The Church: Traveling Light

Traveling light. The very phrase conjures images of camel-laden nomads crossing the Sahara, an Alpinist scaling Mt. Kilimanjaro, or (slightly less romantic), a homeless man walking down Main Street.

Jesus traveled light. For at least part of his life, Jesus was homeless. ”Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” (Matt 8:20) When Jesus sent out the 70 disciples, he instructed them to carry nothing: no money, no bag, no spare clothes, no extra shoes, not even a walking stick. Now that’s traveling light! (Matt 10:9-10)

I love camping and have spent many nights outdoors: in a tent, under a tarp, in boats, and simply lying under the stars. One lesson I’ve oft relearned whilst backpacking, canoeing, sailing, exploring, and even car camping is the value of traveling light.

For example… one time my Dad, Brothers, and I traveled to Minnesota and canoed on the Boundary Waters. I decided since the canoes were carrying my luggage (rather than my back), I could afford some extra luxuries, right? Wrong, because I didn’t take into account lengthy portages! Baggage became a literal burden on that trip.

Going back to my earlier post, the book When the Church Was Young got me thinking of this analogy of “lightening the church.”

The question I’ve been wondering is: what would traveling light for the church look like? What is the minimum in regards to practices of gathering together? I imagine the answer may surprise us and the minimum be far less than commonly supposed.

Starting broad: how necessary are the rotating multi-colored lights during praise and worship? I’ve seen those in more than one church gathering.

How about massive Easter programs? There’s one assembly I’m familiar with where a major focus of the church is their Easter program. I believe they work on it all year round. I’m not saying lights and programs are bad, only trying to identify the minimum required for a “church meeting.”

Could we do without musical niceties such as offertories, special numbers, and five member bands?

How about resource hungry programs like Youth Groups, AWANA, and Sunday School? Would it still be church?

How about denominationalism? No more identification as Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal, Lutheran… even Catholic?

On this last point I can hear, “Isn’t ecumenicalism the sanctioning of doctrinal impurity?” Maybe, but we’re talking minimum here. Traveling light. Replacing dogma, obstinacy, and creed with grace, love, and humility.

How about church buildings? Are they necessary, or ancillary? I’ve already hashed this subject on earlier posts, but will share another quote I recently ran across – this from John Havlik:

    “The church is never a place, but always a people; never a fold but always a flock; never a sacred building but always a believing assembly. The church is you who pray, not where you pray. A structure of brick or marble can no more be a church than your clothes of serge or satin can be you.” (From People-centered evangelism)

Have we reached minimum yet? Afraid not. Hierarchy and structure are next.

It’s an unfortunate fact very few churches (at least in my experience) model their leadership structure off the Elder model found in the New Testament.

For starters, a more Biblical model would include:

  1. a plurality of joint leadership (vs a one-man show)
  2. who are raised up and appointed from within the local assembly (vs hired from out-of-state)
  3. and who have been evaluated in light of qualifications of character (vs theological degrees)

At the very least, full time positions such as Youth Pastor, Worship Leader, and Sunday School superintendent are clearly supplementary and therefore dispensable, if seeking minimum.

How about the New Testament? Now hear me out! I’m not saying God’s Word is dispensable, it isn’t. But I would like to point out that if we’re going down to the minimum, early churches did not have a complete copy of the New Testament. Remember, the Gospel was initially shared verbally. Jesus himself did not write anything down, nor did he instruct others to do so.

It was only later – when it became apparent the Second Coming could be a long ways off – that people began writing biographies of Jesus. And the epistles were necessitated by the Apostles being stretched thin over large geographical areas. It wasn’t until several hundred years later the canon we accept today as the New Testament was finalized.

In his book, When the Church Was Young, Loosley writes,

    “When the church was very young it had no New Testament. The church is older than the New Testament.

I do not believe Loosley is trying to minimize the importance of the New Testament at all. He goes on to say:

    “In such a supremely important matter as the record for future generations of the revelation given in Christ, the hand of God was unquestionably at work. But it was also God’s hand that caused a church to come alive and grow, multiply and shake two continents… without a New Testament!”

As I wrap up this lengthy post, I realize it begs the questions, “If all these things you’ve listed are extra, what then is essential? What elements define a church meeting?”

I’ll try covering these questions in a future post.

Photo Credit: Carrying a Canoe and Duffel on the Portage / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Photo Credit: The Band / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

What makes a Church a Church? Part 2: Who Are the Church?

continued from Part 1…

PeopleSilhouetteThe title of this post may sound wierd: “Who are the Church?” What kind of grammar is that??!

But this is because we are conditioned to thinking of the word church as meaning a building instead of a collective group of “called out ones.”

The more I examine the scriptures, the more I see we don’t meet “at church,” we meet “as the church.” We don’t “go to church,” we “are the church.” Evangelism isn’t bringing the lost “to the church,” it’s bringing the church “to the lost.”

In his book, When the Church Was Young, Ernest Loosley says,

“When the church was very young, it had no buildings. Let us begin with that striking fact. That the church had no buildings is the most noticeable of the points of difference between the church of the early days and the church of today. In the minds of most people today, ‘church’ means first a building, probably something else second; but seldom does ‘the church’ stand for anything other than a building. Yet here is the fact with which we start: the early church possessed no buildings and carried on its work for a great many years without erecting any.”

The Bible says we Christians are…

…God’s Building
“For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.” (1 Corinthians 3:9)

…God’s House
“…The Most high does not live in houses made by men.” (Acts 7:48)

“But Christ is faithful to a son over God’s house. And we are his house.” (Hebrews 3:6)

…God’s Temple
“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” (1 Corinthians 6:18)

“Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple.” (1 Corinthians 3:16-17)

…God’s Household
“You are … members of God’s household.” (Ephesians 2:19)

…Christ’s Body
“…We who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” (Romans 12:5)

“…Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” (1 Corinthians 12:27)

“…No one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church-for we are members of his body.” (Ephesians 5:30)

“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (1 Peter 2:9)

So the church isn’t a building, it’s us!

And in the particular sense, we are regularly “called out” from our busy schedules to meet with others of like faith for encouraging each other and worshiping God. This is an assembly, a gathering.

But in the general sense we have also been “called out” of the world to be Holy and Separate: living sacrifices pleasing to God, which is our spiritual act of worship (Rom 12:1).

What makes a Church a Church? Part 1 – Ekklesia

White ChurchRecently there has been discussion among my friends as to what makes a Christian gathering an official “church meeting.” What makes a church, church?

A bit tongue-in-cheek, the following quote may be a good place to start:

“The image of much of contemporary Christianity can be summarized, a bit euphemistically, as holy people coming regularly to a holy place at a holy day at a holy hour to participate in a holy ritual lead by a holy man dressed in holy clothes against a holy fee.” (Wolfgang Simpson)

The first verse that comes up in connection with this topic is generally Matthew 18:20, ”For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” Invariably someone will point out Jesus made this statement in the context of disciplining a fellow brother and not in the context of a local church. My personal opinion is that – regardless of the context – Jesus said it.

As I’ve begun looking at this topic it has surprised me to see how large a role semantics plays into the discussion.

Let’s start with the word, “church”. Found in the New Testament over 100 times, the underlying Greek word is Ekklesia. The literal meaning of Ekklesia is “called out.” A direct translation of Ekklesia into modern English would render, “congregation,” or “assembly.” Not the old ecclesiastical word “church.”

Of note, the first Bible translated into English, the Tyndale Bible (1526), used the word “congregation” for Ekklesia. It wasn’t until later in the Bishop’s and King James Bibles the word Ekklesida was translated “church” instead.

In fact, when King James commissioned his translation, he made it a rule that the translators had to use the word “church”:

“The Old Ecclesiastical Words to be kept, viz. the Word Church not to be translated Congregation &c.” (one of 15 rules King James had regarding the translation project)

Of course this rule raises the question, what was the motive? Why didn’t King James let Ekklesia be translated correctly (clearly)? Though it is hard to say exactly why today, a possible explanation is that the word “congregation” or “assembly” undermined the authority of a global church hierarchy and structure as was in existence in the Catholic & Anglican establishments of the time. The word “assembly” implies a local, autonomous, independent gathering, not a rigid system of centralized power coming from the likes of a King or Pope.

Though in modern translations of the New Testament the word “church” is still the most common translation of the word Ekklesia, there is at least one instance in the Bible where nearly all translators still translate the same word “assembly” instead. That is found in Acts 19 where there we find a great uproar in Ephesus precipitated by a jealous craftsman named Demetrius who fashioned silver idols. Because he was losing business due to Christian converts, Demetrius incited the city against Paul.

Theater in Ephesus
Theater in Ephesus
Now in Ephesus there is a large stadium and as the riot increased in passion it is recorded that “the people seized Gaius and Aristarchus, Paul’s traveling companions from Macedonia, and rushed as one man into the theater.” Within that context I have listed below the verses which use the word “assembly,” translated from the Greek word Ekklesia:

Acts 19:32, “The assembly was in confusion: Some were shouting one thing, some another.” When the noise settled down, the city clerk addressed the crowd, finishing with, “’If there is anything further you want to bring up, it must be settled in a legal assembly.’ … After he said this, he dismissed the assembly.” (Acts 19:39 & 41)

The idea is that everyone was “called out” from what they were doing and assembled at the theater – in this case for a riot. It can be seen from the context of this story that the word Ekklesia in those times referred to a gathering, an assembly. Like in High School, sometimes there is an interruption in the scheduled class routines where students are “called out” to attend an “assembly,” a meeting for some purpose like a pep rally, fund raiser, or speech by the class president.

So semantics is important. Nowadays the word “church” usually doesn’t primarily conjure up the idea of a “group assembly” but rather things like a church building, a church service, the universal church, the Roman Catholic Church, or even a distinction from the State (as in the phrase “Separation of Church and State”).

Answering the question, “What makes a church, church,” is a biggee.

Continue on to Part 2 of What Makes a Church a Church

Photo Credit: White Church on the Hill
Photo Credit: Theater in Ephesus

Do I Have to Pay Attention at Church?

So while listening to a sermon at church, is it ok to…

…eat candy? (as long as it’s not crunchy?)
…send text message? (as long as nobody notices?)
…snuggle with my true love? (if nobody is behind me?)
…sleep? (if it’s just during the prayers and other boring parts?)
…slouch? (when my butt hurts too badly to sit up straight?)
…study my Bible???

mr bean trying to stay awake

The last one is a bit sticky. I’ve been told it’s rude to have my own personal devotions while a speaker is delivering a message.

“What if they bring it on themselves?” is what I ask. Like this morning, for example. The preacher encouraged us to read Psalms 145-150 because they were such incredibly great Psalms.

“If they are such incredibly great Psalms, what prevents me from reading them now?” I wondered.

He was right. They were good. In fact, good enough for a blog post. So here’s what I got – in a roundabout way – from the message this morning…

First, we all know about Psalm 37:4, right? It says, “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.”

Wonderful promise? But now, check out Psalm 145:

“You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing.” (Psalm 145:16)

“He fulfills the desires of those who fear him; he hears their cry and saves them.” (Ps 145:19)

Great, huH?

Here’s another nugget I pulled from the Psalms (during the sermon). I think this verse delivers a wonderful definition of the word “faith”:

“The LORD delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love.” (Ps 147:11)

Isn’t “putting our hope in his unfailing love” exactly what faith is? And this is exactly what I struggle with so much: believing He really has my best in mind, believing any light and momentary afflictions I may go through are really for my best.

I desire to please God. What pleases God is my faith (Heb 11:6). Faith is putting my hope in his unfailing love. His unfailing love wants to fulfill my desires. Whatta sermon.

“For the Lord God is a sun and shield; the Lord bestows favor and honor; no good thing does he withhold from those whose walk is blameless. O Lord Almighty, blessed is the man who trusts in you.” (Psalms 84:11-12)

Photo Credit: Mr. Bean Trying to Stay Awake