Church; what image does that word conjures up for you? Is it the steepled bell tower, pews and graveyard, or people, warmth and relationships? In this article we’re going to start thinking about a few things to do with church. What is it? What’s it for? Why do I need it? Who is to lead? And lastly what is my role in it?
What is church?
Church is NOT a building, when we drive or walk past a church building we are doing exactly that driving or walking past a church building. The Church is God’s people gathered together around his word united by their faith in Jesus . It is not exclusive to any denomination, country, size, shape, worship style or anything else.
The church is not a social construct, it is not a way of controlling the masses, or the result of someone’s eureka moment. The church is God’s idea, throughout the Bible God gathers people together from Adam and Eve, to Abraham, and Israel, and then we see Jesus gathering people around him. The church is both the result of the gathering around Jesus but also a picture pointing to the ultimate gathering around Jesus when he comes again.
What is the church for?
The church displays the power of the gospel to unite the divided, that’s what Paul tells the Ephesians as he talks about Jew and Gentile being reconciled and united in Jesus. In 3:10 he goes on to describe the church reconciled in Christ as God’s display of his wisdom to the universe.
Church is also designed by God to glorify him as it equips and trains us all in godliness so that we become mature believers who glorify God daily.
Why do I need it?
Hebrews warns believers who are beginning to become hard hearted not to leave the church, because we need church.
Church is the place we go to get equipped to live the Christian life, it is where teachers, evangelists and prophets train us and where we serve one another with the gifts God has given us .
The church is described using various analogies in the New Testament; it is like a body with different parts, like a barracks where we strap on our armour, like a building designed for glorifying God, or a family, among others. Each image captures something of the purpose and multifaceted splendour of God’s church.
We know in our heads that church isn’t a building, or a service, that it is people. We know that it is relational and yet we struggle with its relational nature, in reality being in church means being in gospel relationships with our church family. Too often we function as if it is the very things we have said it isn't; a building and a service, why? I think there are a number of things we subtly absorb from our culture that cause us to think wrongly about church:
1. Family - we live in an age when because of the astounding rate of family breakup we make family so precious that there can be no time for church family. We become so preoccupied with protecting our marriages, keeping our spouse happy, spending time with our children that we do not have a real relationship with the family of God - in which case we are not really in church though we may be 'in church' in terms of the building and services.
2. Fear - we are commitment-o-phobic and that's not just the malaise of twenty something men, it is something we see increasingly in the world around us full stop. If we have been hurt in the past we refuse to trust again so we keep people at a distance and forfeit the working of the gospel into our lives that they would have blessed us with, again, when we do so we are not in church.
3. Consumer Mentality - sadly it is not just businesses that carry out cost benefit analysis, increasingly it is the way people approach church, will it meet my needs, will it have the style of music I like, are there people like me, and so on... Rather than thinking where can I serve, how will this church enable me to work the gospel into the lives of others? When we treat church as another consumable we aren’t 'in church'.
4. Avoidance of challenge - our culture doesn’t like challenge, the idea of being confronted with something that is wrong. By contrast the Bible says that our church (the relational body of people) is given for our good to speak the truth in love to us. Now there is much that is done in the name of speaking the truth in love that to be blunt isn't, but that doesn't mean we ought to avoid genuinely speaking the truth in love when we find it. Having someone speak powerfully into your life to challenge you about sin or misunderstanding or to encourage you is a great gift of God when exercised in love . When this isn't happening we have to ask am I in church?
5. Electronic communication - we are surrounded by more modes of communication than ever, already today I've been emailed, messaged, tweeted, and texted. Yet the irony is that not one of those is real meaningful communication. They aren’t relational modes of communication. They are useful for conveying information but not building relationships, and as their use has increased so has loneliness, we long for real communication. Real communication involves a presence or at least a voice. I think electronic communication has caused us to lose some of our interpersonal skills. We don't know how to build friendships and communicate meaningfully, when we can't do that with our church family are we in church?
6. Apathy - Our cultures greatest legacy is apathy, passionate driven people stand out not because they are extra-ordinary but because laziness is the norm. We live in a generation that just doesn't care, or doesn't care enough. The danger is that this can infect the church so we go but don’t engage, we listen but don't hear, we never take time to work out the implications with others for our lives. And we need to be warned if apathy characterises our attitude to church then we have already started to drift from our faith, we are already not in church.
Church is given to arrest that drift.
Who is to lead it?
In the New Testament a pattern is established in church leadership. As Paul and Barnabas revisit churches they set up you see them appoint elders . This becomes the pattern – men of character and godliness who lead God’s people as they follow Jesus .
Alongside eldership you see the establishment of deacons and deaconesses. They are not the church handyman/woman rather they are to care for the congregation pastorally through practical ministry. What qualifies a deacon is also character as well as competence .
What is my role in it?
There are no spectators in church, because church is not a spectacle. The Bible has lots to say about what to do “in church”, but perhaps the most helpful is to see the relational reality it calls us to, we are to:
• Love one another
• Be devoted to one another in love
• Honour one another above yourselves
• Living in harmony with one another
• Accept one another
• Instruct one another
• Greet one another with a holy kiss
• Agree with one another
• Serve one another
• Carry each other's burdens
• Bear with one another in love
• Be kind to one another
• Forgiving each other
• Sing to one another
• Submit to one another
• Encourage one another
• Build one another up
• Live at peace with one another
• Consider how to spur one another on to love and good deeds
• Confess your sins to each other
• Pray for each other
• Offer hospitality to one another
• Clothe yourself with humility towards one another
Church is God’s creation as he gathers his people through his Son round his word to equip, comfort, train and work the gospel into one another’s lives for his glory.