A few years ago, I wrote this piece, encouraging people who love God but who for any number of reasons find themselves outside of a traditional church.
A number of Fundamentalist Christians objected. So I thought I’d take a few moments to share why the Church as a building was never the point to Jesus and the early Church:
Jesus teaches Kingdom, not building. The Gospel biographies are filled with evocative, vivid parables, all about the Kingdom of God. They were Jesus’ central teaching. But this kingdom He speaks about is not a where but a when.
It is the state of the world when people acknowledge God; when God is honored and worshipped and respected—the Kingdom is present.
Throughout the Gospels, you can find Jesus teaching on the characteristics of His Kingdom people as they reflect the character of God in the world. The Church was never about brick and mortar. It was always greater than that. It was about a way of being in the world.
Jesus tells Peter he is the rock of the Church. He affirms His disciple Peter’s faith and character, and says that he will be the foundation of the Kingdom community as it grows.
Jesus isn’t hiring Peter—a fisherman by trade—as a subcontractor to erect a building with a steeple. He only notes Peter’s devotion, and tells him to continue the Kingdom work he’d already begun. He is to steward the people of God: no building campaign, no weekly services.
How the Church Is Built
People are the building blocks.
Jesus feeds the 5,000. A crowd has been listening to Jesus teach on a remote hillside, and the nearest Chick-Fil-A is still 2,000 years away. The gathering there is a mix of the invested, the curious and the skeptical. No sanctuary or liturgy; only Jesus speaking about God in real-time and then sharing a meal with those gathered on the hillside.
That would be the model throughout the New Testament: Gather. Eat. Share. Remember me. Live.
The book of Hebrews says that we don’t need a middle man. Writing to Jewish believers in Jesus, the author makes it clear that a human high priest is no longer needed as a liaison between ourselves and God—that God was not encountered only in the temple.
Jesus gives us each direct access to Divinity.
I grew up Catholic, believing the priest was an intermediary for me and that a variety of saints gave me special connection to God. This isn’t what the New Testament teaches. The priest, rabbi, minister or pastor is not magic. They can be helpful, but they’re not essential and they’re not supernatural. And yes, because of this, you can have access to God wherever you are—no matter how modest or ordinary the surroundings might be.
The Church grows without a building campaign. The early believers were essentially in-house churches, where immediate family, extended family and friends were already living in deep, meaningful community together. They didn’t have to rent out space and a sound system and start service planning.
They were already living life together organically and so they didn’t need to create a destination to foster community. These groups absorbed the new converts, but there is no evidence of the healthy evolution of these communities into organized churches. The only mention we have is in the book of Revelation, where large, opulent churches are being chastised for their corruption and apathy.
God With Us
Jesus says where two or three are gathered He is present. Two or three—not 40 or 150 or 6,000. Not an auditorium with a speaker, a band and dozens of rows of chairs.
This is Emmanuel “God with us.” Jesus never promises that with size or organization that there would be more of His presence. He didn’t leave building instructions or establish an organizational structure or provide liturgical templates. He affirmed that his people and his presence were the only necessary ingredients. They would come to the table together, and He would take a seat there with them. Your kitchen table, a bar in a tap-room, a bench at the park, a coffee shop. He is present there.
He said so.
The Apostle Paul tells us we are the Temple. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes to tell Christians in that city that God’s presence is not just above and around them but within them. They are the very “Body of Christ” on earth, they are the “temple of the Holy Spirit”—living, breathing sanctuaries.
The idea of them needing to visit a specific place to have proximity to God was now ludicrous. They were the place. They needed only to go inward. This is the heart of the Church then. It still is; not where they gather, but as they gather.
Jesus tells the disciples to remember Him. At their final meal before His death, Jesus offers bread and wine as a symbol of his coming sacrifice. He then asks them to remember him when they break bread together in the future.
He is not telling them to establish a weekly worship service or to create a rigid liturgy or to institute a sacrament. He is commanding them not to forget Him; to live together and to eat and to remember. No sanctuary is necessary for this. This is a fully portable experience.
The truth is Jesus was teaching something very different from what the word “church” means to us today. We’ve grown up in the building and the system and the tradition, so we believe that this is the Church. But the Church as a place you visit for an hour on Sunday where God shows up, or where community can solely be found—simply isn’t Biblical.
Jesus’ ministry was about de-centralizing religion, so that the people carried it, not the synagogue or temple or the sanctuary.
Again, you may find that building comforting or edifying, and you may find inspiration and wisdom there. That may be spiritual community for you. But don’t assume that this building has the market cornered on any of those things, and don’t cheapen the spiritual journey of those outside of the building, by acting as if everything found there cannot also be found beyond it. It can. Over and over the Bible makes this clear.
Jesus and Rest
This week, a Christian guy sarcastically called out a quote from my previous piece saying, “Oh, I get to grow closer to God, just by taking a nap? Cool!”
I reminded him of the disciples finding Jesus asleep in the back of the boat in the middle of the storm, about the many times he withdrew to the solitary places to rest, about Peter hearing from God in a dream, and of the words of the 23rd Psalm where the writer describes God’s provision:
The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul.
In other words, “What I most need is God to tell me to trust and take a nap.” I think that’s a holy directive.
So yes, this Sunday, you might be in a building somewhere in a traditional worship service.
You might be talking faith and life with a group of friends in your home.
You might be taking a nap alone on a grassy field by a steam.
You might be with a couple of people, breaking bread and remembering that God’s presence is promised there, and living life with reverence and gratitude.
All equally sacred. All equally holy. All you being the Biblical Church.
Maybe we shouldn’t be so cavalier or so quick to debate people’s understanding or experience of Church—especially when it so closely matches Jesus’.
A version of this article was originally posted on johnpavlovitz.com. Used with permission.
is a pastor, writer and activist from Wake Forest, North Carolina. In the past four years his blog Stuff That Needs To Be Said has reached a diverse worldwide audience. A 20-year veteran in the trenches of local church ministry, John is committed to equality, diversity, and justice—both inside and outside faith communities. He recently released his first book A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community.