Ask any group of people what they think the church is – or should be – and you will come up with a variety of responses. Indeed it can seem, at times, that everybody has a different idea about what the church is all about.
Some think that the church is the building. That its presence is important as a focal part of the community, or because it represents some connection with the past. Some think that the church is the people. But not necessarily just the people who go to church regularly. But it includes anyone who in anyway feels connected. And some think that the church is the people. But only those who have a full relationship with God. And by that definition, it does not include everyone who goes to church.
Now, depending upon what we think the church is, or what it should be all about, will reflect our attitude towards it.
For example those in the first group, who see the church as a building, as the focal point of the community, with some sort of connection with the past, will more than likely have a focus on preserving the structure, and have a strong emphasis on maintaining historical values.
Those in the second group, who have a very wide interpretation of who belongs to the church, will more than likely want to encourage a variety of expressions of beliefs. They will be keen to maintain the building’s presence, so it is there when people feel the need or for those special occasions.
And those in the third group, who believe the church is about people who have a full relationship with God, well this group will be represented by people who want to emphasise the church’s role in terms of the importance of worshipping God, and in terms of sharing and caring within the Christian community. Indeed they may not have any real attachment to a building at all.
Three different groups, then, with three different attitudes to what the church is, or should be all about (and of course there are all sorts of shades in between). But the question is, “Which one is right?” Or are they all right? Do they all encapsulate elements of the truth?
B. A CAMEO OF THE NEW TESTAMENT CHURCH
Well, to answer the question of what the church is, and should be all about, I’d like to refer to the book of Acts (Acts 2:42-47). Because Luke records for us a cameo of the early church. And in comparison with modern attitudes about the church, Luke makes some very interesting observations indeed.
1. Four Elements of Christian Gathering (42)
And the first feature is, the extent of the devotion of all those involved.
For example, we’re told that the believers were keen to hear the teaching of the Apostles, who were noted as the guardians of the faith. Indeed they were keen to meet and be taught as often as possible, and they hung on to every word that was said.
We’re told that the believers were devoted to having fellowship with one another (and in those days that meant “sharing” with one another in a common religious experience). They met together regularly to build each other up in the faith.
We’re told that the believers broke bread together. In other words they shared meals together, at which they remembered the Lord’s Supper.
And we’re told that the believers sought every opportunity to pray together. And prayer was a regular part of their meetings.
2. Public Reaction (43)
The second feature that Luke records about the church is, that the public, those outside the church, were filled with a sense of fear or awe.
As a result of their devotions, God was able to do some wonderful things. Indeed, many signs and wonders were done through the Apostles. Something that not only would have encouraged the believers, but at the same time created a certain apprehension amongst the non-Christian population, in whose midst these supernatural events took place.
3. Christian Community (44-45)
The third feature of the church that Luke describes is, the distinctive way in which the believers lived. They practiced some kind of joint ownership of possessions. Indeed, people sold their possessions so that the proceeds might be used to help the needy among them.
Of course our first impression may be of a community whose members lived together and had everything in common. However, what really happened, was that each person held his goods at the disposal of the others for whenever the need arose.
4. Meeting Together (46)
The fourth feature of Luke’s cameo is, that the religious devotion of the early church was a daily affair. They met together in the temple, and joined in the daily worship at the temple. That is in addition to meeting together in their own homes, for religious gatherings and for common meals.
5. Church Growth (47)
And the fifth feature of the early church is, that they put their beliefs into practice. They praised God and shared their faith with those who didn’t know Jesus. As a result the church grew. And it grew at a phenomenal rate.
C. CONTRASTING IMAGES
Now that is Luke’s cameo of the early church… the church in its infancy, as yet untainted by other influences.
So getting back to our modern day images of the church, and there were three of them, how do they compare?
Well, firstly, to the idea that the church is a building, the focal point of the community or that it has some sort of historical connection with the past, that whole idea is quite foreign to the image of the church as portrayed by Luke.
Indeed, Luke’s description of the church is of a living organic being made up of people, and people only. Yes, the early Christians may have gone to the Temple to meet (and they may have even worshipped there), but they then returned to their homes, where they had fellowship or other meetings. In other words the Temple was not the be all and end all of all their religious devotions.
Further, with their attitudes towards selling possessions, and for the priority of helping one another, one can easily conclude that the idea of a building being the church would have been quite alien to their beliefs and practices.
Secondly, to the idea that the church is about people who have a wide variety of beliefs, which include the idea that it is not necessary to worship on a regular basis, the church of the New Testament would have found that completely foreign too.
Because not only did they meet very regularly, some daily, but they knew nothing about an all-inclusive, all embracing church. Indeed, meeting together only occasionally for rites of passage, or for some other reason, was not part of their beliefs or practices. Rather the frequency and regularity of meeting together, and the purpose – to worship, to be taught, to share and to pray – were the essential features of the church’s life. Indeed they were keen on being taught, so they got it right. And they went out of their way to share their particular beliefs with others.
And, thirdly, to the idea that church is about people, not buildings, and about people who have a full relationship with God, and that caring and sharing is what it’s all about too, well, that would have to be the closest description of the three to the New Testament church that we can get to today.
Because that is exactly what the New Testament church was all about. It was all about taking the faith seriously. It was about maintaining the awe and wonder, the things that God wanted to do for his people. And it was about going out and sharing the faith with any who had not yet responded to the good news of Jesus, not keeping it to themselves.
2. What Makes The Church Tick?
Now obviously this cameo of the early church poses a real challenge to the modern church. Indeed it poses a completely different view of the church than most people believe in or practice today. So why the difference? Well, we can only speculate.
a). The Early Church
But for the early church the resurrection was a current reality. It was something that the people were excited about. Consequently their commitment to Jesus and to the life of the church was very real. And because it was real God was able to be very active in the church. Indeed the things that he did, and the way he blessed his people, was something to be seen. And because of the excitement, and enthusiasm, the faithful couldn’t help spread the word. And as a consequence the church grew at a phenomenal rate.
The reality of this cameo is that people not only believed in the resurrection, but they understood what it meant for their own lives. Yes, that meant a completely new life style, and sometimes great sacrifice, but they did so, knowing what it was that Jesus had done. And they were blessed because of it.
b). The Modern Church
In contrast however, if we look at the church today, the difficulties the church faces reflect the fact that the resurrection for most people is no longer a current reality. It’s no longer something that really grabs them. As a consequence, the commitment to Jesus, and the commitment to his people, is something that many people are no longer prepared to give. As a result God is not able to be very active in a church that is not being faithful. And, what’s more, the church finds it harder and harder to grow. Indeed, in the western world, the church for the most part is headed in the opposite direction.
D. THE SOLUTION
Of course the solution to the modern day problem is obvious. We need to return the church so that it’s like the early church described by Luke in the New Testament . The question for us today, though is, “How do we do it?” How do we get back to that ideal? How do we move the many obstacles in the way, not least of which are all the wrong ideas about what the church is all about?
Well, the simple answer is we need to learn to let go, and let God. We need to let go of our own ideas, and our own wants and desires. We need to let go of the things that we love, and hold dear. And we need to let God, through his Holy Spirit, guide us, and take us on a journey we probably don’t want to go. (And having this passage from Acts, we should have a fair idea of where that journey will take us.) Ironically the way we to reform God’s church, is to turn back the clock. We need to pick up the features of the early church, and we need to apply them for ourselves.
That means, firstly, we need to begin with the need for teaching. The church isn’t about what we want, it’s about what God wants. Consequently we need to know what God is like, what he wants, and how he thinks. Teaching, reading the bible, and study therefore are all important aspects, essential for Christian growth.
Secondly, we need to take seriously the need for fellowship. The need to meet together and to share common religious experiences. Indeed the need to meet together to encourage and build up one another in the faith should be an essential element in the life of every believer.
Thirdly, we need to break bread together (that is, share meals together). Because the more formal aspect of meeting together is one thing, but we mustn’t forget the social aspect of living as a community too. As Christians we are adopted into a new family, a family of believers, and we need to take our family responsibilities seriously.
Fourthly, we need to pray. Because the need to meet regularly to pray is an essential feature in the life of the church. Now prayer involves many things. It involves adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and petition. But most importantly it’s about having a dialogue with God. Because whilst we can learn much about God through other means, there is no substitute for talking to God directly about things of a community concern, as well as those which are of a personal concern.
Fifthly, we need to build up a sense of community. We need to care for one another, and look after one another’s needs. And I might add, using the early church as an example, we need to be prepared to do this no matter what the personal cost.
And, sixthly, we need to share our faith with those around us. And dare I say, if we got the first five features right, then this would not be the hard task that some find it is today. Indeed, it would come very easily, because it would be the natural result of getting all the other basics right.
And if we were committed to all those things, with God’s help, then God could bless us too, as he did to the early church.
Now, as I said at the beginning, ask any group of people what they think the church is, or should be, and we would end up with a variety of responses. However, as we’ve seen today, many of them are just not true. The idea that the church is a building is not true. And the idea that the church is a sort of all-embracing description for a wide variety of beliefs and practices, which includes the need for a building to be there for special events, is not true either
Indeed, the church is the people of God; it is the body of believers. It is the group of people who have trusted in the Lord Jesus Christ for their salvation.
The dilemma the church has today, then, is, how to turn the church, as it has become with all the corrupt views, into the kind of church described in the Acts of the Apostles. A church that shows God’s people in action. A church that illustrates God’s response to his faithful people. And a church that is growing at a phenomenal rate.
So yes, today as a church we have a problem, a big problem, and yet the solution is so simple:
Teaching, fellowship, breaking bread together, prayer, a sense of real community, a commitment to meeting regularly together, and the need to share the faith with others, were all aspects of the early church, a church uncorrupted by other influences. And they should all be aspects of the church today as well.
But is this a model we would like to see in our own churches? And just how far are we prepared to go to turn back the clock, so that our churches can be as God intended?
© 2015, Brian A Curtis