Just over a year ago I wrote a post entitled, 'What is church anyway?' - in part discussing Jake Colsen's fictional book about the church, and in part my own thoughts.
These thoughts have been ongoing, off and on, and recently resurfaced on reading 'Church that Works' by James Oliver and David Thwaites (reviewed here on my books blog). This book suggests that our entire modern understanding of the church is wrong - it was never what Jesus intended, and is largely ineffective in reaching anybody. Church leaders seem to spend considerable amounts of time trying to make their services and programmes relevant to today's youth, or parents, or retired folk - depending on where they are - but, on the whole, with little success.
Oh, there are mega-churches in the USA and even bigger ones (giga-churches?) in parts of Africa. But do they meet people's needs? Do they draw in the lost, the needy, the dirty and ragged... or do they draw in the respectable folk in their Sunday best? We may be good at welcoming people of all races and cultures, and encouraging those who are seeking God. But what about the folk who come in their scruffy jeans, who haven't had a shower for a few days, and have alcohol on their breath?
Moveover, what are we doing about the vast majority of people in the West who simply wouldn't darken the doors of a church building (except, perhaps, at Christmas and Easter)? We might give out tracts, invite them to Alpha courses, tell them about guest services... and yes, a few will respond. But it's all so impersonal, these days, so structured, so separatist. We feel pleased with ourselves if the Baptists and the Methodists have a joint service once a year... but we still tend to feel our own particular brand of doctrine is really 'better'. Is this really 'church'?
What was meant by 'church' in the New Testament? The word translated as 'church' is the Greek ekklesia (εκκλεσια) which literally means '(those who are) called out'. In Ancient Greece it was a secular term referring to an assembly of officials, but in the Old Testament the equivalent word referred to all the people of Israel who were called by God. There are many web-sites attempting to determine exactly what Jesus meant when he first used the word (in Matthew's Gospel) - see for instance 'Christ's Ekklesia and the Church compared' or ' What is Church?' or 'The Church is not in God's plan' - all worth reading if you want word studies, and some varying interpretations.
What just about everyone agrees on, however, is that the modern word 'church' is an inaccurate translation of the Greek. Neither Jesus nor the Apostles ever intended the kind of churches we have today: sanitised, highly organised and totally respectable. I doubt if they ever imagined that people would drive miles to get together with other people who happen to believe the same minor doctrinal isues as they do, but would refuse to be friendly with their Anglican/Presbyterian/charismatic next-door neighbour.
I don't think we can necessarily determine exactly what Jesus and Paul meant by the word ' ekklesia'. But we can certainly look at the kinds of groups Paul was writing to. He mostly addressed the 'ekklesia' in a town. Or perhaps the 'ekklesias' in a province. But he was pretty annoyed with the folk who tried to be divisive - see I Corinthians 1:10-13. If he were writing today, perhaps he would say something like:
" 'One of you says, 'I'm a Lutheran; another, 'I'm a Calvinist; another, 'I'm a charismatic'; still another, 'I follow Christ'.... "
Christ is not divided, Paul reminds us. The wisdom of the world (with its structures and programmes and campaigns...) is foolishness. All that matters is Christ crucified. We ARE the ekklesia - the 'church' if you want to use that word. I belong to the ekklesia - the body of believers - in the town I live in. I am a member of it because I'm part of Christ's Body worldwide - not because I've signed any doctrinal statement, or affiliated myself with any particular subset of the body.
Moreover, the people Paul was writing to didn't have access to fast transport. When they gathered (perhaps to hear one of Paul's letters, or to pray together) it was in people's houses, generally. Each person would naturally have gone to whichever house happened to be the closest. We read in Acts that the believers shared their possessions, and ate together; this couldn't have happened if people wanted to go half-way across the town to find another body of believers who they felt were more 'sound' than the ones in their neighbourhood.
Of course it's important to meet with other believers. But we're social folk; most of us do that anyway. The book I was reading points out that we're told by Jesus to be salt and light in the world. Can we really be salt and light if we only meet socially with people who share our personal views? Spending our evenings and weekends in church buildings, church programmes and church meetings is surely a good example of hiding our light under a bushel. Instead we're supposed to be where people can see us - and that, for most of us, means in the workplace, or the home, or the school, or wherever we happen to be.
Jesus also told us that any time two or three people gather in his name, he's there with them. He didn't specify a time, or a place, or even a reason for meeting. Just that he's there, alongside any group of his people who get together, for whatever reason.
What about those Sunday morning services that so many people see as central to the 'church'? Many people enjoy them, or find them helpful; they worship God freely and learn more of him through the teaching. That's fine. But it shouldn't be expected of us to meet regularly every Sunday in the same place. It should just be one (optional) part of our life as believers. And we absolutely shouldn't believe that 'our' particular favourite style of Sunday service is in some way superior to someone else's.
We're all fallible people doing what we believe to be right - most of the time, anyway. We have different tastes in music, different attitudes to informality, different ways of learning. Not everyone is an auditory learner. Those that do learn primarily through hearing may well find a forty-minute sermon to be powerful and positive. But probably at least two-thirds of the congregation (who are not auditory learners) will have switched off after the first ten minutes. At most. Yes, the visual learners can be helped by powerpoint presentations or visual aids, but what of the kinaesthetic learners? How are they helped? Or are they made to feel inferior because they would rather be doing something active than sitting still listening to a talk?
If we ARE the ekklesia, the word translated as 'church' over 100 times in the New Testament, the concept of 'going to church' makes no sense at all. The ekklesia has a gathering any time two or three believers in Jesus get together, whether they're praying, studying the Bible, drinking coffee or playing Scrabble. The ekklesia gathers when Christian co-workers (of whatever denominational background) stand up together for Godly principles in the workplace: honesty, integrity, gentleness, love. The ekklesia gathers when two Christian families have a day out together and share a picnic.
How did Jesus say people would know we are his disciples? By the love we have for one another. Not by our moral behaviour, not by the size of our church building, not by the programmes we have to 'reach out' into the community.
Sadly, what people outside Christ's body often observe is Christians who can't get along with each other, Sunday services that seem irrelevant and boring, and very little in the church that has any relevance to their daily lives. We've somehow separated the sacred from the secular in a way that mirrors Greek thinking, but was completely alien to the Jews (including Jesus and Paul) who lived a much more holistic lifestyle.
At the end of his letter to the Thessalonians, Paul instructs us to be joyful ALWAYS, pray CONTINUALLY, give thanks in ALL circumstances. Not just at our Sunday services and week-day housegroups and prayer meetings. We need to see God in our places of work and leisure, to show our colleagues and neighbours that he's relevant all the time - they don't need to adopt a completely different lifestyle to follow him. (Of course, Jesus may well convict them of things that need to be changed after they've met him... but that part is really none of our business, unless we're consulted about it).
A year ago, when I read Jake Colsen's book, our family were finding 'the church' a bit stressful. My husband had stopped going to the congregation we had been a regular part of for some years, for various reasons, and was going - about once a month - to the local charismatic congregation. I didn't feel comfortable there at all, however, and felt I wanted to stay in touch with the people at the congregation we had been part of, also for various reasons. Our 18-year-old son had moved to the local Anglican congregation a year or so before that, believing it right, but not entirely sure why. He wasn't entirely happy either, with a succession of interim ministers during an inter-regnum and a lot of discontent generally.
Now, a year later, we have settled into more of a routine. About two or three Sundays per month, I go at 9am to the congregation we all used to be part of (although we never took out formal membership, feeling unhappy about the concept). I've given up most of my commitments there, though I still occasionally help out in the under-six Sunday School. Our son goes at 9.30 to the Anglican congregation, where he is now the organist/pianist, and on several committees; he is much appreciated by the mostly elderly people who also attend regularly. Then my husband attends the charismatic congregation (where his work colleagues and sailing friends also go) at 10am - a much better time from his perspective as he is NOT an early-bird.
We're all part of the ekklesia in our town. We take part in inter-church activities, and we host a house-group (mostly from the congregation I usually worship with) on a Friday evening, which has a meal together, prays about personal concerns, and then does a low-key interactive style Bible study. It's unusual, but it's what seems to be right at the moment. Some Sundays my husband sleeps instead of going anywhere, and some Sundays I go along to the Anglican congregation instead. Occasionally I visit the charismatic congregation with my husband. The most important thing is to love one another as believers in the town, and to be witnesses - in whatever way we can - in the world.