Being the Church

“Go Be the Church”

I saw that on Instagram on a friend’s shirt. Before I start, let me give the quick caveat that I know what they mean and what they’re going for. And for the most part, I dig it. So kudos to my friend and his church for wanting to live out the realities of the redeemed life as a real thing and stop treating church like a place.

Having said that…

I wonder if this “being” language just adds a layer of confusion to a term that’s already pretty jacked up.

The word translated in most New Testament versions as “church” is the Greek word ekklesia. Now some who know more about Greek might want to try and parse the word ekklesia into its components: ek– as “out” and –klesia as a derivative of “called ones”, leading to the say that the church is the “called out ones”. In the first place, breaking a word into its component parts just doesn’t always work: just try it with “butterfly” …

But secondly, this approach ignores the way the word is used in New Testament times. When we look at first century usage broadly and the core usage of the term ekklesia in the NT, ekklesia generally just means assembly or gathering. There are usages that show how the apostles took the term and began to use it as a way to refer to all those who have been redeemed by the blood of Jesus, regardless of whether they can actually physically gather or not. But even then, I think the term points forward to the future reality of the whole church gathered before the throne and crying out, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain!” Regardless, the most common usage for ekklesia is the gathering.

Which is to say that “church” is an ordinary word for people who get together for a purpose.

We, as individuals, are part of that church. We’re either part of the church which Christ “loved…and gave himself up for her (it)” (Eph 5:25) or we’re part of the church that meets somewhere, like at Priscilla and Aquila’s house (Rom 16:4-5) or at Nympha’s house (Col 4:15) or Apphia and Archippus’ house (Philemon 2). In the first case, you’re part of the church if Jesus died for you. To say it differently, if you believe in Jesus, you’re part of the church (universal, if you prefer) whether you really know it or want it or whatever. It doesn’t matter how you feel about it or what you do: you are part of the church because Jesus bought you by his blood. In the second case, you’re part of the church if you do what the church, by definition, does: you gather with them (the local church, in some traditions).

In either case, I don’t think that’s what “go be the church” was intended when it was printed on a t-shirt. And yes, I know this is largely a game of semantics—and I really despise the whole semantics game. But what concerns me is that in calling a building a “church” and saying things like “it’s time to go to church”, we’ve completely killed the NT usage of the word. But in an effort to recover the term and make better use of it, we make it mean something else which also isn’t what the NT meant and still end up killing the term. How can you “be” an assembly of people?

Either way, we’re missing the what the apostles meant when they used the word ekklesia (or “church”). We keep warping the word so that when we go back to read our source documents in the Scriptures, we still keep reading the term and making it into something else entirely. In the larger sense of the word, you are part of the church because Jesus has you and no one can snatch you from his hand. In the narrower sense, you’re part of the church through gathering.

Where this long line of reasoning leads me to is a conclusion I really never thought I’d come to since abandoning the institutionalized, Americanized, popularized church: gathering is of vital importance. And at the core, it’s what bothers me about this “go be the church” business. Because I presume the meaning there is that we should go out and be lights to the community, that we should show the love of Jesus everywhere, that we should find avenues of fellowship outside of scheduled gathering times. And all of these things are so true—we should be compelled by the love of Christ to do these things.

But they are not remotely the same thing as “being” the church. If we want to “be” the church, we have to gather. Because church = gathering. Being active in our neighborhoods and circles, serving others and being a light is just being a disciple. Being a church requires gathering together.

The implications of this are more than just “go to church every week” (though there’s a whole list of implications of that phrase, too!) nor does it have anything to do with (corporate) worship. I’m really trying to get at how modern usage of “church” is something we read backwards into the New Testament all the time. And our modern translations don’t help much either. The church is not a building or a state of being, but actual souls redeemed and joined together by the blood of Jesus. The church is a community, a family, that exists in unity through Jesus. And there is a vital, physical connection that can’t be ignored.

Waiting for the Flip

As seems to happen a lot, Seth Godin got my brain juices pumping with a post about the way people flip from one way of doing things to another. In particular, he’s talking about how resistant we are as humans to better knowledge or technology or solutions, even in the face of evidence that refutes our prevailing view.

At this point, I feel like I’m somewhere around eight years into waiting for that flip to occur with the church. I’ve been trying to illustrate and teach and demonstrate that the church of Jesus is supposed to be something both far more profound and far simpler than what goes along with the term “church” in America: buildings and paid pastors and staff and screens and bands and worship wars and big budgets and overhead and bureaucracy and merchandising and marketing.

The church is the bride for whom Christ died. And that ought to be powerful enough that we don’t need to add to it. The church is the assembled saints who belong to King Jesus, both now and throughout all time.

Yet there’s been a strong tradition of architecture and budgets and business-y elements that really have no place in Scripture. And while they don’t need to be bad things (there are lots of things in the modern world that we use and adopt freely that the Bible says nothing directly about), they frequently turn the church into some grotesque caricature of what Jesus intends for it to be.

Whether that persuades or not isn’t really my point (I’ve written about this kind of stuff elsewhere anyhoos). I’m still convinced that this message is right. Yet I feel so isolated waiting for the flip to happen, for others to see what I’m talking about. And I feel desperate for it. Why?

Because it makes me feel like I’m either crazy or wrong.

If I’m wrong, then I simply want to be shown from the Scriptures and I’ll move on. Show me how I’m off my rocker and bring me back onto the reservation.

So far, it hasn’t happened.

Yet, I’m also not making much progress toward the flip. I’m loving me some Francis Chan for popularly putting into words some of these same struggles (though, granted, I’ve never made any substantial money from books or had a successful megachurch under my belt!). Even with all the platform he has, it still doesn’t feel like we’re getting anywhere. And this is a flip I banked my whole family on, moving us into a new city with grand plans for changing the face of Christianity in America.

Not that I would’ve ever said that out loud, but that’s really the crux of it.

So here I am, waiting. And wondering if maybe I’m just wrong, if I’m looking for a flip that’ll never come. And sometimes I just want to quit–even if I am right!–because this waiting feels too hard and the goals which were once crunchy like Frosted Flakes are now soggy in the bottom of the cereal bowl.

I believe the flip needs to happen. Some days I believe it will. I’m just not sure I’m strong enough to wait it out.

(And yes, I fully acknowledge that God regularly had his people wait much longer than that to bring about deliverance or put a plan in motion. I know I’m being dumb and dramatic–I’m just trying to do it openly.)

Cultural Habits of Worship

In spending a great deal of time trying to unpack a theology of worship for New Covenant believers, one thing that’s lacking is a strong biblical argument for the worship service. (This from the guy who has been a worship leader/pastor more than once, so I’m making this argument from the inside, not the fringes.) The fact is that worship services are simply a given. “Of course, the church comes together to worship.” Of course? “Clearly the church is a worshiping community.” Clearly? “The new covenant community gathers for one purpose: to worship.” Really?

When something is so ingrained, so assumed, so automatic, we don’t realize there’s something we need to work around. There’s nothing to change or so we think, because it’s never occurred to us to question it.

I’m a trained classical singer. While the vocal cords and resonance chambers are the instrument of the singer, an easily overlooked aspect of singing is the fuel behind the cords and chambers: air. As I watch my wife teach voice lessons in our living room, one of the most basic things she does with new students is teach them how to breathe.

Now, that seems silly, doesn’t it? Don’t we already know how to breathe? Isn’t it an autonomic process of the body? It certainly is. And easily ignorable. Unless we get choked or run a marathon, we rarely give a bit of thought to breathing. It’s just what we do. And most young or inexperienced singers think about the sound they hear or the pitches or the timbre of their voices but completely ignore a core component of any sound-making device: something has to cause sound waves to vibrate.

So my wife teaches new singers to breathe. And I think they all kind of think she’s crazy. Why are we talking about breathing? I’m here to sing. “But,” my wife says, “you sing by using air and you’re singing like you’re a car running on fumes. Your car works best with a full tank of high quality gasoline. Your voice is like that car and your breathing provides the fuel.” And finally, they start to believe her.

But even then, the change isn’t instantaneous. Over and over and over again, she has to remind, “Full, deep breath” or “use your air” or “keep your rib cage expanded so that your lungs can take in even more air”. The reminders are constant, because even though the singers have been taught and even convinced, they still forget over and over and over again.

So it is with church services and worship services and worship in the church. We take it for granted. It’s like breathing. Of course we worship on Sundays. What’s there even to talk about? So like the inexperienced singer, breathing is just something they never think about because why would they? And for most believers, who would even ask the question? There’s no reason to.

But say a believer gets a good solid teaching on John 4 or Romans 12 (something I’ll expand on later), does that mean they immediately make the connections and worship takes on new meaning? Again, like the singers, the old habits slip back so easily. Old habits die hard. And we have not only experiential barriers to overcome (because even nonbelievers know that churches are buildings that have services on Sundays), but we have generational and cultural barriers to overcome. Imagine trying to convince America to drive on the left side of the road. Or– heh–how about getting America to adopt the metric system instead of the imperial system?

When our culture and our personal history have written such a strong-storied habit, there’s a lot to overcome. But being people of the Word, cultural habits and traditions aren’t our standard. I think there’s more to see of what the New Testament in particular shows us about the transformation of worship than we’ve really pieced together with our practice. It’s time to see our theology really drive our practice here, because we’ve let the habits run the show for a very long time–old habits that die hard indeed.

A Body-Less Christian

A brother sent me an article that came out in 2013 by Kevin DeYoung and Jason Helopoulos trying to answer the question “Does the Bible Require Christians to Attend Church?” This brother asked my opinion on the article, so after my eye twitch from reading the title went away, I came up with this:

One of the points of contention that I have with standard thought on church (attendance) compared to how the NT talks about the church is this: standard thinking centers the gathering around (corporate) worship where the NT centers the gathering around mutuality and edification. This article, strangely enough, seemed to both nail the nature of the church and completely miss it, all at the same time. On the whole, the gross overemphasis on corporate worship as the primary mark of the church makes their attempts to “unpack some of the most common objections”  hollow. And since this was the main thrust of their article, I don’t really think they at all answered the question in the article’s title.

Having said that, Stott’s statement at the beginning is spot-on and I couldn’t agree more. There is no such thing as an “unchurched Christian”. DeYoung and Helopoulos get closest to this when arguing that the body metaphor requires that each part of the body needs the other parts to function. That’s impossible to do flying solo or floating around or listening to podcasts or reading great books by ginormous-church pastors.

Furthermore, the word for church (“ekklesia”) specifically means gathering or assembly. While I wouldn’t want to deny that Jesus and the apostles could divest new meaning in the term, we can’t ignore that “church” (better translated “assembly” or “gathering”) is by nature a gathered group of people—without detailing how often or in what contexts or what exactly needs to happen when together. And if assembly is tied up with what it means to be the church, then it has to be a definable set of people, not just generic fellowship with any Christian at any time. This is more obvious when you think about the fact that the one anothers fall apart without some context in which those one anothers can occur. For instance, how can we bear one another’s burdens without some grasp of who these others are that we’re bearing burdens together with? The NT envisions a rather defined group of people with whom we share burdens and confess sins and encourage one another.

Church “discipline” probably gets the closest to helping us see how important this defined group of people is. How can “the majority” cast out anyone without having an idea of who the group is to start with (cf. 2 Cor 2:6)? How can you take it to “the church” if the church isn’t a defined group of people? Should every discipline case be emailed to every Christian in the world so that “the church” can cast him out?

This is all just to say that I agree with the main thrust of the article, though I think they take all the wrong roads to get to the kinda-right conclusion. Because a Jesus-follower isn’t one alone—he’s part of the body with his own role to perform. The Spirit gives gifts to be used for the good of that body. Shoot, most of the New Testament was written to individual churches with instructions on how to relate to one another, a fact that’s impossible to do apart from—you guessed it—the church.

The only exception, scripturally speaking, where people aren’t tied to a particular body of believers are those who have been commissioned by the church as evangelists, missionaries, and/or apostles. Those gifts by their nature exist outside a defined “church”, but each have the goal of seeing distinct churches built through the gospel. So even then, they’re always tied to the church(es) they’re ministering to while with them. Those gifts by nature work that way as the God-appointed means of making more churches. Unless specifically sent out by a church to do the work of an evangelist/missionary/apostle, every Christian—by nature of belonging to Jesus—will be part of a defined assembling/family of Christians (a.k.a. church). How or when they gather and what they do when they gather are beside the point.

Even with Our Kids

One of the banners I’ve been touting for a long, long time now on my journey toward home-based churches is that ministry is mutual. I tire of the traditional church model that basically says you only do diligent ministry if you get paid for it. Otherwise, you attend a class or bring candy to the trunk-or-treat or coach some Upward basketball, and you’re good to go! Otherwise, let the paid guy do the work you (the customer!) paid for!

No, ministry is one to another. Serving one another, doing good to one another, caring for one another, bearing one another’s burdens.

But it turns out (as usual) I didn’t press that far enough, didn’t see that the “one anothers” stretch even farther than I had imagined. Today, my wife went to Facebook to confess her sins to others, to be an open book to a world that tries to hide anything unsavory. She posted, “This mama just finished a bratty tantrum by literally screaming at my kids for their noise level (oh the irony is not lost on me). I went to my room to breathe and cool down. When I came out a few minutes later, [one of my daughters] was finishing putting the three little ones down for nap. I want to be like my kids when I grow up, ready to serve quickly even when things aren’t going well, loving even the one who was just unkind to me.”

Slam. My wife is so much more open than I am and sees so much more clearly her sins and her savior. I love her for that.

So, I’m all slammed because I rail at the kids all the time, they’re so undeservedly loving toward this daddy, so quick to forgive me in those rare times I do ask their forgiveness. I’m already ripped raw when our dear friend Carrie Quillo chimes in with this encouragement (among the many other ladies who spoke encouragement) in the comments: “I pray that you will see that the Holy Spirit is making you like that. You saw your sin, you saw [your daughter’s] love and God used it to turn your heart back to love and service to your kiddos. Ministry is mutual even with our kids.”

Even with these little people who disobey me all the time, who rebel, who fight with each other, who test limits all the time, who have so, so, so, so, so much they need to learn from me, their wise and discerning father?

Obviously, I still don’t believe my own manifesto. Parent to kid is a one-way relationship, right?

“Ministry is mutual even with our kids.” Amen, sister.

Form and Function

The architectural principle that form follows function (despite all the rhetoric about how it’s not really true, especially in an increasingly shrinking digital world) is a truism for a reason. Doors are just tall enough to go over the heads of 90% of the population because that’s their function. Bucket seats are shaped in that form because their function is to hold our bums. Earbuds have that form so that they can be used functionally in our ears.

Form ever follows function. And this is true even when the form can have all kinds of varieties and beauties within its function.

Stalwart traditionalism, on the other hand, is all about function following form. Sending paper invitations to a wedding when evites are faster and cheaper. Wearing a watch when you carry a more accurate time-keeping device in your pocket at all times. Preaching on a podium at the front of a room even though with amplification and wireless technology the speaker can stand (or sit!) anywhere.

We forget culturally and generationally that there was a reason for starting certain traditions. And there can also be good reasons for ending them.

There’s no need to change something just for the heck of changing it. But there’s plenty out there where the form has lasted longer than the function, especially in the church.

And I, for one, want to figure out what those are.