The other day a well-known Evangelical leader tweeted “The church often celebrates what happens in a building, yet, we read a Bible where Jesus did mostly everything outside it.” Not only is this assertion a reflection of the low value Evangelicals have placed on church it is also not scripturally accurate. This quote came from a person whose church and para-church organization does a very good work in inner cities and with people who often get overlooked or outrightly ignored. (Also this post is not aimed at him or his church but rather at the philosophical assumptions that lie beneath what he said). From that quote one is left with the idea that church isn’t really important because the really significant work is only done outside the walls of the church.
The question then arises: what is the purpose of the church? Are churches supposed to cater to the felt needs of people? Are churches supposed to be “evangelism centers” where loud music and high-def audio visual media tools are used to create an atmosphere that attract seekers? Is church just for people to gather together and be taught the word? Regardless of where one lands on these issues the doctrine of the church is deficient in many Evangelical circles. The underlying presumption with all of the afore-mentioned methodologies is that they make individual preference the measuring stick for church life and attendance. This sort of presumption can only lead to the church as something that is sort of important in the life of a Christian but not really. The church as social club, the church as a place where we go to for a spiritual fix has taken the place of what the church is supposed to be.
The idea that Jesus did most of his work outside a church building is anachronistic and fairly ignorant of the Biblical text. During the time Jesus ministered, there was no church because Jesus had not been crucified, resurrected, and ascended! Worship was primarily in the synagogues and Jesus, like any faithful Jew, attended synagogue faithfully. In Luke 4:14-16 it says,
“And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and a report about him went out through all the surrounding country. And he taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all. And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read.”
Notice it says, “As was his custom”… Jesus regularly and faithfully attended what would be the equivalent to the church of his day. Lets look at one more. In Mark’s Gospel Jesus’ first miracle takes place where? Oh yeah, in the synagogue. Mark 16:21-24 says,
“And they went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath he entered the synagogue and was teaching. And they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes. And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit. And he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!”
There are many more references of Jesus in the synagogues so I won’t overstate my case. What’s going on here then with that tweet? Essentially what is underlying the tweet is the idea that church does not really matter that much because we should all be out there doing Gods’ work. The thing is, the church exists for Christians. The church exists as the place where those who follow Jesus meet so they can partake of the nature of God through the Word and Sacraments. The church is the place where the people of God are equipped to go out and demonstrate the love of God through word and deed in their every day lives with the people they meet every day. That’s why we go to church, not for an emotional high or to be “anointed” by the Holy Spirit in yet another revival meeting. We don’t have church to attract those outside the church. The job of the church is to be the place where we come together to commune with God and each other. The church exists for the people of God, the body of Christ, to encounter the Divine and to worship in spirit and in truth.
St. Ignatius in his Epistle to the Ephesians wrote,
“Take heed, then, often to come together to give thanks to God, and show forth His praise. For when ye come frequently together in the same place, the powers of Satan are destroyed, and his “fiery darts” urging to sin fall back ineffectual. For your concord and harmonious faith prove his destruction, and the torment of his assistants. Nothing is better than that peace, which is according to Christ, by which all war, both of aerial and terrestrial spirits, is brought to an end. “For we wrestle not against blood and flesh, but against principalities and powers, and against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in heavenly places.”
Quite a bit different from the assertion that “The church often celebrates what happens in a building, yet, we read a Bible where Jesus did mostly everything outside it.” The more I interact with Protestant ecclesiology the more I become convinced that maybe the liturgical churches, more specifically the Orthodox, are on to something. Maybe personal preference doesn’t matter, maybe what we need is not to manufacture an experience where people feel good because that sort of feel-goodism inspires the type of quote the sparked this blog in the first place.