“So now you gentiles are no longer strangers and foreigners. You are fellow citizens along with all of God’s holy people. You are members of God’s family – God’s household. We are His house, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets. And the cornerstone is Christ Jesus Himself. We who believe are carefully joined together, becoming a holy temple for the Lord. Through Him you Gentiles are also joined together as part of this dwelling where God lives by His Spirit.” (Ephesians 2:19-22).
So often among Christians, and those in the as yet unredeemed society around us, the term “church” is envisioned as “a place where certain things happen”, rather than the more biblical conception of the Church as a communal entity or presence, a people belonging to God. The “Christendom” view of the Church has for so long, now, been conceived of as “the place where” Christianized civilization gathers for worship, and “the place where” the Christian character of a society is cultivated. George R. Hunsberger in his essay titled , “Called and Sent to Represent the Reign of God”, contained in the book, “Missional Church – A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America”, captures the predicament that much of the institutional understanding of the Church in the West has produced.
Hunsberger states, “Increasingly this view of the Church as a “place where certain things happen” locates the Church’s self-identity in its organizational forms and its professional class: the clergy who perform the church’s authoritative activities. Popular grammar captures is well: you “go to church” much the same way you might go to a store. You “attend” a church, the way you attend a school or theater. You “belong to a church” as you would a service club with its programs and activities.”
I often share with people that when I was born into a living and personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ I was “delivered from going to Church”. I found out much to my surprise that “I am the Church, going into the world”. Of course that “I” includes the “we” of the corporate or collective life we live together in Christ that makes us the Household of God. A household is a family home, a family estate, a family experience and is much more oriented around connectedness and relationship that is more organic and natural – the sharing of a common way of life and identity – than around institutional and organizational elements.
Our Scriptural reference above refers to the Church as a “family” or household, and as a living temple in which our lives are joined, built and placed together by God Himself to form a community where belonging, acceptance, forgiveness, caring, sharing, identity and destiny are all mutually experienced and offered to all. Jesus assured us in the 14th chapter of the Gospel of John that He was going away to prepare a place for us in the Father’s “house”, a place of belonging and identity in the Father’s love. He further states in that same chapter that “all who love me will do what I say, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and live with them (make our home with them)”.
In the story of the Lost Son, when the prodigal comes to his senses, his first response is: “I will go home to my father….so, he returned home….Meanwhile, the older son was in the fields working. When he returned home, he heard music and dancing in the house…”. These are the sounds of life, of celebration, of love and welcome shared by those who know a family experience.
The Church in Scripture is pictured as “family as it was meant to be”, a relational experience where “every member functions healthily”, rather than living in the dysfunction of natural family so often marred by sin. There is an interesting passage of Scripture relating to Abraham’s experience and journey with God that throws some telling light on the nature of the Church as a people rather than a brick and mortar building, a doctrine, forms and ceremonies, meetings, programs, an institutional bureaucracy which meets on a special day, at a special time in a special building. Structure must serve and facilitate life, rather than life serving structure. Genesis 12:7, 8 says, “Then the Lord appeared to Abram and said, ‘I am going to give this land to your offspring.’ And Abram built an altar there to commemorate the Lord’s visit. After that, Abram traveled southward and set up camp in the hill country between Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar and worshiped the Lord.”
The fascinating insight here is that the name “Ai” means a pile or heap of stones, or rubble; whereas, “Bethel” means the House of God, or an assembled dwelling place. So, often the Church has conducted its life and activities more like a perpetual event, a gathering of stones, rather than as an assembled house where lives are built together, set in place, joined to one another and the living Cornerstone to form a community or family where each one knows their place in the family and in the Father’s heart. It seems to me that often we have forgotten who we are and live more as a “heap of stones”, a definite case of mistaken identity.
We don’t “go to Church”. We are the Church going into all the world, taking Jesus to people where they are, and then gathering around Jesus in the Father’s Presence to celebrate His mighty works and great worthiness. Where is the Church? Jesus taught us that it is “wherever two or three are gathered in My Name”. That might be in a home, over a coffee break, at a lunch together, sharing in prayer support at work, offering love and time and resources to the needy in our neighborhoods or inner cities. Many times the need is not for more “church houses”, but more “home churches”.
I am convinced that the world around us is not looking for Ai, but for Bethel – a community of redeemed relationships where we are built together in family bonds of covenant love, care, acceptance, belonging, security, support and identity. Where is this place? Wherever two or three gather in His Name, in the midst of us; not just here, but anywhere. Church, biblically conceived, is our life together in Christ, our relationships with one another, our life experiences shared in common bearing one another’s burdens, weeping, worshiping and rejoicing together. It is inviting people not to a building, but into our lives, our hearts, our relationships, our homes. Inviting seeking people into our lives, our homes, our life together begins a deep transformation and formation of Christ in searching hearts.
Rejoice in God’s provision of buildings for specific kingdom purposes and consecrated as “sacred space” and use them to His glory to facilitate the flow of His life among and through us to the world. But we must remember who we are and who we’re called to be – Bethel, not Ai – the loving family as it was meant to be – a common life together that reveals the Father’s love, that calls all orphaned hearts – HOME!