If you follow me on twitter, or have me as a friend on Facebook, you may have became aware of something. Perhaps at first you thought I had a little bit of a crush, the photos and updates would lead to that conclusion, then as it kept up you figured that it’s more of an infatuation. The thing is, it’s neither of those. It’s love. I love church. It’s not a passing fad, it’s a lifelong commitment – we are even Facebook official. I am hoping that you might bear with me as I dedicate a few blog posts to exploring the beauty that is the church.
I think that the best way to start looking at the church is to try to get some kind of definition. What am I talking about? What exactly do I love? Even amongst Christians there is often a misunderstanding of what the church is, getting that right is a great step. Something my Pastor, Jon Cook, often reminds us of is that church isn’t a building; we have a building, and a very nice one at that, but we are not a building. This isn’t a point of culture or a quirk of our particular church, it’s a correct understanding of what the church is.
In his gospel, Matthew relates a conversation between Jesus and the disciples in which He asks them who people say that He is; after hearing the answer He then asks the question of who they say that He is and Peter replies that He is the Christ, the Son of God. Jesus replies with the only recorded statement we have from Him referring to the church.
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
– Matthew 16:18 (ESV)
The Greek word used for church is ekklēsia and that word means people who are called out from the world and to God. It does not, in the sense spoken, mean a particular building, a particular leadership structure, or a particular set of traditions or rules. The church is the people who God has called out from the world to be His. By it’s nature it includes leadership, though Christ radically redefined the traditional view on what leadership is, and it meets in buildings because large groups of people need places to meet but it’s not defined as those things. Jesus talks about those who are called out in his final prayer with the disciples.
I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.
– John 17:15-19 (ESV)
So we’re called out from the world and yet we are not taken out of the world? Well, yes. We’re called out, set apart as a people dedicated to God. In the Old Covenant the children of Israel were called out and set apart as the people through whom God would outwork His plan to bring redemption to all flesh, since the coming of Christ it is now His church who are called for the same purpose. When the church meets we should be carrying the DNA of heaven; I’ve heard people who’d never been to church before talk about the atmosphere in our church and wrestle with the limitations of human language to express what is inexpressible; there is something different about church and that is the fact that it’s not of this world. We are in our worlds because the kingdom of heaven is here and, as N.T Wright says, we’re the advance guard – breaking into our world and establishing that kingdom on earth.
The church, operating as it should, could not be contained by four walls regardless how much space was between them because it is by it’s very nature proactive and outgoing. When talking to Peter, Jesus said that the gates of hell would not prevail against the church. Now if you’re thinking of the church as a building then that doesn’t make sense – a building doesn’t move and nor does a set of gates – but when you see the church as a called out people? Then suddenly you have a called out people storming the darkness and pulling people into the light; it’s not a passive statement, it’s an active view of an unstoppable kingdom advancing. Last night I sat in a cinema and watched Argo, a film in which a CIA operative rescues people from enemy territory; part of the church’s design is to do the same thing on a massive scale. It’s not a game, it’s not about who has the best set of traditions or the most trendy style, it is God’s rescue mission to the world and like any rescue mission it is intentional, urgent and active.
And that is church, it’s very definition is a people who are simultaneously called out and sent in. A group of people joined by blood and spirit into a welcoming family. A people dedicated to being the answer to the world’s hurt and pain; a welcoming environment where people can worship regardless of age, gender, sexuality, race, religion. No one is going to stop you on the door and ask you ten questions on theology before you come in, come as you are. It’s an environment where people remember your name and who you are, where they’re genuinely glad to see you come back. It’s a church where the lost are found and where every soul saved is a celebration. It’s in this world, but can I tell you something? My church is out of this world.