It wasn't too long ago that I gave a talk here in Monroe about "selling the church." What began as a conversation about "cell churches" got misunderstood in a meeting and quickly became a discussion about "selling church." I found that provocative for a number of reasons. I wonder as we live in an era that is looking more and more like a "post religious institutional" world what you and me are going to do as time passes?
When I say "post religious institutionalism", here are some of the background considerations: Think about how easy it is to understand the "Church" purely and simply in institutional forms. The reason is because that specific understanding is our default position of mind. In other words, think of the "defaults" in many issues, experiences, entities in life…for example:
- Microsoft's PowerPoint presentation program defaults to text and bullet points not images (which is interesting in that most people learn and retain more information visually through pictures not by remembering words)
- Most musicians like myself who play electric guitar have an amplifier that defaults at 11 (that is supposed to be a thinly veiled reference to a rock and roll movie classic, "Spinal Tap").
- An automobile's engine default is what we call idling.
- A default in most relationships is selfishness and narcissism…in other words, we learn to love, share, given and enter into intimacy.
Think about it for a moment, there are defaults in all sorts of things in life. What others can you think of? You see, an understanding of "Default" is helpful because, for most of us who are involved in the "Church", our default understanding of Church is that of the institution. For most of us, we were all brought up with that image and experience and it is natural for us to think "church" and think institutionally. Many people assume the "Church" is a building…something firmly planted on a corner or in a neighborhood or even in a strip mall…something that embodies a professional religious staff, promotes and facilitates programs for its constituents, and has a specified budget to fund its religious services. That default of the definition of "Church" has been set for centuries. When the Greek word, "ekklesia" was translated into English, it was translated "Church"…which, in most people's minds at that time and even now, was primarily an institution. Unfortunately, that was not the meaning of the word in its specific context.
"Ekklesia" is best translated, "called to gather" or "gathering/community", which if you consider it, dramatically reshapes our understanding of what the bible discusses as "Church" as well as underscores the powerful words of Jesus when he said in Matthew 18:20,
"where two or more are gathered in my name, I am there in the midst of them"
In this manner, the "Church" can meet anytime and anyplace. That wouldn't preempt any meaning from what many of us regard as traditional Church…but it does expand our understanding of what Church can be as well as underscore how important we are in the "economy" of God. Let's state it simply – the "Church" is where Jesus dwells…it is a gathering of disciples where the presence of God fills those participating with possibility and power.
So what shapes the "Church" in this instance? Jesus does! That's why we have to take the time to not only clarify what "Church" is and can be but also investigate and define what it is to be a Church on mission. Another thought to consider is this – the "Church" is better defined by our Identity as followers of Jesus than it is defined by church-based activities or membership in an institution. Many people define the "Church" primarily by what the Church does, not who the Church is. Unfortunately, this leads to an understanding of the "Church" that defines it not by God's work, but by OUR work, leading to a view that WE build the "Church" instead of Jesus (through the power of his Holy Spirit). With this understanding, "Church" can become formulaic – anybody who simply implements the forms or activities of "Church" can call what they do the Church of Jesus Christ. This is "church" based upon OUR works and not Church based upon the work of Jesus Christ. Jesus said he would build his Church, not us. This sometimes stems from a human-centered understanding of the Gospel (It is my decision – my work – that saves me) but it can also lead to a human-centered Church (It is all about what we do that defines us, not what Jesus has done).
Biblically, a follower of Jesus is defined by their "sentness" and obedience to the call of Jesus (revealed in and through life) not by attendance. A Christ-follower believes that God is on a mission and that we are to join him in it (Ephesians 1:3-14). Jesus never did say to "go to church and learn"…He did say to "follow Me and I will make you fishers of men". There is a subtle but profound difference in seeing oneself as a follower and not a member (membership denotes an "us vs. them", who is "in and out" mentality). We must remember: We Are Who We Are Because of What Jesus Has Done and Is Doing…Our Being comes out of His Being and Doing…and Our Being and Doing Proceeds from Our Being in Christ! The Church is REALLY God's People (who we are) saved by God's Power (what He has done and is doing) for God's Purposes (the good works that as we live our lives in and through Jesus Christ we do.)
SO, let me FINALLY get back to that initial paragraph about "post religious institutionalism." You see, a biblical understanding of Church really has little to do with institutionalism. In so many respects, institutions are losing their significance in our world. Think about what were once viable institutions (church, marriage, various service clubs and organizations, universities, banks, etc.) have been redefined or even "taken over" by power structures or power ideologies (vestiges of Empire) that transcend what we would normally define as institutions. Yes, there are many local churches that look institutional because of their size – but a religious group only "institutionalizes" over generations. What is big today might not morph into "big" or significant in the future. What makes the "church" what it is is not its institutional status but the sum total of its people empowered by God to do God's work in the world. God doesn't need more institutions…He needs you and me. So, give that some thought. How is God going to use YOU to change the world He loves?