One of the interesting things about my trip to my alma mater for homecoming was a chance to sit in chapel for a Bible conference session. It gave me a chance to reflect on some of the changes that have happened in my thinking since I graduated lo, these many years ago.
The speaker was talking about growing up in the church and his question of why we go to church. He had never received an adequate answer, so he began to search out reasons to go to church. His sermon was based on that research.
He presented a number of verses where Israel was reminded of the time that God met with them when they were "in assembly" at Sinai. He also showed where God met with the nation in a special way when they were "in assembly" at the Tabernacle or the Temple. My thought was that, since Christ is risen from the grave, we have the presence of God within us at all times and don't need to go to a special place to "meet" him.
He then moved to the New Testament, where he talked about how the Greek word "ecclesia", which is translated "church" in the English Bible, is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word for "assembly". He then continued to state that in the New Testament God worked in a special way through the assembly or church.
Fair enough. Where I found myself in the sharpest disagreement (and where my thinking has changed the most), is in the idea of what church is. I was taught that, while there was a "Universal Church" made up of all believers, the focus was on the local church and its programs. We were even taught to be somewhat wary of para-church organizations because they might siphon resources away from the local church. Discipleship essentially consisted of getting new converts involved in the life of the local church.
I no longer see "the church" as an organization that meets in a particular place at a particular time, and has a constitution, by-laws, etc. I believe that all followers of Jesus the Christ are the church. Now, I really don't have a whole lot against those who, as the church, decide to gather together in a particular place and time, with a constitution and by-laws. my problem is with the concept of "going to church", of thinking of the things we do and the structures we have put in place as church.
When we see going to a place on a Sunday morning and listening to a sermon, lecture, talk, whatever, as church; we have missed the idea of what church is. The church is the body of Christ. We are the ones who are to carry out the mission of God in this world. We are the ones who are to be making disciples of Jesus. We are the ones who are to be proclaiming that there is a King and a Kingdom, that Jesus Christ is reigning now and will come again to set all things right, and that he calls people repent and follow him. We can and should be doing those things independently of any organizational program or structure. We are not called to make church members, but disciples.
Now, before you accuse me of saying that we should all go out and do our own thing, let me state that I believe that Scripture teaches us that we are to assemble together as the church. But, the church is what is assembling together, not the place where we go. And, the church can assemble together in a variety of places at different times, whether in an auditorium on a Sunday, a home on a Saturday evening, a coffee shop through the week, or a pub. I don't believe that what most of us knew as "church" growing up is the only expression of the body of Christ assembling together.
I do believe that some things are essential for an assembly: the Word, fellowship, prayer, and the Lord's Supper. Beyond that it can be left up to the leading of the Holy Spirit. I also believe that the assembly is to be something that teaches us to follow Jesus in our day-to-day lives and that teaches and encourages us to go out and make disciples.
We miss the boat when we think of church as something we "go to" rather than something we are. Maybe this is why many churches are not growing, and many of the ones that are are drawing in those from other churches who are already Christians.
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