At least these people have found some relief. Thousands have remained within the confines of organized religion resigned to the notion that this is the way it is supposed to be, a lifeless, numbing existence as a living martyr in sacrificial service to God. They are convinced that although it isn’t the way it is supposed to be, it is the only way.
But is it? When a person becomes a believer in Jesus does that automatically sentence them to a lifelong incarceration in the church?
No, being a follower of Jesus and regularly attending an organized church do not necessarily go together. Jesus didn’t tell people to go to church, he invited them to be the church … and the difference is as wide as the world.
Going to church will suck the life right out of you. Being the church will invigorate you.
Going to church is filled with mindless, hamster-like activity to ensure the wheels keep turning. Being the church is living your life with the awareness of a purpose, the purpose of making a difference for good and for God in the lives of people.
Going to church will guilt you into serving God through proper ecclesiastical channels. Being the church will liberate you to love God and serve people wherever and whenever you can.
Going to church teaches you to be an expert in political maneuvering. Being the church allows you to relax because you aren’t building or protecting your own mini-kingdom.
If these things are true, then why does the Bible tell us to go to church? Well, it doesn’t … not if you are talking about the kind of organization today that has “church” at the end of its name.
The word church simply means assembly. Other than the few instances where the Bible uses the word church to mean every believer throughout the ages, the word only always means believers gathered. Whether it’s talking about a few of them sharing the Lord’s Supper together, or a multitude gathering as small groups in several homes across a city, it always means believers gathered. What it isn’t talking about is a 501c3 corporation with a budget and a building. The believers of the Bible would never say, “I’m going to church.” What kind of sense would that make? They were the church.
What characterized these gatherings? I believe Acts 2:42-47 provides a clear snapshot …
42They joined with the other believers and devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, sharing in the Lord's Supper and in prayer. 43A deep sense of awe came over them all, and the apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders. 44And all the believers met together constantly and shared everything they had. 45They sold their possessions and shared the proceeds with those in need. 46They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord's Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity-- 47all the while praising God and enjoying the goodwill of all the people. And each day the Lord added to their group those who were being saved. (New Living Translation)
They were authentically human and convinced that their faith in Christ made a difference. They were committed to loving God and other people. They respected one another and helped each other. They cared deeply for each other. They were joyful and generous and their winsomeness drew people like metal shavings to a magnet. They were being the church.
I’ve counted at least five churches this morning here in Panera’s, although I doubt that any of them would call themselves such, and they may even be offended by the suggestion. But here they are, believers gathered around the table, drinking coffee and eating pastries, some laughing, some serious, some with their Bibles, others with the paper … they are sharing life … being the church. They’ll soon separate and go to offices and shops and schools, but they will still be the church and they will be doing the work of the church – as long as they love God and serve people. They don’t need to be part of the corporate church. If only they could understand that, they wouldn’t burn out, die of boredom, or become hopelessly legalistic.