What’s Church for? Church as Famine Zone

‘The days are coming,’ declares the Sovereign Lord, ‘when I will send a famine through the land— not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord.’

I’m aware that when you go looking for something to prove a point you usually find it, but I have been struck just over the past couple of months by the sheer number of people who have come into my orbit who have given up on church, but not on God. Now of course this is not a new phenomenon: Alan Jamieson wrote a masterly study of the subject back in 2002 (A Churchless Faith, London: SPCK). But never have I encountered so many people in quick succession who are Christians but no longer churchgoers. So I have been conducting my own piece of market research, and trying to discern what it was that has made them neglect meeting together in church. Again and again I heard the same narrative. These are not people who have left in anger, who have been hurt or abused or who have particularly fallen out with anyone. They left because they wanted to grow in God, but were not being fed. They just couldn’t see the point of staying.

 

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My ministry has always been a teaching ministry, so forgive me if I get a bit worked up about this, but my key verse has long been Colossians 1:28: ‘admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ.’ I also resonate with Paul’s passion for maturity in Gal 4:19: ‘My dear children … I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you.’ Yet people are telling me that in spite of really trying hard, they simply can’t stand to remain in churches where nothing they hear moves them onward in their faith.

This famine takes a variety of forms: for some it is about an aversion to lengthy periods of singing banal and facile worship-songs at the expense of nourishing teaching. For others they are fed up with hearing the gospel preached week after week, but with nothing to nurture those who have responded to it years ago. Every sermon is about ‘Have you given your life to Christ? If not you need to do it today.’ For still others there is a diet of ‘Jesus loves you very, very much indeed, so everything is going to be fine’ every week, while others were supposed to grow in Christ on a diet of liberal platitudes (I once heard a sermon, the full text of which I give you here: ‘As long as we just love each other nothing much can go wrong. Amen.’), or political opinions. We may get homilies about Saints from past ages, or explanations (again!) of the meaning of the particular feast-day or occasion, or we may simply get a few holy thoughts on the lectionary (for which read the Gospel of the day – hence my attempt to blog on the OT passage).

So where is the systematic and strategic application of the Word of God to people’s lives where they are actually being lived? When are we going to hear something we don’t already know, which we haven’t been told hundreds of times before, and which will take us another step towards Christian maturity? I have attempted in a small way to encourage us to take the teaching ministry more seriously, in my How to Preach Strategically (Cambridge: Grove W211, 2012 – see www.grovebooks.co.uk) . But I can’t help thinking, faithful study and preaching by many leaders notwithstanding, that we are living in a time when the word of the Lord is rare. I commend to you the strapline of one of my favourite churches: ‘Meet God: Meet friends: Live life better’. If only more teachers and preachers could be trained and equipped to help people do that.

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What’s Church For? Church as ‘Big Business’

Is the Church a business? That’s a question which is asked from time to time, usually expecting the answer ‘No!’, and often in response to calls to become a bit more efficient in what we do. My boss when I was a member of Bishop’s Senior Staff in one diocese used to say to clergy that if they expected to get a pay cheque at the end of each month then Church was indeed a business! My answer is that church is certainly more than just a business, but that it cannot be less. So let’s have a look at this question, and what lies beneath it.

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We do have a bit of an aversion to thinking of Church in these terms. Whilst the C of E, with its sheer weight of bureaucracy and its establishment as the state church is probably a bit less nervous about this, other denominations would resist the idea strongly. I suspect that this is due to the image of the commercial world in which businesses are there solely to make money, where no-one cares about anyone else, where the art is to climb the corporate ladder as quickly as possible, never mind who you have to trample on to do so … you know all the caricatures. If that’s what business really is, then clearly the Church has a completely different set of values. But there may be other ways of looking at the commercial world, which can speak a lot more positively to the Church.

It may be that business is about getting the job done as effectively and efficiently as possible. It may be about requiring the right kinds of behaviour in order to get it done, and holding to account those who fail to act in the right ways. It may be about having such a firm belief in your product that you can’t help but sell it to those to whom it would be of benefit. And it may be about investing in employees so that they are mentored and coached to reach their full potential as members of the company. In that case Christians might not feel quite so negative about the idea that Church ought to look a bit more like this.

But it is my conviction that there is an even more compelling reason why Church ought at the very least to be businesslike. Quite simply, the bumbling inefficiency with which many churches run will in the end inhibit growth. We may put a high value on being a ‘happy family’ where relationships count for far more than effectiveness does (see my blog on ‘Church as Family’ here: https://revjohnleach.com/2014/03/05/whats-church-for-church-as-family/) but that approach is unlikely to grow the church beyond around 65 members. (It is worth saying that I am an unapologetic fan of numerical church growth: the only reason a church should be small is that it is constantly planting out new congregations.) Show me a seriously large church, and I’ll show you a church which takes seriously the business side of running itself. Somewhere like Holy Trinity Brompton is, with its ‘Alpha’ franchise, is a multi-million pound business, and as a result hundreds of thousands of people around the world have been touched by, and benefitted from, its ministry. That quite simply couldn’t have happened if it was run from a corner of the church hall by an administrator who could only just use a computer. With hundreds of employees (and the last I heard an HR department of four staff), there is a lot of business to take care of, and yet this church has not ceased being at its heart a parish church where the gospel is faithfully preached, the people are discipled, and God is worshipped.

Most local churches aren’t HTB, of course, but I can’t help but think that a more businesslike approach might do us all good. We have a product to ‘sell’ (faith in Jesus Christ), a workforce to sell it (the congregation), bills to pay, and a choice about whether we’re going to try to reach a greater proportion of the marketplace, or stay content with the ones we’ve got. So to invest in our image, our advertising, our buildings, our people, isn’t, surely, to sell our soul to the god of Mammon? Thinking like a business, of course, is not the magic ingredient to bring revival to our land, but I certainly reckon it could help.
What do you think?

What’s Church For? Luke 10 Church

Over the past few weeks I’ve looked at some different models and understandings of church, both biblical and not-quite-so. I haven’t anywhere near finished with church yet, and I’m aiming to get a bit more gritty as we continue this series, but first I thought I might try out on my dear readers a model which is certainly drawn from Scripture, and which I believe ought to capture the essence of what church is for.

I can’t claim this will be a scholarly exegesis of Luke 10, nor am I even sure that what I am about to describe suggests as clear a paradigm as I might wish it would, so I simply want to say that this model is to me a highly suggestive one, which we might do well to think about.

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The story goes that in the previous chapter Jesus has sent out his 12 disciples to drive out demons, heal the sick and preach the kingdom (in that order). Then at the start of Luke 10 he sends out a larger group, of 70 or 72 depending on which manuscripts you read. Again they were to heal the sick and proclaim the kingdom, although this time Jesus recognised in his instructions that there might be the possibility of them facing a bit of opposition (was this something he learnt from feedback when the 12 returned? Discuss).

Anyway, and here comes the church model, the 72 return in v 17, obviously delighted at how their deliverance ministry had gone. Jesus seems thrilled too, and in v 21, enabled by the Holy Spirit, he is filled with joy, not, interestingly, because some demons had been kicked out, but because this newly-formed team of beginners had learnt so much from the experience. But in between these two verses Jesus is found giving further teaching to the disciples, both to reassure them about their authority in him, but also to direct their enthusiasm more correctly. The section ends with him again telling his disciples how privileged they are to have been a part of this ministry.

That’s all we get, but bear with me, because it seems to me that this might have been more than a one-off occasion, and if so might provide a radical vision for the nature of church, or at least church services. Just imagine a Sunday morning meeting which looked like this:

Everybody gathers full of the Holy Spirit and joy because of what they have seen God doing through them during the previous week to heal, set free, and give new life. The church leader shares in their enthusiasm, but also gives them a bit more teaching. Then they’re all sent out again to see what God is going to do in the week ahead. The next Sunday they come and celebrate together again, receive more teaching, and so it goes on, as more and more people experience the new life of the kingdom of God.

The problem is, though, that most weeks when we gather we haven’t actually seen God do anything, nor, quite honestly, do we have any expectation that he’s going to do very much in the week ahead. So all we have left is ‘church’: the celebration is non-existent, so we just sing hymns and say liturgy; the teaching is pointless so we just listen to platitudes or academic theology, and then we go home to our lunch.

I’m not sure where we break into this cycle, but wouldn’t it be interesting to try?

What’s Church For? Church as Army

What’s Church For? Church as Army

I’ll make no bones about it: I have always thought of church as an army. I can’t help it, it’s just my age and my sex. I’m a bloke, and I just like the idea. In the old days, when we used to frequent such places, we would occasionally visit Blockbuster to choose a video for an evening off. As you can imagine my wife, being a girl (another quaint idea nowadays), headed straight for the romcom aisle to find a nice film about relationships and love. Meanwhile I went off to find something where Arnie or someone saved the world and blew up a load of stuff, or Beatrix Kiddo dismembered a few people with her Hattori Hanzo sword. So it’s not surprising that I tend to see church in similar ways, although with a bit less dismembering. We have a battle to fight, an Enemy to defeat, people to rescue, ground to take, poor people to feed and broken people to heal. Add to that the fact that one of the most formative periods in my Christian upbringing was the late 70s and early 80s, when we used to sing all those songs about treading down our enemies and entering the land in heavenly armour, calling on the principalities and powers to bow down and acknowledge that Jesus is Lord. Those were the days, before the political correctness police got their hands on Christian worship. So you can see where I get it from.

But is this a biblical picture of church? Did Jesus or Paul conceive of it in this way? As with some other models we’ve looked at, I can’t point you to a verse which is the equivalent of Paul saying ‘You are the Body of Christ’. But it does seem to me that the idea of battle, struggle and victory pervades the Scriptures. In the OT, which I’ll admit does contain some difficult passages about slaughtering people, God’s people were often to be found at war against someone or other, and often defending themselves. I love the throw-away comment in 1 Samuel 11 where David the king is staying in Jerusalem spying from his palace roof ‘at the time when kings go off to war’. There is an implied rebuke: if David had been out on the battlefield as he should have been, he would never have got into the mess he did with Bath-sheba and Uriah the Hittite. If as a church we really were fighting for the land we just wouldn’t have the time nor the inclination to argue about women bishops and all that other stuff which so preoccupies us. In the NT we’re told very clearly a) that we’re in a battle, and b) that it’s against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. So although the Bible doesn’t specifically call the church an army, it clearly thinks that there’s fighting to be done.

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A church which sees itself as an army will place a high value on things like prayer, training, learning study and discipline, because it will want to be as fit and as well-equipped as it can for the mission God has for it. It will also be purposeful, and is more likely to attract men. It will know how to mourn its defeats, and it will pick itself up, dust itself down and start all over again, because war is like that. And if it seems a bit of a harsh model after the nice family and haven ones we’ve been thinking about recently, remember that armies too have relationships, but they’re called ‘camaraderie’. There is no friendship like that with people we’ve fought alongside in battle, whose wounds we have bound up, and maybe even whose lives we have saved. I love the idea of church as a field hospital rather than a convalescent home, or even an old people’s home. This is the model for me!

Soon I’m going to move on from biblical images and look more closely at the church as it really is today. This will give me the opportunity for a bit more of a rant about some of the problems I think are facing us, and what we might do about them. But before that, next time – a ‘Luke 10’ model for church, and after that Church as Big Business.

What’s Church For? Church as Haven

Last week we looked at that most popular of models of church, ‘happy family’, and I suggested that this model was both unhelpful and probably unbiblical, at least as a way to think about the local congregation. This week’s model is different but related: church as ‘Haven’.

If you want a perfect illustration of the thinking behind this model, there is nowhere where it is stated more clearly that in a couple of lines from Henry Francis Lyte’s famous hymn Abide with me:

Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.

This hymn, popular at funerals and, inexplicably, cup finals, is about the approach to the end of life. Lyte wrote it whilst busy dying of TB, and actually survived only a further three weeks after its completion. I’m not there yet myself, but I guess it reflects an old man’s bewilderment at a changing world, and his readiness to go to a better place (although Lyte was only 56 when he died). As such it popularises a spirituality common among older people, particularly in an age of rapid culture change and technological innovation. Everywhere I look I find a world changed beyond recognition, almost as though I were living in a foreign land, where I don’t speak the language or understand the culture. So thank goodness that in the shifting sands of life there is one place where I can look for unchanging succour. Church, so the reasoning goes, is meant to be the place where I can go to get my dose of the familiar, a place where I feel safe, where I understand the rules, a place where ‘naught changes’. My church is my safe haven against the changes and chances of life in a world where I no longer feel at home. ‘Change’, note, is synonymous with ‘decay’, rather than ‘growth’, ‘development’ or improvement.

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Whilst this sense of what the sociologists call ‘cultural dislocation’ is understandable, and while it is particularly understandable among a generation brought up in a stable world where change has suddenly began to spin out of control, it betrays an interesting and ultimately unhelpful view of church, and of God. Note first of all that Lyte sees God as the unchangeable point of reference; God, not his church. We have mistranslated his words to mean that church should never change, a sentiment which manifests itself most clearly in the matters of liturgy, music and buildings. God is indeed unchanging, but it has been said that ‘change is the angel of the unchanging God’. As we have already said in this blog God is actually a God of pilgrimage, a God who constantly leads his people purposefully forward. Sadly churches which see themselves as safe havens against change are often churches on their own deathbeds.

Of course we need to care pastorally for those nearing the end of their lives, and perhaps feeling disorientated and frightened. But to see a church as a safe haven from the storms of life is diametrically opposite to the pioneering and adventuring spirit to which I believe we are called. If we’re quoting hymns, I much prefer this one:

All my hope on God is founded;
he doth still my trust renew,
me through change and chance he guideth,
only good and only true.   (Robert Bridges)

We need a God who guides us through change, not who saves us from it.

What’s Church For? Church as Family

How many times have you heard (or indeed used) the term ‘The Church Family’?

I reckon that most churches have self-designated themselves as families at one time or another, and I can see why. It sounds like a great model of church – a happy family where we all love one another and are always nice to each other. A place where all can find a welcome, and where anyone can belong and be loved. Yet I want to suggest that this is one of the least helpful models of church. Perhaps that’s why it is so hard to find in the pages of scripture.

It is clear that God is pro-family: it isn’t good for people to be alone, and he sets the solitary in families (Ps 68:6). The term is used several times in the epistles (Gal 6:10, 1 Th 4:10, 1 Pet 2:17, 5:9 for example) but usually in the form of ‘God’s family’ or ‘the family of believers’. Never once is it used of a local church, but rather of all those, whether in a large region such as Macedonia, or in an even larger unspecified and therefore probably universal area. Christians who are adopted by God become members of his family, but that family is never seen as just a local congregation. The church universal may be a family, but the church local never is. It is fascinating that in 1 Tim 3 we’re told that a church leader should manage his own (human) family properly. If he can’t do that, how can he be expected to manage ‘God’s church’? Not ‘the church family’, as you might expect. The author deliberately shies away from using that phrase, which would have been a much more satisfying piece of writing.

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So why isn’t a local church meant to be a family? First of all because, unlike the picture of pilgrimage we used last week a family is essentially a purposeless thing. Families ‘are’: they don’t of necessity ‘do’ or ‘go’. They’re held together by relationships, not by purpose, and therefore are bodies much more attractive to women than to task-orientated men (I generalise, but I can defend this generalisation). Secondly, there is no growth imperative in the term ‘family’. In fact most families reach the time where they take deliberate steps to ensure that they don’t grow any bigger! Sadly many churches do too. Thirdly, families in real life tend to be selective in whom they let in. ‘PLUs’ are welcome (People Like Us), but there can be all sorts of devices and signals which say to others ‘Keep out!’ And if they are allowed in, it can be because they are poor and needy, and looking for welcome and shelter, rather than because they are fired up and ready to go on a mission. There’s the appeal to the feminine side again. Church as ‘family’ can quickly become church as ‘hospital’, where only needy people are made really welcome, and even then only some needy people. And finally families can be deeply dysfunctional, but are very adept at hiding it because keeping up the front of loving relationships is all-important, much more important in fact than honesty and genuine dealing with conflict. Church families, like human ones, can be deeply destructive and hurtful. Trust me, I know: I’m an out-of-work vicar!

I reckon we’d all do much better to remove this non-biblical term from our vocabulary. I’m going to suggest a better one to replace it, but first I’ll talk about one more model which I reckon is unbiblical and unhelpful. Next week: Church as ‘Haven’.

What’s Church For? Church as Pilgrim People

This week’s image of the church is one you won’t find in so many words anywhere in Scripture, and yet it is implied on virtually every page. The word ‘pilgrim’ and its relative terms do not occur in my NIV version at all. And yet from that fateful moment in Gen 3 when Adam and Eve are driven out of Eden God’s people have been people on the move. Another landmark of pilgrimage comes in Gen 12 when God tells Abraham to ‘leave’ all that he knows and to ‘go’ to the place yet to be revealed to him. This is the essence of pilgrimage, leaving, journeying and, eventually, arriving. It is interesting that in the Bible arrival is often synonymous with ‘rest’: Hebrews 4 talks about this particularly. So a good definition of church which works well for me is that we are a bunch of people on a journey to the new heavens and earth, and inviting others to join us as we go. As a model of church this one has a lot going for it: it is dynamic, not static; it is purposeful, and it is evangelistically focussed. For those with the right mindset it can be an exciting, exploratory journey, with new possibilities and no opportunity to get bored. Some however find this model a bit exhausting, perhaps those who prefer a holiday lying on the beach in the same place they go every year rather than cruising the Caribbean or climbing Kilimanjaro.

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I can remember years ago hearing a charismatic speaker talking about the frequent accusations of ‘triumphalism’ levelled again the renewal movement. ‘I don’t believe in “triumphalism”’, he commented, ‘but I do believe in triumph!’ Since then my definition of ‘triumphalism’ has been ‘wanting your triumph too early before it’s ready’. I think there is something similar going on in church circles: so often we want our rest too early. Next time I’ll be looking at church as ‘haven’, the idea that church is a safe place amid the storms and ravages of life. By definition pilgrims do not play it safe, do not settle down, do not retrace old ground, but keep moving forward, setting their faces towards the new Jerusalem whatever hardship might await them on the way. Perhaps the greatest definition of a pilgrim lifestyle is that of Paul in Phil 3:12-14:

Not that I have … already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, 14 I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus.

So what would a ‘pilgrim’ church look like? It would first and foremost be adventurous, never playing it safe. It would be, in the immortal words, ‘purpose-driven’, and it would have about it a sense of wonder and excitement. It would know how to celebrate, not just because of the ultimate destination but also because of the little staging posts safely reached along the way. It would attract younger people and men, and it would be gloriously life-affirming.

Sounds good to me!

What ‘s Church for? Church as Bride

Having looked at the Greek and Hebrew words which refer to ‘church’ we move this week to look at another term in common usage: church as the ‘Bride of Christ’. How useful is this in the self-identification of a church community? And how biblical is it actually?

The references (and they are not very explicit) come only in the Gospels and at the end of Revelation. Nowhere is Paul’s clear statement that ‘you are the body of Christ’ made of us as bride. In the Gospels the emphasis is much more on Jesus as the bridegroom: this picks up on much Jewish imagery about the new age of the coming Messiah being described as a wedding. There are two key motifs here: waiting and urgency. ‘Why aren’t your disciples miserable like us?’ ask the Pharisees of Jesus. The answer is that at the moment the bridegroom is here: this is no time for fasting and mourning. But he is about to go, and ultimately come back. In the meantime we wait, but we wait with a sense of urgency, because he might come back literally at any moment, and we need to be ready. This is the thrust of several gospel passages.

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There are two isolated references in the epistles: in 2 Cor 11 Paul fears that the Christians to whom he is writing might have lost the plot. He promised them to Christ as a pure virginal bride, but they have instead ‘committed adultery’ by adopting false doctrine. This picks up an OT prophetic image of false religion as adulterous. And then in Ephesians 5 the point is made that wives are under the authority of their husbands as the church is to Christ. This idea may seem to us as quaint as the idea that brides are virgins, but we’ll tiptoe past that one.

But most of the references are from Revelation, and only really from chapter 19 when the battles have been fought and won, and God’s people are ready to enter the new creation. But if we look carefully the church is never here described as the ‘Bride of Christ’ – that title is reserved for the heavenly city, the new Jerusalem. As is his wont John is setting up a contrast between the tarty woman of Rev 17, dressed up to the nines in all her seductive gaudiness, and the pure bride dressed in white linen. The prostitute, we discover, is the archetypal evil city, manifested at different times as Babel, Babylon and now Rome, so her purified counterpart is the new Jerusalem.

What does this mean for a church which thinks of itself as the Bride of Christ? It is both a call and a promise, with a bit of waiting in between. The call is basically to live with purity, not perversion. The promise is of a renewed creation, when all blemishes and wrinkles will be removed. And in the meantime we wait, living faithfully in a love relationship with Jesus.

The Bride is not the predominant model of church, and it certainly isn’t a very blokey one (we’ll be remedying that later in the series). But it does present us with that challenge and that promise. Next time we’ll go for a less sitting-and-waiting model as we consider church as pilgrimage.

What’s Church For? Church as ‘Qahal’

Called together

Last time we looked at the NT word ‘ekklesia’ which we said suggested a bunch of people ‘called out’ from one lifestyle into another, very different one. So it’s only fair that we look at the OT equivalent word. Immediately, of course, we have a problem, since the Christian church doesn’t actually feature in a big way in the Old Testament. But we can do a bit of detective work by using the Septuagint (a translation of the Hebrew OT into Greek dating from the 2nd century). One word is overwhelming translated into Greek as ‘ekklesia’, the Hebrew word Qahal. Most of our English versions translate Qahal as ‘congregation’ or ‘assembly’, hence its common application to the ‘church’ in the OT. The term ‘Qahal Yahweh’ describes the gathering of the people of God, often for worship and/or instruction.

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But there is a subtle difference between Qahal and ekklesia: while the latter has the sense of referring to a congregation of people who have been called ‘out’, Qahal is much more about being called ‘together’, hence its translation as ‘assembly’. Of course the one implies the other, but in the OT the sense is much more about a gathered assembly. The cognate Arabic word has the meaning of ‘to speak’, so the ‘assembly’ might be people gathered to listen to a sermon or speech. The term ‘Qoheleth’ related closely to Qahal, the name for the ‘Teacher’ of the book of Ecclesiastes (interesting name!) may refer to one who addresses assemblies of people, as a preacher or teacher would. But the unmistakeable sense, which is complementary to that of the NT term, is of a crowd of people who have been called together to assemble. The Christian church could appropriately be described as people who have been called out to be called together.

We noted last week the moral dimension of having been ‘called out’, and the tendency of some Christians to want to keep a foot in both camps, rather than making a clean break with the past behind them and the world around them. But the term Qahal also challenges some contemporary thinking about church. Firstly it makes us think very hard about so-called ‘communities’ where people don’t actually meet. Various attempts at ‘virtual church’ and ‘online church’ have been attempted, but I’m not sure how convinced I am. Of course those much younger than I am would protest that e-communities are every bit as real and valid, and they certainly do have value, as I discovered when I was recovering from serious surgery and felt so encouraged by well-wishers on social media. But can they really replace the face-to-face gathering of people for worship and teaching? Discuss!

Secondly, though, the term challenges, I believe, the growing trend for what Alan Jamieson’s famous book called ‘Churchless Faith’ (2002). I can understand only too well how more and more people find that they have better things to do with their precious lives than to sit in cold and musty buildings singing dreary songs and hymns, listening to irrelevant drivel from the front, and drinking awful coffee. It used to be non-Christians who used to say ‘You don’t have to go to church to be a Christian’: now more and more it’s ex-committed churchgoers. It does, of course, behove the Qahal and its Qoheleths to be worth the bother of assembling for, but at the same time I am as concerned as I have ever been about Christians who believe that they can go it alone and still grow and thrive. We need one another, and I believe we need one another face to face.

What’s Church For? Church as Ekklesia

We’ve looked at a recent bit of church history through my highly selective and biased eyes, and now we’ve begun to explore some of the biblical pictures with which the church is described. Today I want to look at the predominant NT word, ekklesia the word from which we get terms such as ‘ecclesiastical’ and indeed ‘ecclesiology’ which is what we’re doing right now. What does this word tell us about what Church is for?

Word studies are, of course, highly dangerous. In my Liturgy and Liberty (MARC, 1986) I attempt to use the word ‘green’ to explain to alien readers what the English word really means, which is that it describes jealous, inexperienced and nauseous ETs who live in houses made of glass. We know this is nonsense, but it is no worse than many sermons we’ve all heard which explain what the Greek and Hebrew terms really mean. But I don’t think we’ll be committing hermeneutical murder if we think of the word’s root meaning of ‘calling out’, not in the sense of heckling but of being called to leave one place or lifestyle and go to another. I find it helpful to think of the church as a bunch of people who have heard God’s call to leave and to travel.

This picture has good OT precedent, as far back as Abraham, who was called in Gen 12:1 to ‘Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you’. Since then God’s people have been people on the move, and a static church seems to me to be a contradiction in terms. But there are two different but complementary interpretations of this journey, both of which are important for the Church to take seriously.

The first is more to do with leaving, in the sense of repentance. Again and again the NT calls Christians out of previous lifestyles and standards of behaviour and into something better. Jesus launched himself into ministry in Mk 1:14 with the word ‘Repent!’ and it became a constant refrain of his teaching. ‘Unless you change’, he told his would-be followers, ‘you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’. The epistles are full of this stuff, and the most notable example is where the author of Ephesians insists in 4:17 that his readers ‘no longer live as the Gentiles do’, a phrase all the more telling, of course, as those to whom he was writing were Gentiles. So 21st century British disciples must no longer live as 21st century British people do. A church which seems constantly to be accommodating itself to the spirit and the behaviour of the age, in order that it might appeal more to those outside its walls, has lost the plot big-time. The Liberal movement of the last century had this explicit aim, to make the gospel more believable and the church more accessible. I’m not convinced it hasn’t been counter-productive.

 

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But the second application of the meaning of being ‘called out’ has more to do with destination than life-style. In Gen 12 God was highly specific about what Abraham had to leave (his country, his people, his father’s household) but gloriously vague about where he was headed (‘to the land I will show you’). We are not called from sitting in one place to sitting in a different place: we’re called to pilgrimage, journey, uncertainty and insecurity. The call of God to Abraham comes more than once, and the call of God to his church is a constant one. Whenever we think we’ve made it and can settle, that call comes again. All we know is that will be a final destination, and a rest for those who have travelled long and hard. But in the meantime we keep on walking.