When we believe we are the church, rather than church being a place where we go, our perspective and our reality changes.
By Sam Butler, Pastor, Grand Rapids, Michigan
What is the church? If we asked this question the typical historical answer would be something like, “the place where one goes on a particular day of the week to worship God, to fellowship, and to be involved in church programs.” The identification would be with a specific place, a building. If we conducted a street survey asking the question, “Where is the church?”, people would most likely point you in the direction of the local Catholic, Methodist, or Baptist church. The association would still be with a particular location or building. But if we want to understand the nature of the church, we cannot ask what and where questions. We need to ask the who question. Who is the church? And the answer simply stated is you and me. We are the church, the body of Christ, of which Christ himself is head (Colossians 1:8, Ephesians 1:21-23).
As individual members of the body of Christ, we are the church. It is so important that we see ourselves in this light. When we think of the church in what and where terms, it becomes easier for us to distance ourselves from the true reality of Jesus’ calling on our lives. When we believe we are the church, rather than church being a place where we go, our perspective and our reality changes. Church becomes a lifestyle, something we live into. We see Matthew 28:18-20 as a personal invitation to participate with what Jesus is doing. As we are going, we are to make disciples. As we live our lives on a daily basis, we participate with Jesus in his saving work.
Often, we can feel inadequate – feeling like we may not have what it takes. But when we think this way, we underestimate who Jesus is and that he is for us and with us. Understanding the role of the Holy Spirit is important here. Prior to his arrest, Jesus told his disciples that he would not leave them as orphans:
I will ask the father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth…. You know him for he lives with you and will be in you” (John 14:16-17).
Jesus’ presence in our lives today is through the indwelling of the Spirit, and where the Spirit is, there is the church. As individuals, we are uniquely qualified by the Spirit, who is in us and always with us. Our personalities, life experiences, and passions form us and are ultimately the gifting of the Spirit. They make us who we are in Christ. There is no one like you. You have been gifted for the church. Each of us is equipped for the work that Christ has for us, and through the Spirit we will continue to learn and grow. It is a lifestyle. We are the church!
As we explore this understanding there are several additional aspects that we must consider. As individuals, Jesus has not called us into a place of isolation; we need others. The church as the body of Christ is made up of many parts – that is, many people. Jesus has called us to be in relationship with others. What does this look like?
In describing a healthy church where people are working together for the sake of the gospel, GCI identifies three elements that are necessary: worship (the Hope Avenue), discipleship (the Faith Avenue), and mission or community (the Love Avenue).
We are the church when we gather for worship together (Acts 2.42-47). It is important to fellowship, share in communion, and share in the work of the gospel.
We are the church when we partner together with other churches and agencies in our communities. We as GCI congregations do not work in isolation. The body of Christ is greater than just GCI. When we engage with other likeminded Christians who believe as we do, agreeing that Jesus is Lord and that he calls us to love one another, then we work together for the sake of the kingdom. We engender a spirit of cooperation, not competition. It is healthy to have good relationships across the body of Christ.
Lastly, we are the church when we reach out in love and serve (Galatians 5.13). We are called by God to build relationships with the people who make up our communities. Jesus wants us to build lasting relationships, to make new friends. We get to know people new to us, and they get to know us; it is a reciprocal relationship. When we are compelled by God’s love everyone benefits.
When we are faithfully present in these areas the Spirit will work in all of us producing the fruit of the kingdom. This is God’s purpose for us. Jesus’ prayer recorded in John 17 reminds us of the incarnational love that God has for all of us. Jesus begins the prayer very personally:
Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do…. My prayer is not for them alone. I pray for those who will believe in me through their message…. Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them” (John 17:3-4; 20; 25-26).
As the church, the incarnational love of God is present in us through the Spirit. What a privilege it is for us to participate with Jesus in his continuing work of redeeming his creation.
You are the church!