Depending on your starting point, the typical church is a place where:
- older people sing old songs from old books, sit in uncomfortable seats while listening to a slightly boring message
- a place where the music is projected on a wall, the seats have some padding and the sermon has projected help
- a place where no matter what the music or seats, there is serious tension about money, relationships, goals and visions
- a place where some people feel really accepted and welcomed and others feel shut out
I could go on–but the point is that there really isn’t a “typical” church. Each is different–about the only thing they have in common in the end is that all churches claim to be made up of people of God and all churches are flawed and imperfect, although some churches are more imperfect than others.
In the face of such significant differences, it is important, at least to me, to ask a basic question–“Why do we have the church in the first place?” Couldn’t we have got along without such a flawed organization, one that is sometimes better at driving people away from God than bringing people to God? Overlooking for the moment the fact that my paycheque comes from churches, there are lots of days when I am pretty sure that I would be better off if the church didn’t exist.
So, if even someone whose income depends on the existence of the church wonders that, it is important to ask why we have the church. After all, the church didn’t just accidentally happen. It didn’t come about because a group of followers of Jesus decided one day that they needed an organization to help them look after hymnbooks, pews and potluck meals, as well as to pay the pastor.
No–far from it. The church was an planned part of Jesus’ mission on earth. As well as coming to earth to open the door to God through his life, death and resurrection, Jesus also came to establish the church. He had the church in mind even before the resurrection–it didn’t come about because he saw people believing in his resurrection and realized that he needed some way of organizing them.
Granted, Jesus doesn’t say much about the church–he only mentions it twice. In Matthew 16.18, he talks about establishing the church and in Matthew 18.17, he talks about the church in the context of dealing with the inevitable disputes that arise when people form groups. But the fact that he mentions the church at all is significant–it says that Jesus had the church in mind and it was part of his plan for the salvation and sanctification of fallen humanity. He planned for the church.
So, what did he have in mind for the church? What was his plan? What did he plan on having the church do and be? I am not sure that everything we associate with church today was a part of this original plan. Like everything we humans get involved in, the original plan for the church has been affected by our human understanding of what we want and think that God should also want.
I have been looking at the idea of the church for a while now and I think the New Testament envisions the church as being a gathering of people who have discovered a new life through their faith in Jesus and who are committed to helping each other learn how to live that life. It seems to me that the church was meant to be a safe place where people can experiment with their faith, test their faith, improve their faith, grow their faith in the company of other committed believers who are doing the same thing. The church was meant to be a collection of people coming together to discover how their common faith shapes their new being, their relationships with each other, their approach to the world and their relationship with God.
All the rest–buildings, constitutions, visions, pastors, committees, potlucks, choirs, hymnbooks, LCD projectors, special and regular offerings, denominations, inter-church councils, Sunday Schools, youth groups and on and on–all the rest exists or should exist to foster this purpose. All that we do should help us become the people who are joined by our faith and gather together to help ourselves and other believers grow into the faith we have found.
May the peace of God be with you.