The very thought of the word “church” makes me want to rollover and go back to bed. For the last five years church just hasn’t felt right. Through my teenage years and into my twenties, church was almost always publicized as my participation on a Sunday morning at a specific building. I am pretty sure that if you ask anyone what church means to them, they would describe the place they go on Sundays—the religious organization that they attend. I don’t know who came up with this idea first, but it seems because all of us view church as a place—somewhere we go on Sunday morning—we have focused our attention on managing the church into an efficient, smiling, friendly, lively, bright, fun, social atmosphere.
But what if church wasn’t what you thought?
What if church was meant to be something entirely different than what it looks like today? Could it be that we have lost the concept of what it means to be the church rather than go to church?
There is a restaurant in downtown Salt Lake City that I have eaten at a couple of times. It looks like any downtown deli, but when you walk in the menu isn’t anywhere to be found. You have to ask what is available that day and you pay what you think the food is worth. The people serving the food don’t even look like they work there, because they don’t. They are literally working to pay for their meal. When you are finished you clean your dishes and put them in a tray for the dishwasher. The ambiance is amazing, it is totally decorated with art that was painted or drawn by the people who eat there and the music playing throughout the place is original music from, yet again, the regulars.
I talked to the owner one day as I was leaving and asked her, “Why do a restaurant like this? It doesn’t seem like good business?” She replied, “This place isn’t about making money, yes, money comes in, but this place is about community and feeding people. Really, this place is not the restaurant; this place is everyone that walks through that door, whether only one person ever comes in or a hundred. I hope that everyone sees this restaurant as theirs.”
I looked around after she said that and realized that everyone in the restaurant, including me, felt like we could personalize the place, because we were completely comfortable with the environment. We felt like we belonged. She was right; this place was more the people than anything else.
If you look at the word “church” in the Bible, it’s interesting that it is never used to describe a building or an organization. The word “church” is always used to refer to a gathering, crowd, group, or an assembly of people who believed in this Messiah Jesus. It was a deep-seated community with a purpose.
I was in Amsterdam, Netherlands last December and as I was riding around the city, I noticed banners and signs with the slogan “I AMsterdam.” My friend Steve, a missionary to Amsterdam, told me this slogan was the new motto of the city, somewhat like the I Love New York tagline. Amsterdam wanted to redefine the image of the city by showing the world that Amsterdam was a diverse melting pot of people, each one of them making Amsterdam unique, interesting and complete. The leaders of Amsterdam wanted to make a point that their city was not limited to political and economic boundaries, but more importantly, Amsterdam is the people who call the city home.
I sometimes wonder if we have confused our identity of being the church with the concept of an organization. The gathering of believers often times has morphed into a well-oiled business machine instead of a living, breathing body. Organization must exist to some degree, but I wonder when the body of Christ is going to wake-up, be alive and on the move rather than organize itself to death? I’m convinced we must gather together but the reality is—even when we are not physically together, we are still the body of Christ. When are we going to see church as what we are doing on Mondays as opposed to where we meet on Sunday mornings? Is it possible that places like Amsterdam and a restaurant in Salt Lake City are doing a better job of being community than many churches?
Can anyone be a part of the church? When I consider that Christ called anyone to join Him, it makes me want to rethink the traditional idea of church from the ground up. In the calling of Christ there is a sense of inclusiveness. You, me, that guy smoking the cigarette at the bus stop, if he wants in; he’s in—we are the church. To often our theology does not match our practice.
There is no doubt that through the centuries, liturgy and ministry practice have adapted to fit modern times. All of our gatherings will look different depending on the culture, but one thing is certain, the church is not a building or an organization. We are the church. You are the church. I am the church.
And anyone is welcome.