Sorry this so long. Okay, not really.
I liked my cohort Joe’s setup for describing how absurd it is to say, “I’m going to church”. Comparing nineties grunge culture to how we talk about church was more than clever. When the New Testament declares that we are Christ’s body, Joe’s descriptions of what Jesus did with His body in Luke’s account was rich. Check it out here.
Now let me revert and use that term the way Christians typically do.
For some of us, we grew up in “churches” that were as dry and dusty as a stack of National Geographics in your Uncle Ned’s basement. I lived in a small town where everyone knew everyone. Each Sunday we shuffled in quietly with the other half-smiling dysfunctional families and slid into the pew and drew pictures to keep our little hands busy while a man in the front droned in monotone about things in the afterlife that didn’t seem any more interesting than what was going on at the moment. As a kid, church had a stifling silence about it, like walking into the school library where a stern-faced woman could rap your knuckles and knock the Dewey-Decimal-daylights out of you if you even thought about whispering.
That’s how going to church felt. God was mysterious…and up there somewhere. And generally a little ticked off.
One day, after missing my fourth grade Sunday school class for several weeks, a card came in the mail with a little picture of a church with a steeple. Written under it were big letters and spaces that spelled “C H _ _ C H”. Below that it read, “What’s missing here? U-R!” That form letter filled me with shame, like I’d been caught by my elementary principal for skipping school. “Church” triggered two primal feelings as a child: I have done something terribly wrong and I might do something terribly wrong.
By the sixth grade I was out of there and never returned until I met Jesus in my twenties. And was convinced in my newfound agnosticism that if God did exist, He had left that place as well out of sheer boredom.
That all changed when I experienced Jesus as savior and master. And what made that powerful was the enlightened understanding that the One who died an excruciating death by one of the more morbid forms of execution the Romans could invent was God. Jesus was God. It wasn’t because someone crammed a doctrine down the mouth of my soul, but simply because some other soul-beggar who had found the messiah told me that Jesus had given His life as a sacrifice for me as well. And so I thought if He was just another man giving his life for another cause, that’s nice, but it doesn’t do anything for the human condition, certainly not the condition I was in. It had to be bigger than a cause.
And the only thing bigger than a righteous cause is Love itself. Or Himself.
God becoming Man and laying His life down for His own creation, initiating the Kingdom, and restoring severed relationships captured my heart. It made me want to thank Him, to worship Him, to live my life in worship to Him, to do whatever He said.
And then as I walked further on, I found out things that I could actually do for Jesus.
One day I discovered that He didn’t love me for what I could do for Him, He just loved me. I began to see how abusive my relationships were with others. They were typically reciprocal, based on what someone could do for me. I then fell in love with Jesus even more, because He was changing they way I saw everything.
Then one day I learned that love was a powerful force placed in me by the Holy Spirit that was only released as I chose. I found myself in hard situations, sometimes because of my own dysfunction, sometimes I was in the crosshairs of spiritual warfare, sometimes the target of someone else’s woundedness and pain and sometimes God was simply saying no to my requests. It was then I discovered the greater power of worship: Would I love God and tell Him so only when things were going the way I want them to?
And then I fell more deeply in love.
So what does that have to do with “church”?
An old Bible commentator and English lit scholar from the turn of the twentieth century that I’ve enjoyed is an author named W. J. Dawson. Dawson once wrote that many churches are “social clubs, united by moral ideals, rather than spiritual communities quick with divine fire.”
I think that’s certainly a picture of much of the contemporary church, and especially the worst version of us: moral police for our culture.
The church is not a group of people gathered around an ideal, it is a people who share a common revelation of Jesus Christ, a true spiritual community because it’s not founded on any other foundation but a spiritual one. Do they agree on everything? Of course not. They are at different levels of maturity and growth. They are like a family—there’s a big difference between the family baby and grandfather: a world of experience. But they are bound by the same genetic code.
As Joe pointed out, the word church that Jesus used is the Greek word ekklesia (ἐκκλησία) meaning “the called out ones.”
I like to think of it as people who have been called out of the sleep of this world, who have been awakened to something far greater than they were dreaming of. A greater reality. Life in God. The God who breaks through routine, the God who smashes through addictions, the God who brings clarity, the God who fills with purpose, and the only thing in life worth worshipping crashing through our doldrums, or crises, our bewilderments. There is none like Him, the psalmist said. And there is nothing that can overpower the community He is building because it is built on something more solid than what has ever been experienced in the history of man.
It’s good to remind ourselves periodically who and what the Church actually is.