Church is not for Saints
Last week I attended a gathering titled "The Dare Effect" with guest speaker Dilly's Brooks. This blog series are my thoughts on some of the conversations we engaged in.
How can we create a sense of connectedness within a church and between a church and its community? This was one of the main questions we grappled with during night 2 of #theDareEffect. One of the main stumbling blocks for many believers is that we have come to see ourselves as insiders to a certain club and everyone else as outsiders. While it is true that there are lost and saved, the idea that there are the insiders and outsiders does not follow. The tragedy is that for many being an "insider" leads them to see church as a place that exists solely or primarily for those with the "insider" card. Any talk of making the church relevant for "outsiders" is interpreted as a threat to Biblical faithfulness and orthodoxy.
In this mindset the church is an institution or a club where only a certain class are welcome. This picture of church is exclusive. So long as you fit the role perhaps you will be embraced. But if you don't fit the role, then your chances are better off elsewhere. In the best of cases, if you don't fit the role then so long as you make all the necessary changes to fit the role you can be allowed into the club. Unbiblical as this concept may be it is an accurate picture of what church has become for many. Over the centuries Christians have transformed the church into a citadel for saints. As such, we have become defensive about anything that appears to threaten the sanctity of this most sacred of places.
The Bible leaves little room to argue about what the church is. The Greek word church (ecclessia) literally means "community" or "group of people". Not once in the NT do we get the impression that church is meant to be an exclusive club that exists for the benefit of those who fit a certain criteria. Instead, the church is commanded to grow and embrace people of every nation, tribe, tongue, and culture (Matt 28). As such, this community of people exists for more than nurturing itself. It exists to embrace the "other" with intentional passion.
Likewise, not once in the NT do we get the idea that the church is a building. The NT uses repeated metaphors of the church such as "body of Christ", "bride of Christ", "pillar and foundation of truth". Only once is it described as a building and guess what? The stones that make up the building are people not slabs of carbon carbonate and granite (Eph 2:19-20). So this is not a literal building but a metaphorical one. Thus the church is not a place, it is a phenomenon. It is a people. And take a moment to think about that phrase "body of Christ". Why is the church referred to as the body of Christ? Well, what is the body of Christ known for in the Bible? It is known as that which was beaten, bruised, tortured, scourged, crucified, and killed for the salvation of humanity (1Corinthians 11:24). So if the church is the "body of Christ" I wonder, Should we be seeking to simply nurture ourselves? Or should we be seeking to become bruised and wounded for the salvation of our communities? Hmm.
So if the church is not a fortress for saints or a physical building, then what is it? Clearly it must be a community for people on a journey with God. And note this: When it comes to seeking God we are all outsiders. None of us is on the inside. That's because none of us seek God (Rom 3:11). We are believers only because God has sought us (John 6:44). If there really is an "inside" you are there by virtue of Jesus' perfect life, death, and resurrection - not by virtue of your own character. In other words, I - a pastor - am as much an outsider to the family of heaven as is the militant atheist or the heroin supplier. The only reason why I am on the "inside" is because I have responded to the grace of God. But if it were not for that grace, I would be further on the outside than anyone I know.
So back to our initial question: "How can we create a sense of connectedness within a church and between a church and its community?" I would begin by rejecting the notion that there are insiders and outsiders. Sure there are saints and sinners. Found and lost. Redeemed and rebels. But there are no insiders and outsiders in the sense in which we use those terms. In reality, we are all outsiders. And those of us who are saved are saved simply because we responded when God sought us and pulled us out of our mess. However, if it were not for his atoning sacrifice we would have nothing within ourselves which we could offer as a qualification for heaven. It is Jesus-only that qualifies us and in the words of the great Billy Graham, "Christ belongs to all people. He belongs to the whole world."
And this is what the mission of the ecclessia is all about. God calls his family - those of us who have been adopted by his grace - to become his hands and feet toward those whom he is still chasing. To be the community for those whom he is seeking. To be the church for those whom he is pursuing. So if we want to hold on to the "insider/ outsider" concept I would argue that the church exists for the outsider. In other words, the church should not function merely for the nurturing of Christians. Instead, it should seek out every possible means by which it can make the journey of a seeker as simple and encouraging as always. Surrendering the heart to Jesus is hard enough. We should not make the journey harder by creating a culture that only speaks to mature Christians. Instead, church should be a community that exists to aid in the repentant journey of the sinner rather than over-complicate it by catering only to those with the access card. As Paul so eloquently put it, "[W]e should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God" (Acts 15:19).
Nevertheless, there are still people within this community at different stages in their faith journey. How do we help those who are further along without ignoring those who are just getting started?
First of, I would say that the greatest need of those who are further along is to be actively ministering to those who are lost. If you want to grow as a Christian go reach someone who is not a Christian. Sadly, many of us (myself included) have developed this cognitive approach to Christianity in which spiritual growth is related exclusively to theological knowledge. But such is not the case. You can be a knowledgeable Christian but that doesn't make you a growing Christian - it just makes you a smart one.* So if you are a believer and you want to grow in your faith then make your life's priority about reaching others.
But what about growth in theological knowledge? While my next two paragraphs would require an entire article all on their own, allow me to say it anyways: I grow increasingly skeptical of the idea that theology is meant to be split between newbies and old timers. The only reason why we do this is because us old timers often assume that newbie theology is all about Jesus while oldie theology is all about "other stuff" like prophecy or end time events. Sorry to start on something I wont be finishing here - but I just don't buy it. There is never a time where we ought to graduate from Jesus. Jesus should always be the center of everything we do and say. As such, I'm not convinced that Daniel and Revelation was written exclusively to help Jesus-veterans grow. In fact, God says he predicts the future to prove he is the one true God (Isa 41; 45:21). Sounds like something a newbie needs!
So what am I saying? That the theological bifurcation we often promote (Jesus for the newbies, Prophecy for the oldies) is lame. If Jesus is the center of everything we do then theology reclaims its role as the story of God - a story which puts broken lives together again. And everyone, both newbies and old timers should be constantly basking in the light of that story. Newbies don't need neutered theology and oldies don't need Christ-less discourse. All of us need the whole story as seen in Jesus-only.
So here is my summary. The church is not an institution. It is not a club. It is not a coterie, clique, inner circle, gang, band, clan, league, or alliance. There should be no in-crowd. There must be no access card. The church is not a place. It is not a location. It is not a site, spot, scene, setting, point, area, or region. The church should not be a building. It must not be a thing. Let it be a community for those seeking God. Let it be the body of Christ which was sacrificed on behalf of sinners by sacrificing itself constantly for the salvation of our fellow "outsiders" where we would all rightly be were it not for the cross. Let it be a safe place for the broken. In short, let's stop adding our own agendas to what church is. Instead, let us simply allow it to be that which God intended it should be.
*Thanks to Andy Stanley for this insightful concept in his book Deep & Wide.