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What is church anyway?

“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 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. 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.”  Acts 2:42-47

(Note:  This is a rather long post, but I hope you will persevere and read the whole thing.  This is something God has placed on my heart.)

It was Sunday morning on Easter.  My wife and I were searching for a church we could attend, and that day we decided to visit one just down the road from where we lived.  We were tired of ‘church shopping’, and we really hoped this one would be exactly what we were looking for.  When we arrived, there were many cars in the parking lot.  People were coming and people were going.  We found out there were two services and we arrived just as the first was over.  We walked in and looked around.  Nice facilities, we thought.  Then we walked into the sanctuary and sat down near the front.  A man handed us a bulletin, and several others approached us, introduced themselves and told us we were in for a treat.  They absolutely loved the church, and they assured us we would too by the end of the service. As I sat there, I started to peruse the bulletin.  Much of it was about the many programs they had, something for all ages and interests.  There were several inserts of various colors.  I examined them all, trying to get an idea about the church.  When I got to the last insert, I turned it over and I finally found what I was looking for.  It was regarding a job/ministry opening they had.  The title said it all.  I cannot remember it exactly, but essentially, it was Stage Director.  The responsibilities were to ensure everything needed on stage was there, that all multi-media were ready, and everyone entered and exited the stage at the appropriate time.  I turned to my wife and said, “We are in for a performance,” and I was right.  The worship band sang several songs, but hardly anyone participated.  To them, they were watching a show.  Half the songs were not even worship songs, but focused on man rather than God.  After they were finished, several ‘comedy’ videos were shown and the whole church participated by laughing hysterically.   The message was rather shallow, and then, right on cue, it was time to get up and leave.

This was nothing more than a well-executed performance.  It is apparent they rehearsed, and whoever was the current stage manager did their job well.  Many churches follow a very similar pattern.   However, is this church?  Broadly defined, I would say yes.  It is a gathering of believers. It is a place where Christians come together.   However, is this what Christ had in mind when He instituted the Church?  I am going to step out on a limb and say, “I do not think so.”

Most churches today are not simply a gathering of believers, but a business.  The goal of any business is to increase its customer base by providing a variety of goods and services to satisfy them and keep them coming.  They will do what is necessary to ensure they meet this goal.  They will advertise, putting the word out regarding what they offer, and how what they provide it better than their competitor.  If something is not working, they will make the necessary changes in order to keep their customers happy and satisfied.  Does this sound like your church?  Many, if they care to admit it, would say it does.  What is the goal of many churches?  (Not what they say, but what they actually pursue)  For the most part, it is numbers.  How many people can they pack into their churches?  If they get too many, it is time for a building program.  And if you look at church growth strategies, it has little if anything to do with spiritual growth, but instead, focuses on physical growth; numbers.

In the first century, they did not worry about growing their churches, but saving the sinners.  The apostles witnessed to the lost, presenting the pure and unadulterated Word of God, and as a result, the Church grew.  However, it was not their goal.  In Acts, we read, “And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”  Acts 2:47.   The Lord adds to the Church, not us through grand programs and church growth schemes.  The Lord calls us to preach the gospel, presenting the truth, not to market and simply get members.  Unfortunately, this is what too many are concerned with.

Let us look at what the average church service is.  First, the scriptures do not speak of attending a service, but meeting together on a regular basis. I will speak on this later.  Here are the major parts found in most services:

  • Opening welcome
  • Praise and Worship
  • Announcements and Prayer
  • Passing of the offering plates
  • Sermon
  • Invitation for prayer and Salvation
  • Closing

This is the basic outline found in most church bulletins.  I am not saying this is wrong or heretical.  However, is this what Christ had in mind?  I would say, no.  Let us look at our opening verse.  The Lord never intended the church just to meet for services.  He called us to be the church.  He called us to love one another, meet each other’s needs, and show the world the love of God through our lives.  Most churches just provide glorified performances, where there are two types of people in attendance.  There are those who face the front of the church; and those who face the back of the church.  The ones who face the front are the spectators, those who listen to what is said by those who face the back.  Sometimes both groups participate together in singing and responsive readings.  However, most of the time one group listens while the other speaks.  I contend this is far from what Christ intended.  The church is to be a powerful force in this world.  We are all to minister to each other.  We are to exhort, encourage, challenge, admonish, and learn from each other.  We are to have intimate fellowship with each other.  We are to become equipped to reach the lost, going into the highways and byways, compelling them to come into the salvation Christ provided; to become a part of the Body of Christ.  This is much different from coming together to attend a service.  A service is something that people orchestrate for the benefit of those who attend.  We are not to orchestrate anything.  We are to listen to God and do what He says, period.  We are to be the church, for the purpose of discipling and ministry.  This means gathering together to meet the needs of the body, not just sit and watch a program.  Too many just watch and move on.  This is a shame, for God has much more for us.

However, many churches only attempt to charge the batteries of the people so they can make it through another week, or at least until the next service.  How sad!  If that is all people go to church for, then they are only tapping into the strength of the church and not the power of God Himself.  Look at those in history who lived their lives through the power of God:

  • The Jewish people in Israel around 170 BC who did not deny Jehovah during the persecution under Antiochus IV Epiphanes were forced to watch their children being slaughtered before their eyes, yet stood strong for God.
  • Peter and John, who stood up to the Sanhedrin and were flogged for it, yet they rejoiced that they were found worthy to suffer for Christ’s sake.
  • The Apostle Paul who was stoned and left for dead, rescued and then taken away by friends in the town, returned to the same town because his work was not completed there.
  • Polycarp, the first century saint who accepted martyrdom rather than denounce Christ and bow to Caesar.
  • The many Christians throughout history who suffered inhumane forms of torture and execution simply because they believed in Christ and His eternal sacrifice, and made Him Lord of there lives.
  • And the many Christians around the world today, such as Pastor Youcef in Iran, who face incredible persecution and coercion to deny Christ, yet stand firm and resolute.

There are many more examples, but this is not the focus of this post.  We should look, as examples of the strength we can receive from God, to these people.  In addition, it is available today, if we would only appropriate it. However, most churches do not teach this today.  Just sitting in a pew is not going to get it.  Just being a front facer listening to back facers will not lead to real power.  It will lead to dependence on a church and people.

So, now that I have said all this, what should church look like?  Let me preface this answer by stating this is not necessarily a right or wrong issue.  This is how I see church functioning as it did in the first century.  It is my belief that we need to go back to our roots, because back then, the church was much more powerful and influential than it is today, even amidst the Jewish and Roman persecutions.  God was using everyone in amazing ways, if not in preaching and teaching, then in service and hospitality, giving and encouragement.  Most of us are not under anywhere near the persecution today as they were back then.  So with this preface, let me explain what I believe the church ought to be.

First, church is not a building or location, but a people; mainly, the Body of Christ.  This is an important concept.  Technically, we do not go to church, we gather as the church. Therefore, where we meet is not important.  In fact, a place set aside for us to meet is a waste.  Many churches cannot adequately minister or provide care and needed assistance because they have money tied up in mortgages, insurance, utilities, inordinate salaries, programs, etc.  What with paid pastors, assistant pastors, music leaders, counselors, grounds keepers and janitors, plus a myriad other required outlays; it is surprising that any assistance takes place at all.  The early church met in houses or places that were not necessarily their own, but opened up to the church by members or possibly sympathizers.  Thus, very few resources were required except for taking care of those who headed the church.

Now this would require us to rethink our idea of church.  Smaller churches would allow more intimate fellowship and no one would get lost in the crowd.  In the first century, as mentioned earlier, people would meet in houses, and other venues, and then come together as the need arose.  Does this sound like care groups, or small groups within larger churches?  Yes, except without the large buildings and facilities which require so many resources for upkeep.  The needs of the community of believers should be our focus, and the offerings can go into the storehouse to meet the real needs of the church. The early church members also sold what they owned to help those who needed assistance.  (Remember, the church is the people.)

No bulletins needed.  The Holy Spirit will decide what will take place. For example, my wife and I had a care group at our home, which met every Friday for around six years.  We would study the scriptures book by book, verse by verse.  I would always have a lesson ready to go, but if we did not get to it, which occasionally happened, that was OK.  Sometimes, members would just need to talk, get some counsel, or there were needs that arose that prompted us just to pray.  We never knew until we got started.  It was a wonderfully loving environment, which allowed us all to grow tremendously.  I hardly ever lectured, but we discussed the scriptures as we came to them.  We always encouraged everyone to participate.  My job was to ensure we did not get off track or move toward heresy.  Sometimes we went through an entire chapter, sometimes an entire verse.  However, when we were done, we knew we had learned a lot, from each other.

Breaking bread.  During the entire meeting, food was available.  We normally waited to the end, but there were times when we would eat before. Everyone would bring something to share. It was a wonderful time of fellowship.  Some would bring their meals with them and eat beforehand.  Everyone felt comfortable around each other.  During the worship and discussions, everything was serious and reverent.  No improper discussions occurred because we did not want to offend God or each other.  One of the things that are missing in many churches is a high view of God.  This is the idea that we are to fear God and approach His throne with boldness, but humility and awe.  He is the all-powerful creator of all that exists.  We are creatures before an awesome and Holy God.  It is not appropriate to approach Him irreverently.  Yes, He loves us.  In addition, we are His children.  However, He is also our creator and is Holy.

How many times have you walked into a sanctuary and saw people standing around laughing and joking around rather than preparing to meet with and worship God?  For me, more times than I can count.  Moreover, I say with some shame, I have participated in this activity in the past.  We should enter into His presence, both in our private and public times, with prayer, praise and humility.  We should be talking about what God has done in our lives, glorifying Him in our discussions.  There is time for the other conversations, but not at that time.  We are preparing to go before the only eternal being, the all-powerful one who created all things.  Would we go before the Queen of England or the President of the United States in an unworthy manner?  Of course not, so why would we meet with God that way?

My view of church as it should be is as follows:

  • Small gatherings where intimate fellowship and real ministry can take place. The number is not important, but once intimacy becomes threatened or there are too many to truly discuss and minister to the needs of the body, then maybe there should be an amicable split.  But all churches should be linked to one another so that the whole body is one, and not just a set of small fellowships.
  • A church should only invest in that which is absolutely necessary.  They should not spend God’s money on frivolous items, simply because it is what other churches do.  Doing God’s work in reaching the lost and ministering to the body take priority; gadgets, trinkets, and marketing items are not what God intends.  In addition, the church should not go into debt.  If God wants us to have something, He will provide.  We should not use man’s ways to attain anything.  Remember Ishmael and Isaac.
  • The Holy Spirit should be in total control.  The clock should never be a factor, nor should the bulletin trump what God is doing.  The leaders should be in prayer that God will have His way, and that they will be aware of what He is doing, and go along with it.
  • The leadership in the church should lead the congregation into a high view of God.  We should be in awe of being in His presence.  There should be a reverence for being in the house of God.  That is not to say we cannot fellowship and enjoys each other’s company, however, the way we approach God should be boldly, but in humility, thankfulness, and the understanding of our position before Almighty God.
  • The teaching should be more interactive, rather than lecture style. Questions should be accepted, because the reason for the teaching is to disciple and train the body, not to give the teacher an opportunity to show his knowledge and skill.  However, questions should be serious and thoughtful, not silly and disruptive.
  • The church should rely on the power of God and not on the business model.  God is the one who adds to the church, not man.  If the church does what God has commanded, He will bless the church with success in reaching the lost.  In addition, sometimes God tells us to do the impossible, so that we must trust Him to bring it to pass.  The church must not try in their own strength, but in God’s.

The church today is not being what God intends, but is lacking the power because we have made the church a business rather than the Body of Christ.  We must go back to the model of the first century, one where the church was powerful and a force for amazing good.  Many churches are simply going through the motions.  However, this will require us looking at the church differently, which focuses on reaching the lost, and ministering to the body, rather than adding numbers.  The focus of our messages should be God, what He has done, what He is doing, and what He will do.  We should encourage the body to look to God for our needs, and be content in whatever situation we find ourselves.  We should strive for holiness, rather than on deliverance.  The early church prayed for the grace to endure, and the strength to do His will, and this is what we should be doing.  Let us look at what we are doing, and strive to move away from the entertainment or powerless church and become what Christ has always intended, a light in the darkness and salt in the midst of blandness.

Categories: Culture
  1. March 18th, 2012 at 03:43 | #1

    Hi , I just love the whole issue about what is the church and how the congregation should look like, our modern gatherings (church) have lost the plot, I pray that some day people will see and they will follow the Spirit of God to direct them rather than the set programs and the behaviour of the denominations. God bless your household and continue saving God. http://www.churchbooklive.com

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