Earlier this week I had to get up early to go to church. That’s not unusual in and of itself, I always get up early for church. But most of you know I was out of town. This time I had a much further drive to make. I had to make about a 40 mile drive, and even then I wasn’t certain of the exact location. I knew where the building was--it was a high rise, but I didn't know exactly what floor. I had to call for directions.
When I arrived I was late. Several others had arrived much earlier. There were anywhere between 20 and 30 gathered. It eventually swelled to 45 in attendance. I wish all of you could have experienced church with me—it was everything church should be. We shared our lives, there were prayers, laughter, tears, I was able to listen to people share about some Bible studies they were involved in, theological books they were reading, even news about recent baptisms. There were a variety of ages and generations present. We shared a communal meal—some of us just grazed while others had more substantial food. All in all it was a wonderful church service that lasted several hours. There was even an alternate service going on as some of our assembly migrated upstairs to worship with an older couple who couldn’t make it down stairs. The only thing I missed was singing. We didn’t have any music for this service. That wasn’t really too surprising—the space wasn’t very conducive for singing and our song leader was several yards away under anesthesia and having his brain operated on!
Some of you are raising your eyebrows. The church service wasn’t on a Sunday—it was Tuesday. It wasn’t in a church building—it was at Baylor Hospital in Dallas. Forty-five of us were present to be with Sally and the kids while Greg was having the brain tumor removed. Even though we didn’t sing or have a sermon, we did church together and believe me, it was done well.
Some of you may question my description of church—but if you do I would like to suggest it may be because your view of church has been built upon a 1500 year old misunderstanding of the nature of the church.
Over the past 1500 years we’ve picked up a lot of baggage regarding what we call church. The church was established about 1,970-something years ago, but it evolved and changed from a simple series of relationships based upon our relationship with God to a sacred event centered upon a sacred building organized and executed by sacred professionals.
When I read the Bible I do not read of an event driven, building centered group of people. I read about a family of people who share the same Father: God, the same Savior: Jesus, and the same teacher: the Holy Spirit. They assemble, to be sure—but not so much for some organized production where only a few stand up and perform for the others ("Didn’t he preach well?" "Oh, that prayer was just too long!" "The worship leader was pretty good, but he really butchered that one song..."). The Hebrew writer tells his readers not to forsake gathering together—but the purpose of that gathering is so each person can encourage the others to not give up on Jesus, so they can spur one another on to doing good things for others, so they will hold unswervingly to the hope God has given to them. In Acts we see a group of people gathering together to share in communal meals, to discuss what they have learned from the apostles, and to encourage each other in the faith. Even in Acts 20 where some versions say Paul “preached until midnight”—the word in the Greek is not the typical word for proclamation—a sermonic monologue. The word is one from where we get the English word dialogue.
Have you noticed how little we find in the Bible about the actual assemblies and their order of worship? Most of what we know about their assemblies come out of extra-biblical documents. Of course the most detailed biblical description is 1 Corinthians 11-14 raises more questions than it answers for us! The lack of detailed explanations suggests the nature of the church is not event-driven, but relationship-driven.
Think about this: why do people become disgruntled with “church”? Many people leave church because of relationship conflict—probably more than we’d care to admit. But a significant minority of people tend to leave a congregation over consumerist issues. Here's what I mean: if the church is an event-driven thing—then everything centers on the quality of the event. Worshippers become consumers of a product. So, if I like Southern Gospel and the church I attend tends to focus on contemporary styles, then I’ll visit a church that has an event fitting my consumerist preferences. Loyalty is not an issue here: my preference over styles becomes all important. I may like an exciting pep-rally—if the church doesn’t offer that kind of event, I’ll find another that does. I feel few qualms; after all we’re just talking about an event, a product.
But what if the nature of the church is not event-driven but relationship and family-driven? Then loyalty becomes a value over style and preferences, likes and dislikes. Listen: I really like fish. Bill Kinzie brought me some fish he caught this week—already filleted and ready to cook. I will have to cook that fish outside where Terri can’t smell it. She abhors fish and gets ill trying to cook it. I can count on the fingers of one hand how often Terri has cooked me fish—and still have some fingers left over!
So, what do I do? Well, my needs aren’t being met! I like fish! My wife won’t cook fish! So, I’ll go somewhere else and find a different family to join to eat supper with! Someone who will cook the way I want them to cook. And if they change in any way, or quit meeting my preferences--or if I become bored with the way they prepare the fish--I’ll shop around and find another family to eat supper with!
Now isn’t that silly? Why? There’s more to being a family than our evening menu! What is the difference between our individual families and the family of God? You don’t like some decisions that are made in this family? Neither do I. Do some people get you aggravated? It happens to me, too! You don’t like the way we do assemblies—oh, there are a lot of things I don’t like, too! But guess what? This is your family. Family is not about events, but about relationships. Granted there are times when a family becomes abusive and dangerous—you have to leave when that happens. There are times when a family becomes so dysfunctional it becomes unhealthy to stay. But that’s the extreme isn’t it?
Church is not an event—it is a family. Over the past 1500 years church has become a sacred event complete with an altar and a sacrifice instead of a family gathering around a common table for a communal meal. It’s time we reclaimed the true nature of what it means to be church.
So what do I do? Much of our response is changing an attitude rather than merely a practice—although there’s a lot of room for changing practice. First, let me suggest you quit viewing the assembly as a product or production. Instead, view this assembly as an opportunity to connect with your family members. Make it a point to come early and then linger. Visit, hug, laugh and cry with each other. Stick around for potlucks—sit and visit and eat together. Secondly, during the assembly look around you. Be observant. Ask yourself: “Who looks lonely today? Who looks like they need a good word?” Sit by that person, or make certain you spend a few minutes listening to them. Pray with someone. Next, when you take the Lord’s Supper, don’t view it as a sacrificial meal taken at an altar. View it as a family celebration—it’s ok to look around and smile at people. Far too long we’ve shushed people during the supper because we thought it was some individualistic offering, rather than a communal meal. It’s time we reclaimed its first century roots. Finally, give up your anger over not having things your way—if things aren’t going your way. It’s not about preferences, remember? It’s about loving on each other.
I wished all of you could have experienced the church that gathered on Tuesday. It truly was a powerful service that demonstrated what the family of God is all about.
So may you experience church the way God intended. May you recognize the church is not an event--it is a family. May you honor God and love his family and may you come to know what it really means to be the church: the family of God.