Earlier this month I had the privilege of visiting a network of churches in Branson, Missouri, comprised of over a dozen recovery homes where people were ministering one to another in authentic community. In the context of that community of love, grace and fellowship, the Lord was using those whom He had redeemed from sin and addictions to bring healing and reconciliation to other broken people.
During the trip, I innocently made the comment that I was seeing an amazing example among them of what the “church” should be. One of the men I was talking to looked pained at my well-intentioned compliment, and responding by gently but emphatically stating they were NOT a “church”.
Over the next several days, I finally understood where he was coming from.
Too often these days we define “church” in terms of what has evolved over two millennia of human tradition. You know: the hierarchical single “pastor”(even though there is no such office in the New Testament); the front podium as the focal point; the elevated pulpit where ministry is monopolized and tightly controlled; the monologue sermon (in the NT, the Greek word for teaching almost always means “through dialog”); the pews directing all attention to the professional Christians who put on the “show”; the worship band with carefully scripted performances; and the whole passivity of attending a “service” where folks fellowship with the back of the head sitting in front of them.
Some of those things – like skilled worship teams and monologue teachings – may be perfectly appropriate for larger occasional meetings or conferences where smaller participatory and thus more relational fellowships network together. But they must never be a substitute or even the primary focus for Biblical church!
True church in the New Testament was built around smaller relational fellowships that formed authentic community. They would regularly gathered together to lift up Jesus in participatory meetings – often in each other’s homes because, I suspect, they understood that larger meetings had their place but couldn’t foster close relationships or allow them to minister one to another. And they did not have a single pastor or a hierarchical leadership structure or a pastor-centric focus, but were served by diverse elders who emerged from among them and thus were simply part of the community.
For those in Branson, they were unwilling to be branded with the hijacked term “church” and have it applied to what God was dynamically doing among them. They did not want to be viewed as “church” because church no longer means what it was intended to be in the New Testament.
They were about community and serving one another, rather than hierarchy and position. They were about ministering to each other, rather than hiring professional “ministers” to do it for them. The were about living the Gospel together, rather than Sunday “services”. They were about bearing one another’s burdens, rather than having the life sucked out of them by church programs.
In a nutshell: They were real and not “churchy”.
Have we drifted so far from Biblical norms that we can’t even call a group of Christians who are fulfilling the Biblical mandates for “church” a “church” because the word “church” has become so corrupted?
I face this dilemma all the time. People often call me “pastor”. I am very uncomfortable with the title “pastor” because it was never used in the New Testament as a church office title – but rather as a functional description of what a diversified group of elders should do and what we all are supposed to be equipped to do as we minister one to another.
Likewise, I also cringe when people ask me about our “churches”, because what that word means to them is totally divorced from its New Testament meaning, form and function – and thus totally divorced from what some of us are experiencing as we re-learn how to be the dynamic, participatory Body of Christ as taught in Scripture.
Many, like me, no longer believe in man-made, pastor-centric organizations which are centered around the Sunday “show” and which call themselves “church”. We no longer believe in the limitations of pastor-centric structures and all the programs, as opposed to ministering one to another as we learn how to use the various gifts God gives to all believers.
Instead, we are finding life – and bearing wonderful fruit – as we lift Jesus up by building relationships and finding dynamic community in Him, and as we participate one with another the joy of being the active, multi-functional and diversely-gifted Body of Christ!
To my brothers and sisters in Branson, please forgive me for offending you by calling you a “church”, but thanks nonetheless for being the church as God intended!