When thinking about church, I often reflect on my time in Bible college and coming to a fork in the road; either I was going to follow God’s Word or follow what many people were calling “church”. What was being promoted as “church” by seemingly most, was something different from what I was learning in the Bible.
In my final two papers for college, I wrote on the topics, “The Nature And Role Of A Pastor” and “The Nature And Role Of The Church”. I ended up getting a lot of criticism because people thought there were far better and more pressing things to write about. I realized, however, that if we don’t get faith and the Church right, what are we truly left with?? Thus, I began a deeper search in the Bible for answering these two major subjects.
What I learned in writing those papers is still critical. And even more, I return constantly to these same subjects when I see what faith and churches have fundamentally transformed in to being today. That being said, there is no way in a simple blog post that anyone can even begin to tackle such a huge subject. But to try to sum it up, the Church is simply the worldwide set of individual believers. Churches, then, are the local gathering of these individual believers.
Now there are many questions we can ask as to the characteristics of the Church, but two critical questions to start with are:
1. What is the purpose of Church??
2. What does the Church do when gathered together??
Often what we see is that most people simply accept what is being promoted as “church” and then look for one that has a pastor with the most charisma, the best music, provides an “spiritual” experience, has many diverse “ministries”, and fulfills their so-called “needs”. It ends up being a game of who can attract the most people by sharing “Jesus” in the most “relevant” way. But if we were to each begin by asking what the purpose of the Church is from Scripture instead of what “I” can get out of church, we would be a step closer to living out the Truth.
A book in the Bible that helps us understand the characteristics of the Church is the book of Acts. Acts describes the beginnings of the early New Testament Church and what was important to them right after Jesus’ accession. Acts isn’t the only book in Scripture to understand the purpose of the Church and what believers did as they gathered, but you really can’t understand the Church without it.
In Acts 2:42, it describes that the Church was committed to four critical things; the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayer. By all accounts, the Church was simplistic and relational to the core. Believers were focused on the teaching of the Bible, encouraging and challenging one another in fellowship, taking communion and sharing meals together, and spending time in prayer with one another. If those things were important to the Church then, can we conclude that these must be important for us today??
Since the Church was individual believers gathering together to be taught Scripture, have intentional fellowship, take communion and share meals, and be devoted in prayer, it provides the essential foundation from which we, as believers, should view church now. This isn’t to say there isn’t more, but it seems people have gotten so far away from the simplicity of Church laid out in Scripture that most of what we see going on today has very little of these things as their true foundation. People may say their church is “Bible-based” (whatever that means), has small groups or “life groups” (whatever those really are), partakes in communion and/or has events with meals for the church, and has prayers that are offered during services. But if we are to be really honest, don’t you think that many have complicated things so much to the point that many are much more concerned about defending their “churches” when challenged, rather than striving for the Truth??
The issue at hand is that churches have confused “going and making disciples” with a myriad of “spiritual” sounding endeavors disguised as “church”. Bible preaching and teaching has been replaced by someone “formulating” sermons that spend more time discussing illustrations, promoting new books, quoting people with some “deep and nuanced“ insight, and telling stories, than systematically going through the Bible itself. Most are being told that their contemplative spiritual formation and “missional” activities are real faith, rather than the Gospel itself. The average person really doesn’t know the difference and never questions if it is Biblical, because everyone seems to be doing it. Just gotta find a “church” doing it the best and start attending.
To say that people’s understanding of faith and church is a mess would be a massive understatement. With so many different “expressions” of churches, are we to simply accept the validity, beliefs, and practices of all?? The clear answer is, no.
Just because someone or some church invokes the name of “Jesus”, doesn’t mean we are on the same team. On the outside, it can sometimes be difficult to tell the difference between one church and another. One may put more emphasis on one element or another, or one may have a different style than another, but without diving deeper into what they really believe, it is sometimes tough to see what they are really about. That’s why it’s critical that our starting place is being always grounded in all of the Bible and keeping our discernment honed if we are to walk in the Truth.
One sure-fire way to know what people believe and what they understand about church, is to look at what is important to them. Are they more concerned about “social issues” or the Gospel?? Do their pastors, leaders, and people spend more time talking about the “events” of the church or promoting some popular “christian” book, rather than spending real time diving into the Word?? Do they elevate the beliefs and opinions of man over true obedience to the Lord?? Does their church spend more time marketing, branding, and talking about the latest trends of the day, or the simplicity of “going and making disciples”?? And maybe, just maybe, it’s not question about “their” church, but rather one we must each really ask about “my” church.
Even these things can be difficult to discern at times. But if we want to make sure we are following the Truth and surrounding ourselves with others seeking the same, we will be willing to adjust our lives accordingly.
This may mean that we need to find another church or even possibly change the way we do church.
When the Church isn’t about the pastor, the buildings we are told are necessary, and all the other trendy things we see in churches today, we begin to see the Church looks a lot closer to some of the small groups that get together to truly study the Bible and minister to one another. So we have to ask, why the huge emphasis on these large gatherings and calling this “church”??
We have been led to believe that “church” is what happens on those larger Saturday night and Sunday morning services. Small groups are just small groups. But when we know that the Church actually looks more like these “small groups”, why do people tend to revert back to calling these other times church?? Maybe it’s just a matter of what we’ve embraced as “church”.
Let me suggest that I think that it is important to address the issue of the size of church. It may be possible that larger groups gathered to be the Church may be able to function like what we see in the Bible. But I think it is, at best, much more difficult. It is easier for most to simply “attend” church rather than each person being spiritually invested in and practically ministering to one another. If the church is more about what each of us has to “give” to the spiritual growth of one another rather than seeking about what I can “get”, then church has to be done in a way that we are able to get to know people personally. Why not, then, be more focused on multiplication of smaller churches at a quicker rate than simply growing larger and larger organizations?? The size of church is really important, but it must be left for another time.
There are many areas in which churches today have no resemblance to what we see in Scripture. It is all a matter of if we are willing to submit ourselves to following what the Bible says or to simply go along with what we have learned and have been told is church. What this requires is gathering together with other believers that are seeking the Truth; even if it means that it may look different from most of the churches we see today.
There is so much more to say about faith and the Church, but I hope this may be the starting place for each of us to return to the Bible to understand these things, rather than modeling our beliefs and practices by much of what we see in our world today.