I ran into a friend I had not seen in nearly 30 years at my high school reunion. As we reacquainted ourselves with each other all the years we were apart melted away as we remembered why we became friends in the first place. It pleased me to find out he was a devoted Christian who was active in several different ministries. But when I asked him what church he was currently attending he told me, “I’m not doing the church thing anymore; everywhere I go it ends up blowing up on me. I’m just listening to sermons online, doing a small group Bible study and serving Jesus where I can.” He went on to tell me some of the misadventures he experienced as a member of various church bodies over the years. Most of the stories were too familiar: A popular pastor fell into serious sin but tried to retain his position and authority which led to strife within the congregation. A worship leader of a growing body felt constrained under the senior pastor’s direction and decided to “follow God’s leading,” instead of the pastor’s. A disagreement over some church furnishings led to a large segment of the body deciding to start their own body that would be more “focused on Jesus instead of wasting money on unimportant things.” My friend simply had enough of the games and decided to forego trying to engage in another congregation; he would follow Jesus on his own.
In actuality my friend is simply a compilation of people and their stories that I became acquainted with since identifying as a Christian, the stories however are true. It seems that I have met more and more people who would consider themselves Christians who simply gave up on the organized church. As a pastor, and maybe more importantly as a Christian, I have become more and more concerned with a trend that does not seem to reflect what Jesus intends for his body. As Paul writes in , “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”(ESV)
While the ideal of unity in the body of Christ seems not only scriptural but actually commanded, the reality is elusive. Almost anyone who has been part of an evangelical Christian congregation for any length of time can recall situations where unity has been difficult to maintain, if it has been achieved to any degree at all. For more and more Christians, it seems as if even the command to not forsake the assembly of one another has become too difficult to even try, leading to more pain than it is worth. Yet the command still stands.
While church involvement can be difficult, many can recall positive moments; a local congregation that truly cares for one another, a place where grace is truly encouraged and practiced, which instills a deep desire to see the ideal achieved. There is a church in the southwest United States that has built a Christian School and Clinic that provides services completely free of charge for everyone who comes. A large church in the Northwest that had a complete leadership change and yet instead of division the founding Pastor has provided an atmosphere of unity. As one friend put it recently, the negative examples get a lot more press but the Lord is still in control and many good things are happening.
So what is the purpose of this congregation of believers? Besides the command to assemble, is there any real worth in bringing together people of different economic strata, ethnic and cultural groups, and ages? When we call something “Church” do we even mean the same thing, and is it the same the Bible means? Is there any way to bring people together without creating a climate of intimidation and fear?
For most people who have grown up in the Western Church, the idea of church can have several meanings. We can talk about belonging to or being members of a church, which usually means being a part of a local assembly of Christians who meet together in an organized way at specific times for the purpose of worshiping God together, ministering to others in a local community and learning about what it means to be Christians. We can decide to go to church, which usually means attending services put together by an organized body of Christians. We can mean a building that has been built specifically for the purposes of a local congregation of believers. Biblically though the meaning of the word Church are simply those those who have identified with Jesus Christ as the one who has reconciled them with God. All of these different meanings have a part to play in how we understand the Church and whether and how we decide to meet together at all.
Each of these differing elements determine what our expectations are when we meet with other Christians and what those meetings should look like. Our understanding what God’s expectations are also has a significant part to play in how we meet together as well. Since the Bible talks about Christ being the Head of the Church, satisfying Christ is often the goal of most groups who assemble together and differing understandings is often at the heart of many disagreements. The problem is learning to satisfy Christ while meeting together instead of satisfying ourselves.
Over the next several weeks, we will seek to find out how we might do that very thing, satisfy Christ in our meeting together as the Church. But hopefully we will also be able to learn to satisfy each other as we come together as the body of Christ. And maybe, just maybe, we can not only find unity, but live in harmony, as Jesus intends.
4:1 I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (ESV)