You’re probably familiar with statements such as, “we don’t GO to church. We ARE the church.” There are similar ones that go something like this: “Church is not what we do when we gather on Sunday mornings for an hour or so. Church is not a place or a building. It’s what we are OUT THERE.” Well, I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately and, although there’s some truth and some wisdom in these statements (which I’ve spoken myself), I’m no longer so sure about them on the whole.
This kind of thinking has developed enough steam over the last few decades that I think you could fairly call it a “movement.” I’d suggest that its full name is the “anti-church-as-an-institution-or-building” movement. It’s also quite opposed to all forms of regular, traditional (and, especially) LOCAL churches. I attended a pastors’ convention in June in which a youth pastor preached one of the workshops. According to his senior pastor, this particular young pastor was being greatly influenced by his buddies in the International House of Prayer (IHOP) movement (which may or may not be influencing him in this area). Anyway, the main thrust of his message was that “we need to get free from the local church” and “we’ve got to get away from local church kind of thinking and get out there and be the kingdom.” Naturally, I couldn’t help but notice that he was saying this in a local church that paid him a nice salary, etc., but I digress.
In the past year, one of my good friends whom I deeply respect – a thoughtful Christian with a PhD in philosophy – dropped out of the local church. He, like many others, thinks that it would be better to simply be a follower of Christ “OUT THERE,” meeting with various close friends in various settings, committing oneself to a group of fellow disciples who meet in various contexts. Frank Viola and the late, great Internet Monk (Michael Spencer) have written books in support of this line of thinking. Another man I respect, Wayne Jacobson, a former pastor in my hometown of Visalia, California, has now dedicated his life to these ideas and to this “anti-church” movement. He and his partner are the guys who formed Windblown Media – the publisher of THE SHACK. Speaking of the SHACK, I’m one of those people who enjoyed that book and recommend it to folks struggling to understand how God can be a good, loving, and gracious God in the midst of unthinkable tragedy and suffering. I think it’s a helpful book on several levels. Its main weakness, in my opinion, is one that’s not often mentioned. I think that the book (and its author, I presume) presents an extremely weak, if non-existent, ecclesiology. For our English speaking friends, I’m saying that the book subtly presents a very low view of the importance and significance of the local church. Barna put out a book a few years ago charting this anti-church phenomenon and called it a REVOLUTION. Keven Miller, in his critique of Barna’s book called it an ABDICATION. For reasons that I will outline below, I’d have to agree with Miller and go with the “abdication” theory. Miller wrote, “Barna’s enthusiasm for First Church of the Individual raises troubling questions.” To my mind, that would be quite the understatement.
I will say that I’m not alone in my apprehensions about this “non-church” and “anti-institutional” movement. I’d like to mention two of my allies, Eugene Peterson and P.T. O’Brien. I’ll begin with O’Brien and his article on “church” in IVP’s “Dictionary of Paul and His Letters.” A friend of mine, Steve Bryan (one our church’s “missionaries” who earned his PhD in New Testament from Cambridge) suggested that I read (or re-read) O’Brien’s article. I did read it – and I am sure glad I did. My suggestion is that everybody give it a careful reading. This is a brief summary (at least, as I read them) of O’Brien’s findings:
- In the centuries before the New Testament, the term ekklesia was used for political gatherings, the assembly of “full citizens” of the polis. Ekklesia only existed when it actually assembled.
- In the LXX (the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible), ekklesia NEVER referred to Israel as a national unit. It always referred to an actual assembly or gathering of people. “It did NOT designate an ‘organization’ or ‘society.’”
- Ekklesia is used 114 times in the New Testament – 62 times by Paul. Paul does not use the term as a metaphor. To Paul, it is descriptive of an actual object. Unless on the rare occasion when he uses the term for the “heavenly” church (i.e. the “future” church, the heavenly kingdom of God on earth), he only applies the term ekklesiato an actual gathering of people. “It is doubtful whether Paul (or the rest of the New Testament) uses ekklesia in a collective way.” The primary use of the wordekklesia as a gathering of actual people predominates overwhelmingly in the NT.
- The local church (each local church) is not part of the church of God nor a church of God. Each local church is THE church of God – the only form it takes in this present age. Each local church is a reflection and manifestation of the “future ekklesia” (the completed, fulfilled Kingdom on earth – which will, indeed, be a universal gathering when the whole universe becomes the dwelling place of God, the holy of holies). The church (each local church) truly is an outpost or a colony “from the future” – that is, each church is an eschatological church, the kingdom in advance and in locale.
- Christians were reminded and admonished (Heb. 10:25) to assemble in local congregations here on earth, for this was an important way in which their fellowship with Christ was expressed. When they met like this with each other, they also met with Christ himself who indwelt them corporately and individually.
Well, that’s my interpretive summary of O’Brien’s excellent article. Others can read it and reach their own conclusions. I turn now to my second ally. Eugene Peterson, in his book, “The Jesus Way,” writes:
It is interesting to note that Jesus, who in abridged form is quite popular with the non-church crowd, was not anti-institutional… Those who followed Jesus, followed him into buildings, into religious institutions… We sometimes say, thoughtlessly I think, that the church is not a building. It’s people. I’m not so sure. Synagogues and temples, cathedrals, chapels, and storefront meeting halls provide continuity in place and community for Jesus to work his will among his people. A place, a building, collects stories and develops associations that give local depth and breadth and continuity to our experience of following Jesus. We must not try to be more spiritual than Jesus in this business. Following Jesus means following him into sacred buildings that have a lot of sinners in them, some of them very conspicuous sinners. Jesus doesn’t seem to mind… A spirituality that has no institutional structure or support very soon becomes self-indulgent and one-generational (pp. 230-232).
In saying all this, however, I should probably say what I’m NOT saying. I’m not saying that much of the critique of the anti-institution and no-church movement isn’t valid. The reasons for dropping out are often legitimate and real. Churches, especially the ones that I’ve encountered in the North American evangelical sub-culture, are often awash in all kinds of assumptions, blind spots, and ways of doing business that are in great need of reform. I’m not saying that local churches never hurt or harm people or groups of people. I’m not saying that churches shouldn’t do everything possible to avoid the superficiality and trivialization of worship that is all too common. I’m not saying that we should endorse the depersonalized, functionalized, market-driven approach so prevalent in many of our churches. Finally, I’m not saying that following Christ isn’t a “24/7” all-encompassing calling that does, indeed, involve all of our lives “OUT THERE,” nor that we don’t have much in common with fellow believers (and non-believers) as we work and play, live and love, in our everyday lives.
What I AM saying is that even with all that valid critique, we, like Jesus and his first followers, should think long and hard before walking out on the local church to which the Holy Spirit appointed us. To me, most of the New Testament’s instructions about elders and deacons, Baptism and Holy Communion, singing, elders who work hard at teaching and preaching, about “coming together as a church,” and all the “one anothers” (about loving, forgiving, accepting, welcoming, encouraging, rebuking one another, etc.) make no sense in Barna’s revolutionary “no church” world. Speaking of Barna, I’d like to end this thing by returning to Keith Miller’s critique of Barna’s book, REVOLUTION:
Want to become a revolutionary? Here’s my counsel. Trade your copy of Revolution for Life Together, the manifesto written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the dark days of Nazi Germany. Then, to do heroic and revolutionary exploits, stay committed to your local church – something 20 million people no longer have the courage to do.