Saturday, April 21, 2018

What IS Church?

Please excuse what may be perceived as a rant...but this question has been on my mind for a while…What IS church? Or maybe a better way of shaping the question, What is THE Church?

Let’s first define some terms:
First, I’m a Christian...better defined, I'm a follower of Jesus, who's life is described in the 'Gospel accounts' (the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) in the Bible. 
Second, when I use the term Church, I’m intentionally using a capital ‘C’ as I very much believe that it (or better described, she; see Eph. 5:25) is a representation of what God the Father imagined and built through the people that desired to confessing their need of Him in their lives. And thirdly, I ask this question, What is the Church?, because I believe we’ve failed God. I believe His desire was to build a community of people (which he named The Church) characterised as recklessly abandoned to loving Him and loving everyone else in their world, regardless of the choices they’d made or circumstances they found themselves in - especially if the world regarded them as 'sinners - these people would be welcome and loved within the arms of the Church, mirroring God's love for them.

I confess those are a lot of words, so I am going to tread very carefully as I write this post, but I truly believe there needs to be a radical change in mindset for those who say they are followers of Jesus Christ.  Perhaps it is best to begin by sharing a little bit of my story in hopes in sharing it would give you a better handle on what I have personally experienced in my life, especially within the last few years, and why I've come to this conclusion.

I was born into a Christian home. I was taught to believe everything that’s in the Bible. I was taught to embrace and love people no matter what race or heritage or circumstances they found themselves in. The one that I have learned this the most from was my father. While he was living he took it upon himself to make sure that every person in whom he came in contact with knew that they were loved and special. My family has many, many stories of how he would interact with people of other cultures and races; he would consistently approach them again and again because he believed that they were special and he believed that they were worth the time to get to know, to get to understand their story and he in turn would be enriched because he was taking the time to get to know these people. I believe my Pop believed everything in the Bible and I believe that his personal life-vision came out of the study of the Bible (aka God's heart for people). He was one of the best examples of the Christian faith-walk that I’ve had the privilege to learn from. Sure, like all of us, he had his faults, but at the end of the day he truly desired to love people. I have very fond recollection of sitting at his bedside as he was literally slipping from my hands into the hands of his Creator and hearing that he desired to speak more love into peoples lives, desiring to share with more people the love that he’d found in Jesus Christ. It literally was his dying wish to share more love with people in telling them about Jesus.

Somewhere along the way, though, I was taught to not associate with 'sinners'. This teaching truly was not taught my my Pop, but somewhere, somehow, I was not only taught how to label who these 'sinners' were in my world, but I was also taught to stay far, far away from them; to use an Old Testament word, I was taught to 'shun' them. I grew up, comfortable in my own surroundings, disassociating myself with those on the 'outside'. I would see them in the streets, in my classroom, etc. but no never would I think to approach them, let alone get to know them or worse love them! I look back on this now and I see how harsh a reality this was. Somehow there was a disconnect from the stories I would read in the Bible of how Jesus talked with these people labelled as 'sinners' in his society. And he taught his disciples to do the same. But somehow, they were just stories and I, a proud follower of Jesus, stayed clear from these 'people' - I did not emulate the teachings of Jesus. Somehow, someway, the clearest teaching of Jesus I did not learn.

In part, I believe I need to write this post because in a lot of my interactions with people who say they are followers of Jesus Christ, they simply do not line up with what my dad lived his life for and what I've just described as Jesus' teaching to love 'sinners'. I can recognise this because I did it myself; I have been a part of this lifestyle for far too long. So, please don't try to find an accusatory finger-point in this post because that is not what I am doing. I am far too aware that these words cut deep into my own words and actions. The truth is, my dad lived his life to love people - to care for them and to let them know from the bottom of his heart that he cared deeply for them and wanted them to know how special he thought they were. He chose to build people up and communicated that so graciously. As I mentioned, he had his faults, but one thing that I know that he always tried to do: he always tried to help and encourage. He always wanted people to know that they were loved. I would love to tell you that I have experienced that same love across the board in the Christian community, but I haven't. I know there are two sides to every story, but words are the most deadliest of weapons - not because we know how to use them but because we don’t. Imagine the most deadliest of weapons in the hands of an inexperienced fighter and that image comes close to what I'm trying to describe here. We hurt and sometimes even kill with our words, yet our actions are even more damaging. 'Friendly fire' is at an all-time high in our communities; worse, we hurt and wound our wounded. I believe it needs to stop.

Now, the real guts of the post: I don’t believe that we, as the Church, have represented Christ well in how we have interacted with the rest of society. 

Be it the gay and lesbian community, the low-income bracket, the high-income bracket, the divorced, the drug-addicts...the list goes on. I read in the Gospels of a man by the name of Jesus who willingly sat with the marginalised and ‘sinners’ of the day. He was criticised for it and, eventually, was murdered because he said he was acting as a perfect example of God (going as far as to say he was God). 

So here’s the thing:  Regardless of whether you believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God or not, he believed he was acting as the representative of God in the community. As he made it known he was representing God in the community, he intentionally sat and interacted with the marginalised and poor and sinners. If we, desiring to follow after that example, do not seek to include or make welcome and embrace with love those of our community that Jesus would label as ‘sinners’ in our day, logic tells me we are not true followers of Jesus. Worse, we are defaming Jesus’ name. I believe the four Gospels give us the best example of how God wants us to be the Church and  the rest of the Bible (and all the way up to the present-day for that matter), is filled with examples of how we’ve failed at being the Church that God really wanted us to be.

These are harsh words I know. But I know, as humbly as I can say it, the words that I have chosen to say here are true. Talk to the marginalised. Hear what they have to say. Blood is literally on our hands because of those in our community who have felt unwelcome (and by default, unloved) by people within the church groups who claim to say they are followers of Jesus Christ but are not living up to that name. Love is definitely not the first words out of the mouths of 'sinners' when they speak of the Church. I believe we have literally constructed 'churches' but shut the doors tight. We have not become the Church that God has wanted us to be. Rather than these gatherings be loving, welcoming and inclusive, they have quickly become exclusive clubs that require membership. I once read that the doors of church buildings remain open, not for people to come in but for the people within its walls to go out! Jesus taught his disciples that the people that they lived with would know that they had been around him by how they loved each other. He simply said the people would know they were followers of his by how they love; it was their love that would show true followership in Jesus Christ (John 13:35). 

As cynical as this sounds, you could make the case that Jesus' followers did their jobs - they loved each other - patting each other on the back and huddling together in a 'holy huddle', they could celebrate how closely knit they were in love; not unlike what we do today. But was this what Jesus was asking them to do? But where was Jesus? Where is Jesus now? As we continue to create our 'holy huddles, Jesus is at the sinner's house, he's eating with those tax-collectors again (Mark 2:15). He's socialising with the outcast of his day (John 4). He's kneeling in front of an adulterous woman and saving her from being killed (John 8:1). I do not believe it a leap at all to say that with that love that Jesus was speaking of, he was showing by his own actions what he was expecting his followers to do. And, just as his disciples missed the mark, I believe the Church (the people who say they believe in Jesus) today have missed the mark as well. Badly.

Something needs to change. Something very radical needs to happen to the groups of people who gather together in our communities that have 'church' in their name, who sing together, pray together and read the Bible together. I believe very strongly that the Church that was destined to be in the mind of God has failed. We need to re-read the Bible and change our mindset and ways of interacting with the communities we live in. For Jesus’ namesake. 

As the Church, we need to love. As Jesus loved. That way, the world would know we are following him and in turn, will want to follow him as well.

*I have intentionally left out probably one of the most clearest lessons that we find in the Bible. When people met together they called themselves the Church. Nowhere in the Bible is there any definition of the 'church' being a building. Perhaps that’s a different post but I very much believe that we need to even change our vocabularies to not include statements such as “I’m going to church”. We need to BE the Church; we don’t  GO to church.

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