we do what we do because of who we are and I think it’s important that our view of church begins with our identity rather than our activity. Somehow all these various elements are brought together and held together by a right understanding of who or what the church is…and not what it is to us, but what it is to Christ.
So I leave you with this verse…in Matt 16:18 after Peter and the apostles had finally come to recognize that Jesus was God’s messiah, God’s savior for the world, Jesus responds to that realization with this statement. “Upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail upon it.” Upon this essential faith in Jesus as God’s messiah – Jesus will embark on a global, universal, eternally significant building project which will give all of human history its focal point and define its destination.
If you think that this pandemic has killed the church or done irreparable damage to the church. If you are tempted to think that the church has become irrelevant, or at least less relevant, if you are tempted to wonder whether the church has any real value or significance for you, whether its really worth trying to sort through all this confusion and overcome all these obstacles to find your place and purpose within the church – then the problem is that you are thinking too much about what the church means to you and not enough about what the church means to Christ.
If you can say the church is irrelevant, or impotent, or outdated or dead – then you are not just saying something about the church but about Jesus Christ. You are saying that the resurrected Lord of the universe embarked upon a misguided building project which He couldn’t complete. When you are saying the church is foolish, you are saying Jesus is a fool - because He paid the highest price to purchase the church with His own blood.
The error behind all these other wrong views of church is the mistake of thinking about the church with myself at the center rather than Jesus Christ. So until next week – go think about the church and what it means to you, but as you do – be sure to put Jesus in the place where you have stood.