Have you ever heard someone say any of the following, “I don’t go to church because I wouldn’t be accepted there”? Or perhaps, “Why would I join the church? They are basically just a country club for the religious!” Maybe you have said, “I tried out church, went a few times, but I never felt like I belonged.” Or perhaps the most incriminating review of the church, “I believe in Jesus and all, it just seems like the church is full of hypocrites!” So does this make the church obsolete?
It is rarely a negative review of Jesus that causes people to leave the church. Most often, people leave because they have been let down by Christians. Someone they thought they trusted, did something so despicable they couldn’t possible associate themselves with the same faith as that person.
Or, more often than not, it wasn’t a single despicable act; it was the slow degradation of faith in the larger church body over innumerable issues that have little or no bearing on spirituality: battles over the church building, battles over the style of music played on Sunday, battles of power over the kitchen (or other strongholds in the church).
A few times I have even seen well-meaning churches promise to be there for someone in their time of need, willing to do “anything to help them out.” And when the person asks for specific, tangible assistance for the problem, they receive the reply, “Well, I don’t know about that, but I will certainly pray for you.”
If you have ever seen any of these things happen in the church, you are not alone!
It is no wonder so many Millennials and people from Generation Z (who still feeling the transcendent need for something greater), often claim the label, “spiritual, but not religious.”
What has happened to the church? It’s not that the church has become obsolete in the post-modern world, it is that in many ways the church has ceased to be the church! Many churches, and perhaps the global “church” as we know it, have lost what it means to be the church—grasping at human traditions instead of clinging to the cross.
A few years ago, Thom Rainer released a book called, “Autopsy of a Deceased Church.” In it, Rainer explores churches that have recently closed their doors, and gathers research on why mainline churches are closing at a rate never seen before. He looks at 12 reasons that churches die. Here are a few: “the past is the hero,” “the budget moved inward,” “the preference-driven church,” “the church obsessed over the facilities,” “the great commission becomes the great omission,” and “the church rarely prays together.”
Of these six reasons, the first four have no bearing on spirituality or biblical teaching. And isn’t that what so often burns people and causes them to leave the church? The church ceases to be the church! People leave because the church begins to focus on physical and material needs above their call and charge to be the church in and for the world.
There are so many passages in scripture that talk about what it means to be the church. But what did Jesus himself say about the church? What is the essence of the church? Why does it exist?
In the book of Matthew, Jesus asks his disciples who they think he is, and Peter declares that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ. In response to that declaration we read:
“Then Jesus says to Peter…you are Peter and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.’”
I rarely use the Greek version of the Bible to make points, because more often than not, it is done for the sake of pretension and little more. But I think looking at the original word used in Matthew that is translated into English as “Church” is pretty important.
The word used for “church” in Greek is “ekklesia.” Ekklesia has multiple definitions, but some of the more notable ones are: “an assembly, gathering,” “any gathering or throng of men assembled by chance, tumultuously,” “in a Christian sense an assembly of Christians gathered for worship in a religious meeting,” “in a Christian sense the whole body of Christians scattered throughout the earth.”
The bottom line in the Greek is that ekklesia is a gathering…A gathering is active—a coming together with a common purpose. Ekklesia is a movement with a mission. Church was always meant to be a movement with a mission. Church isn’t obsolete, but some churches have lost what it means to be the church.
Jesus was not saying, you are a Rock, Peter, and therefore I am going to build a building on top of you. Jesus was saying that Peter’s faith was solid and he understood who Jesus really was, and therefore Jesus would use him to build up his movement (his ekklesia).
Church is simply a movement with a mission—the movement of people gathered together declaring that Jesus is Lord! Church hasn’t become obsolete. It has just in some places forgotten what it means to be the church.
The big thing about a movement is that it has to move. It must be mobile, vibrant, alive. When church digresses to a building, or a stagnant body of believers, it really ceases to be the church. Ekklesia is in the movement, the gathering, the people worshipping. Church is the fully alive body, living and acting in a broken world that seeks wholeness. Is this what your church looks like? I hope so. But if not, what would it take to get it there?