What Does it Mean to be Church?

A friend of mine recently gave me a book to read. It’s a book about God. More specifically it is a book that asks the question, “What is the nature of God, and how can we Christians truly live the Christ-life?” The author’s concern was the lack of experiencing the wonder and power of God within the church and how the church might reclaim it. The book was published in 1961.

It is clear to me that the church writ large has not wanted for ideas and efforts, attempting to regain an experience of the wonder and power of God. And yet, despite those efforts, the church has lost credibility. Of course there are exceptions, right here in our valley for example, but in general most people who profess a faith in God do not attend church on a regular basis. 

So, is that a bad thing?

Here is my take on it, and my take is based on a careful, prayerful, thoughtful examination of the scriptures over decades of study and practice. I’ll start by saying I think much of the work of the church has been focused on the wrong thing. Think about it. What would you say is the main point of being a Christian? If you answered “Getting into heaven,” you’re wrong. 

Jesus’ primary mission was to announce the arrival of the reign of God (Kingdom of God, Kingdom of Heaven). There have always been kingdoms, and later, nations of various design, some good and some bad. Jesus announced there was another kingdom, another structure/design that supersedes all others. And the one who reigns over this structure/kingdom is God. But unlike the others this is not a place, but, rather, a state of being. I think that is what Jesus meant when he said his kingdom was not of this world. Worldly powers will come and go, but the reign of God will last forever. 

I’m not making this up. It’s what Jesus said. He also said to his first disciples that they should make more disciples. But, for what purpose? Was it so these new disciples could get to heaven? Or was it so the transformative work of living into God’s presence here on earth that Jesus initiated would continue? Another way of asking the question is to ask whether Jesus’ purpose was to reconcile the world back to God, or to get people into heaven. The Apostle Paul gave us the answer in 2 Corinthians 5:18-20. (I told you I wasn’t making this up!)

Whether the church grows or not is not the question. The important question is whether God’s reign is being lived out by those who have come to believe in it. Not so believers will be rewarded when they die, but so that the world will become what God first intended it to be. The church does not exist for itself. It only really exists when it is alive in God’s presence, transforming the world through love, compassion, justness, peacemaking, hospitality, and so on.

I believe all of this can be summed up in two very important questions that anyone can ask of themselves. (Thank you Douglas John Hall for first asking these questions.)

The first question is, “How does your God look at the world?” The second question is, “How does your God want you to look at the world?” Answering the first question reveals one’s theology. Answering the second reveals one’s ethics. 

In the end, if something really matters to us we will find a way to make it so. If it doesn’t really matter to us we will simply make excuses.