Francis Chan has used an analogy to shake up our view of church. He says: “Imagine you were alone on a desert island and had no experience at all with Christianity, and a bible washed up on shore so you read it cover to cover. If you then decided you would do church, do you think you would do church the way we do it?” The obvious answer is of course not! What this tells us is that much of the way we do church is more wrapped up in church historical tradition than in what the Bible says.
The Greek word translated “church” is ecclesia, which means “called out ones” and is used to describe a gathering or assembly. The word morphs into greater significance as the NT progresses, Paul giving a far more detailed and elevated view of it. In Acts the word is used to describe an angry, confused and divided mob of pagans declaring allegiance to a false god (Acts 19:32). I’ve been to that church.
The Bible does not define the church. Instead it is described with helpful pictures: a flock, a field, a family, a body, a bride, a branch, a building made of living stones. Definitions are helpful, but descriptions can catch the heart and vision of people and are far more memorable and spreadable. People don't usually spread definitions around but they do spread simple and visible ideas that capture one's imagination. I firmly believe that the NT intends for the church to be spread like a viral movement.
If you were to try and describe today's church as we know it using pictures I believe we would have an entirely different list of descriptors. In fact, do a Google search of the term church and look at the images that pop up...all buildings. The church we have all experienced looks more like one of these: a building with an address, a concert with a motivational speaker, A public meeting with religious practices, a business that provides spiritual goods and services, an organization with bylaws and business meetings, a school teaching people about the Bible and its author, or a hospital for the sick and broken. Contrast those two lists. We have replaced an organic and life producing view with an institutional one that does not produce life but at best simply tries to preserve and contain it.
Our common way of seeing the church today contains, conforms and controls God’s people. The biblical pictures of the NT are all about releasing and reproducing the life of the church, not managing and controlling financial interests.
Inorganic things can produce, but not reproduce. As Christian Schwartz points out so eloquently, “A coffee maker can make coffee (praise God), but it cannot make more coffee makers.” Jesus intends for his bride and body to be fertile and for his branches to bear fruit. Jesus didn’t use images of an institution, nor should we.
With much study, research, experience and time spent seeking wisdom from smarter men than us, we have come to understand church by this simple yet profound description:
“The church is the presence of Jesus among His people, called out as a spiritual family, to pursue His mission on this planet.”
While the bible uses a number of metaphors to describe the nature of the church, these metaphors have one very striking thing in common. They all imply that the church is a living thing. What about the building you might ask? Remember, it’s built with living stones and is a dwelling place for the Living God.
The church is alive, and the indwelling Spirit of Jesus is her life. What is a body without a Head? A corpse. What is a bride without a groom? A widow. What is a branch without a vine? Firewood. What is a building without a foundation? Rubble. What is a flock without a shepherd? Wolf-chow. Every New Testament picture of the church points to the living connection with Jesus as the most essential element of its being. As I said before, If you can define church without Jesus than you can do church without Jesus.
God’s presence is not only a necessary part of the definition of church; it is the most essential one. I am convinced that the world would love to come and experience Jesus. They are not so interested in experiencing us.