Unfortunately, as the world looks at our churches, particularly in the West, it sees only what people have done or what programs they are doing. The world is not impressed. In response, we scheme and plot and plan, “What can we do to make our church more appealing to the people in our community?” This is, once again, the wrong question. It’s as if we we’re trying to boost God’s approval ratings. It is God’s name that is at risk, not ours, and we are not responsible for protecting His reputation. He can handle that, by Himself, just fine.
A better question is, “Where is Jesus seen at work in our midst?” Where do we see lives changing, and communities transforming simply by the power of the Gospel? Where do we see fathers restored to a life of holiness and responsibility? Where do we see daughters reconciling with mothers? Where do we see addicts who no longer live under the bondage of chemical dependency? Where are wealthy businessmen making restitution for past crimes that went unnoticed? These are the questions that lead people to recognize the living presence of Jesus, loving and governing people’s lives as their King. When people encounter Jesus, alive and present as King, they get a taste of God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
I have come to understand church as this: the presence of Jesus among His people called out as a spiritual family to pursue His mission on this planet. Granted, this is quite broad, but I like a broad definition of church. The Scriptures don't give a precise definition, so I’m not going to do what God has not done. I want something that captures what the Scriptures say about the Kingdom of God. In one of only two places where Jesus mentions church in the Gospels, He says, “For where two or three have gathered together in My name, there I am in their midst” (Matt 18.20). His presence then must be an important element of church.
To a church that has lost sight of its true love, Jesus says these harsh words: “The One who walks among the lampstands, says this...remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place—unless you repent” (Rev 2.1,5). To a disobedient and unhealthy church, Jesus threatens to remove the lampstand (representing the church) from the presence of Jesus. The presence of Jesus is crucial to what church is. His presence is life; His absence is death. He is the most essential portion of who and what we are. He should be the most important thing about us and the most recognizable aspect that the world sees.
If Jesus is missing in our understanding of church, He will likely be missing in our expression of church as well. Therein lies a huge problem in our churches. We have defined church by what we are and do, rather than on Jesus’ presence at work among us.
In many of the churches in the West, ministry is done for Jesus, but not by Jesus--and therein lies a big difference. If we evaluated our churches not by attendance or buildings but by how recognizable Jesus is in our midst, our influence would be more far-reaching and our strategies would be far more dynamic. Unfortunately, it’s possible to do “church” but fail to demonstrate anything of the person or work of Christ in a neighborhood. But if we start our entire understanding of church with Christ’s presence among and working within us, then we will expect to see much more radical change—starting with us and extending to the neighborhood and the nations.