What does it mean to be the church? Is it about an organization with staff and buildings? Is it about a set of traditions handed down by our ancestors, a denominational brand? Are these the things that make us the body of Christ?
When I read the New Testament, I see something different. During Jesus’ years of ministry, he demonstrated a relationship of a teacher and students. The disciple community held together because each one was committed to following Jesus, learning from and imitating him.
After the resurrection, the form of the community expanded. We came to know Jesus as an ever-present teacher through the Holy Spirit. The power of his presence released unique gifts in each individual. Some were called to be apostles, some prophets, others evangelists, pastoral caregivers, and teachers. Together, the early church discovered itself as a community gathered by Jesus. We fit together as an organic unity in him.
In this dynamic, Spirit-directed community, there was structure. The Twelve Apostles served as leaders of the movement in Jerusalem. Others were appointed to care for the material needs of the community. Still others – like Paul and Barnabas – were sent by the Spirit to share the good news in cities throughout the Roman Empire. There was a role for everyone in this new community, according to the gifts that God bestowed.
The whole ethos of the early church was one of movement. The life of the church was catalyzed by prophetic action, works of mercy, risky cross-cultural mission, and passionate teaching. They thrived without buildings of their own. They met in homes to share meals, and they worshiped together in public spaces like the Temple and synagogues. This was a church without popes or priests or officers, without creeds or books of discipline.
Times have changed. Throughout the western world today, the church has become more about maintaining a business model than seeking the surprising way of Jesus. Whether you’re at a triumphalist mega-congregation or a dwindling mainline church, the focus of modern Christianity has shifted dramatically to institutional maintenance and the idols of comfort and respectability. In much of the church today, there’s very little room for the radical message of Jesus.
We have become burdened by our heritage in so many ways. Financially, with our endowments and buildings and legacy institutions – we’re so afraid to lose these things that we often allow them to hold us back from real discipleship to Jesus. Same goes for our ideological heritage. Many of us are so sure that our denominational orthodoxy is more important than healing divisions with our brothers and sisters in other Christian groups. Rather than consolidating our efforts and resources, we huddle in empty church buildings, waiting for a miracle that will likely never come.
What’s the alternative? Can we reform our Christian institutions? What would it mean to release the stored up potential of centuries, allowing the living Spirit of Jesus to gather us once more as his body? One thing is for sure: It won’t happen unless we are willing to abandon the comfort of being right in favor of being united in one Spirit, one mission.
What’s holding you back from being part of a fresh movement of the Holy Spirit in our generation? What are the denominational, institutional, financial, ideological, and relational barriers that hold you back from the life of the kingdom? What does it look like to be part of a community that is more about following Jesus than avoiding pain, loss, and death? How can we get there, together?