Many people talk about church today, and the debate is red-hot. Church is held up by many people to be the answer to many problems. They will say things like “The only way to grow is to be part of a local church”, or “You need to be more involve in your local church”, or “if you take discipleship seriously you will get involved in your church’s small group system”. You get the idea.
Then you get those who have “left the church”, or they call it names like The System, or Religion, or the Institutional Church. To them the church is not the answer to the world’s problems but the root of most of them. I have been a passionate proponent of both these camps.
Here’s the thing though, I think that half the problem is that we are all debating or arguing about the “church” but we have very different definitions. The issues are further complicated because the first group of people often have great answers and great theologies on paper, but their lived experience is very different and this is not always acknowledged. To me one of the sad things is that the second group of church, don’t just have a different definition/understanding of “church”, many have simply written it off church altogether. You can see why it is so hard to make any sort of progress.
So when I left my last congregation (I prefer this term to saying I left the church) I was faced with this problem. God was so clearly and powerfully unravelling all my answers about what “church” was, however it was never about leaving church or discarding it. Rather the question I had was this: “Does God call what I have been experiencing these last 34 years church?”
I started to read and study the meta-narratives of the bible. In the old days I thought there was only one. Man sinned, then Jesus dies and if you accept him as Lord and Saviour you get to go to heaven. I started to see that there were bigger ones. Stories that started before the fall, in fact before creation and that can be traced all the way to beyond the point where this creation ends. Stories that go beyond even heaven to a new creation.
The amazing thing about these stories is that they all deeply involve the church, at least the way God understands it. It is a picture of church that I know both groups can agree on and would be inspired by. These stories are of the church as bride, family, body and home.
I was reading Genesis and then reading John’s Gospel as a parallel to it. The amazing thing I saw was that just as God said to Adam “It’s not good for you to be alone” and then created Eve, before creation I believe the Father said to his Son “It’s not good for you to be alone” and created a world to give Jesus a bride.
Just as Eve was created from the rib bone of Adam, so I believe the church, a cosmic bride was created from the side of Jesus when he was pierced on the cross. For me it is actually important that Jesus never married, because I see his coming to earth as him coming to meet his bride and propose to her. Where and when did that happen? I believe (thing brought tears to my eyes when I first saw it) when Jesus met the women at the well, he chose her to represent his cosmic bride and I believe what we read there is about Jesus proposing to her.
That is just one example, but for me it best illustrates how my thinking about church has changed. I used to have great theologies and theories about the church, but my lived reality was one of many meetings, or leadership development, of responsibilities and obligations to events and structures. Now the church is more relational, full of deep and rich meaning about my relationship to Jesus and to others. I just can’t go back to my old experience.
Having said that, my heart is not to polarise, but to try and clarify some of the problems we are facing in discussing the church. I think everyone agrees that the church in it’s most accepted form is struggling to be relevant. You just have to look at the programs, marketing and branding campaigns and prayer meetings for revival to know that everyone acknowledges we have a problem.
However I would appeal to those who still attend regular churches to not write off all those who leave their congregations as having left the church. There are many, like myself who are still passionate about church, but we feel like the basic structure of what is called church is flawed. I believe we can all find common ground in that we are all looking for something that surpasses what we currently have.
I would also like to appeal to those who have written off church, to rethink it. To try and redefine what it is, to find out what God intended it to be. The church and Jesus are to separate things, and yes his Spirit does help energise it, but they still retain separate identities. Rather like when a women is energised by a husband who loves her well. If we throw out what God calls church we end up with a relationship to God that is undefined, lacks substance and will eventually lack meaning too.
So basically I am just trying to help you find me, and I am saying I want to be part of the discussion as we look to lay down what separates us, to find what we have in common which is Jesus.