Saturday, July 04, 2009

Reflecting (On) What's Wrong

(Part Thirteen of an ongoing series. Started below. This post related to last post.)

More Thoughts on Reducing Church to Its Relational Essence

As I reflect on the experience I had with the house church described in my last post, I realize that the word “church” is really just plural for term “Christ follower.” Let me explain what I mean. I am using the term “Christ follower” on purpose, though some might say instead that church is plural for “Christian” or plural for “disciple.” The term “Christian” is so broad and has come to mean any person who considers himself a member of the world religion called “Christianity.” That is not what I am referring to, so in order to be clear, I am not using the word “Christian.” The word “disciple” is more accurate of what I am talking about, but that word can also be confusing because it is used in the Bible to refer to the few chosen ones who followed Jesus while He was physically present on the earth. To avoid confusion, I am not using that word either. For the sake of clarity, chose the term “Christ-follower.” Church is really plural for Christ-follower. As a result of my experience of seeing a house church go through a wonderful metamorphosis, I now believe that “church,” in its simplest form, is nothing more than plural for Christ follower.

Church Relational . . . Plural for Christ-Follower

In previous posts, I referred to the “church universal” and the “relational church” as the two ways in which I believe God sees His church. I am referring to the relational church when I say that church is plural for Christ follower.

Why do I embrace this definition of church? I do so because it helps us understand some wonderful realities about the church that are often hidden from us. I think we already understand that a Christ follower is not primarily defined mainly by what he or she does. Instead, we understand that one is identified as a Christ follower by who he or she is. Or, stated more accurately, we understand that one is identified as a Christ follower by whose he or she is or, in other words, to whom he or she belongs. This is because we Christ followers are not perfect, sinless people. Sometimes what we do would not properly fit within the definition of Christ follower. But we still are Christ followers despite our inadequacies. It is because of His love that we are Christ followers, not because of we do the right things all of the time. We are Christ followers primarily because of who/whose we are, not primarily because of what we do.

As It Is In the Singular . . .

So, when I am praying, serving, worshipping, studying the Bible, or using my spiritual gifts (“doing” things), I am a Christ follower. It is obvious. But the reality is that I am still a Christ follower when I am watching TV, driving my car, eating my lunch, mowing my lawn, or getting dressed in the morning. And I don’t mean that if I am being a good little witness when I am mowing my lawn then I am a Christ follower. I am one regardless. I am a Christ follower even if I am grumpy and rude while I am mowing my lawn. The identity of being a Christ follower does not come from my particular activity at a given time, but it comes from who I am, or more accurately, whose I am. I am His. Of course, our actions will be transformed as we follow Him, but that still does not mean that we are Christ followers because we do certain things.

I have long understood this. This is good theology about the grace of God being what really saves us, not our own goodness. I think many have come to understand this about the meaning of being a Christ follower.

. . . So It Is In the Plural

Now let’s take the idea and apply it to the plural of Christ follower – church. Something amazing happens to our perception if we come to understand church as plural for Christ follower – assuming that we understand that a Christ follower is primarily because of who/whose we are, not because of what we do.

Now we define church by who/whose it is, not by what it is doing at any given moment. This is a critical and life-changing realization.

When we are worshipping, serving, studying, using our spiritual gifts (“doing” things), we are the church (plural for Christ follower). But also, when we are playing games, watching TV, eating a meal, or doing any other mundane life activity together, we are the church (plural for Christ follower).

For some reason, in our culture it is much more difficult for us to understand this theological point when we are talking about church than it is when we are talking about a single Christ follower.

We are a people. We are not defined by the activities and programs in which we participate. We are primarily defined by whose we are. We are the church when more than one Christ follower comes together. Just as I don’t cease being a Christ follower at the moment I close my Bible and start brushing my teeth, we don’t cease being the church at the moment we close a time of worship and go out to dinner together.

Why is it more difficult to accept this is true when we are discussing Christ followers in the plural (“church”) instead of in the singular?

It's That "Place Where" Assumption Again

It goes back to our cultural assumption that church is a “place where” certain things happen. It goes back to the subtle reality that we act as if church is really a non-profit organization. It goes back to the fact that when we look out and see church, we see boxes, not the glow of kingdom community.

As others have put it, church is more like an organism than an organization.

Infectious Diseases Versus Broken Bones

Or, as I once crudely put it, if church were an ailment (which it isn’t, I am just making a crude analogy) . . . If church were an ailment, it would be more like an infectious disease than a broken bone. Broken bones are abrupt ailments. They can be readily detected by an X-ray exam. They can be splinted or placed in a cast. Sometimes, they must be repaired surgically. I have watched enough cable TV medical specials to know that surgeons use tools made by Black and Decker to repair fractured bones. There is nothing subtle about the process. After a while, if properly treated, broken bones grow back together. A doctor can take a subsequent X-ray and determine whether the bone is healed. It is, relatively speaking, easy to define the existence of a broken bone. There are tests that show exactly if a bone is broken, exactly where the break is located, and whether or not the break has healed. And it takes a blunt force of some kind to cause a bone to brake. We usually know exactly when and how a bone gets broken.

Infectious diseases are much different brands of ailments. We usually have no idea when or how we contracted an infectious disease. Even if we figure it out later, we are never aware of it at the exact moment it is happening. Infectious diseases are more tricky to identify. We usually discover them based on their symptoms, not based on an X-ray showing some abrupt change in our bodies. Pain, or loss of some bodily fluid, or increased white blood cell counts, or some other indicator leads us (or our doctor) to suspect that we have been infected by such a disease.

And these diseases are frequently contagious. They pass from person to person, until an entire nation is impacted. This is quite different from a broken bone, which never spreads. It comes from a sudden, identifiable impact, while an infectious disease passes unnoticed from person to person. It can multiply rapidly.

When we see the church by seeing boxes, it is kind of like looking at a blunt impact, then looking at an X-ray of the affected area, in order to determine the ailment. What if we saw it more like an infectious disease that quickly passes from one person to the next, yet at a glance remains invisible to the naked eye? How powerful it would be if we could see the church for what it really is! Just like what power we would have medically if we could look at people and see infectious disease as it spreads!

If only we had understood church as plural for Christ follower, or as more like an infectious disease, at the time we stared our first house churches in Las Vegas, then we wouldn’t have taken our broken bone version of church and shrunk it down to a living room size. But, by God’s grace, the disease eventually spread even in spite of our bone-headed behavior! We were his church all along, even though we didn’t understand it.


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