Where's Church? Acts 7:48-51

48Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands; as the prophet says,
49Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool.  What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest? 50Did not my hand make all these things?’
51You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do.
Acts 7 (NRSV)[1]

“You’re a man in search of the Church,” one of my mentors once said.  His words have had a lot of power in my journey.  I often go back to them, not because I want to live out my mentor’s expectations, but because with precision he succinctly captured my spiritual DNA.  I am a man in search of the Church.  Academics call this ecclesiology, which derives from the Greek word, ecclesia, which we translate “church.”  It literally means, “a group gathered together for a purpose.”  That, however, does not answer my questions; it only creates more: who’s in the group, where should they gather, and what’s the purpose?  In any regard, the Church captivates me.  Even in my darkest spiritual days I happily spent hours talking about the Church.[2]   I think that’s why I am passionately drawn to Church history—by rights I am a history nerd, but I’m not passionate about general history.  Church history, however, can make my hair stand up.  This affinity is also probably what draws me to the Church of God Reformation Movement (Anderson, IN).[3]  I love how Church of God thinkers have used both scripture and a spiritual imagination to sketch a vision of the Church. I am also, all-in, with the historical and simple conviction that the Church is, without qualification, all those who have a faith relationship with Jesus.

I went to a conference recently where an author, Kelly Bean, presented her new book, How to be a Christian without going to Church.  The title rattled some pastors in the room and their ire kept them from hearing anything she had to say.  When she writes “church” she’s talking about the service that happens between 10:00 and 11:30am.  The fact is that many people have left the traditional model of church without leaving their faith in Christ or their attachment to likeminded Christians.  She said plainly that she was not advocating for folks to leave their congregations. She just wished to explain and describe the life of those who had left traditional congregations in order to seek unique forms of Christian community. All this fell on deaf ears, because folks couldn’t get past the word “Church.” For them Church is brick ‘n mortar, a service, a sermon, hymns v. choruses—things we make rather than what we are being made into.  I got the sense that they couldn’t imagine a Christian without a commitment to such traditional forms. 

Don't do this, but let's seek first to understand those who do.

This happens all the time.  Author Donald Miller confessed recently that he does not attend a weekly church service, but still meets regularly with other Christians.  He was roasted like an internet marshmallow.   This baffles me.  In fact, it is this bafflement that I think makes me a man in search of the Church.  There has always been a huge disparity between what I was taught about the Church versus how I experienced it.  I was taught that the Church was anyone who had faith in Christ as Lord.  What I experienced was a group who excluded folks on the basis of appearance, sexual mistakes, socio-economics, politics, and doctrinal disagreements.  I was taught that the Church was not an institution but the living, breathing, body of Christ.  What I experienced was committee meetings, restrictive bylaws, power struggles, splits, almost zero motivation to actually do things that Jesus did, and a 2,000 year old stubborn commitment to prioritize the church building and structure over the needs of people.[4]  What I experienced was a people who believed that God lived in buildings, or denominations, or certain songs, or successful pastors, or in certain fashions, or in the morally perfect.  Jewish priests killed Stephen, but I’ve often wondered if he would have fared any better in the Church we know.

At this point I can almost hear you saying, “Wait, then why are you a pastor of a traditional congregation?”  Well, first, I’m not sure that we’re as traditional as our building and worship service suggest.  Second, I have grown to appreciate the value of Sunday morning even if I think it’s accouterments are not essential to church.[5]  Third, and most importantly, I get the sense that when I say “church,” you know I’m talking about something much bigger than bricks, hymnals, service orders, carpet colors, ties, jeans, and preaching.  I’m talking about being a piece of the group that God has gathered in order to entrust it with being the earthly representation of Christ – the footwashing, enemy loving, forgiving, listening, providing, healing, and darkness piercing community of Jesus.  The community that God has formed and by grace has chosen to live in. The more I see River Street moving in that direction the less I think of my life as a search for the Church as much as an opportunity to be the Church.   

[1] Another great passage along these lines is John 4:19-26.  The Samaritan woman asks Jesus to decide between two places where God was purported to live.  Jesus denounces both.
[2] In fact, just today I had a two hour conversation about the Church.
[3] I’m certainly not drawn in because of the flashy name.
[4] If you’re looking for examples of things Jesus did that we could do re-read the book of Luke.
[5] Consider this hard thought/question: If we were all mute, so no one could preach, surely we could still be a church.  Or if music was outlawed, surely we could still be the church.  If the building burned down?  If we couldn’t meet on a Sunday?  I shudder to think that  we would build the Church on any foundation less than Christ—we would do so at our own peril. 


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