The English language often leaves much to be desired when it comes to the ability to convey a thought. Take, for example, the word “love”. This word can be used to describe the deep feelings that one person has toward the person with whom they will spend the rest of their life, or it can be used to convey one’s feelings related to a cupcake. Obviously the “until death do us part” type of love should be much deeper and more lasting than the “I love this cupcake” kind of love, but the word used is the same. I have also found the weakness of the English language to be troubling as it relates to the word “church”. In Christian circles, the word is used interchangeably to describe a brick and mortar building used for gatherings, as well as the specific group that God will be returning for (see Ephesians 5). My desire for this post is to clarify my own personal use of the word church.
The brick and mortar building that we attend on Sunday has little to do with the church that is mentioned in the New Testament. First century Christians would be confused by our western European definition of church, especially if they attended one and observed us. For more on the Greek word that was translated “church”, click here. Originally, a church referred to the people who were called out, and responded, to the calling of God. It was not confined to one building, denomination, sect or creed of people. I believe that those “called out” people are the ones Jesus referred to as being indestructible, even when confronted by the gates of hell (see Matthew 16). That church is alive and well today. It just does not look like we would expect.
Earlier I stated that the brick and mortar building we attend on Sunday has little to do with the church that is mentioned in the New Testament. While I believe that statement to be true, I do not believe that statement should be used as an excuse for not gathering with other believers. Biblical church is not confined to one building, denomination, sect or creed but that does not mean that you will not find people who are called out and responding to God (thereby meeting the definition of Biblical church) in each of those categories. Believers are repeatedly directed to meet together for the purposes of encouraging one another. I believe God connects each of us with believers of like, precious faith for the express purpose of watching out for one another and encouraging one another. To neglect that would be terribly foolish and in direct opposition to Biblical directives.
Many, including myself, have taken issue with the western European version of church (5 songs, a prayer and a lecture) in the last few years. One in particular, Francis Chan, put it this way: “When I see what passes as church, and compare that to the Bible’s definition of church, it feels like I have walked into an ice skating rink and see people throwing fish at little hamsters as they run around. When I ask these people what they are doing, they look at me and reply, we are playing soccer. I don’t even know where to begin to explain to them that what they are doing is not soccer.”
Chan is not being nasty or accusatory, he is speaking from personal experience. In his BASIC series, Chan recalls a watershed moment when he realized that his church was missing the mark. A gang member had recently joined the church where Chan was the pastor. The man was baptized and after several months, stopped attending church. Chan tells of his disappointment as he found that the man had quit attending because he thought baptism was like being “jumped into” a gang. After being “jumped into” a gang you were part of a family and everyone took care of each other. The man stated that he was not aware that church was just a Sunday and Wednesday thing. It was then that Chan realized the world’s gangs were better at community and fellowship than his church was.
Obviously, Chan’s experience does not represent all church groups, but if we are honest with ourselves we have to admit that there are people in our communities that are overlooked. It is obvious, and somewhat glamorous, to care for large, catastrophic needs in a faith community, but the less popular, more consistent and nagging needs (lonely ex-gang members, elderly or poor) go unmet. The church that is described in the New Testament was directed by God and took care of every need. You did not simply get distracted or drawn away, because God directed your brother/sister to knock on your door and see what was wrong. They were known by their love for one another and they had ALL things in common. They preferred their brother over themselves. Can you imagine that? When they saw their brother’s need, they made concessions to their own comfort in order to meet that need. That is why Jesus was able to send his disciples out, in Matthew chapter 10, without financial resources and with instructions to accept the hospitality of the community of believers. Jesus trusted that his disciples would be taken care of, as they did what he instructed them to do.
The Sanders family has been humbled and privileged to be supported by God, through the Biblical church, over the last two years. None of these people (called out ones) attend the same brick and mortar building, they did not coordinate a fund raiser or campaign to support us. God called them, individually, from Colorado, Texas, Illinois, Florida, California, Tennessee, China, and Minnesota to support us. Amazingly, we did not even know most of these people before we started this adventure. We simply pray about our need and then wait. Without fail, an encouraging package will arrive from China or someone will contact and say God told them to give us a specific amount of money or a word that is exactly what we need in order to get through another day.
I compare this God directed outpouring of love and support to what I was as a brick and mortar church Christian and am disappointed in myself. Prior to this adventure, I was so busy making my own life that I could not be bothered to hear from God regarding care and support of others, unless they were right under my nose and in my face. Even then, I am ashamed at my lack of willingness to love and support those that God placed directly in my path. This is not an indictment against anyone other than myself. I was part of a brick and mortar church (that is a good thing!), but I was not part of THE church that can hear a brother’s need from the other side of the world.
I am calling all believers to join those that are taking a critical look at what we call church, and honestly compare that to Biblical church. If you do not find something that convicts you, no problem. I just ask that you pray for those of us who are convicted. If you do see gaps in what you call church and the Biblical example of church, the change starts with you. Ask God what needs to be done. Don’t be surprised when God does not give you a 5 point plan to share with your church leadership (for their sake, I hope you don’t do this…). He may, instead, methodically point out areas in your life where you have a shortfall (like he did to Francis Chan with the gang member). He has done that to me over the last two years and it has made me incredibly uncomfortable. It has also given me a desire, like never before, to be part of the Biblical church. A church that demonstrates the power of the Holy Spirit, love for all equally and the ability to positively influence the culture for Christ.