I’ve been going to church for as long as I can remember. In fact, for the first twenty-some years of my life, I went to the SAME church almost every week. People growing up now might find that strange, but that’s the way it used to be. My parents brought my brother and I, and sure it was true that we basically didn’t have a choice, but I can honestly tell you – I can’t remember a single time I didn’t want to go. The people were nice, I had friends there, and it always made me feel a sense of purpose and belonging. I honestly and authentically enjoyed my childhood, growing up going to the big white church downtown. It was as quintessential as it gets.
Now I know what you’re thinking. “Of course you grew up going to and loving church, you became a pastor after all! You were one of the lucky ones. Not everyone had the same experience you did.” First off, let me acknowledge that I am, and was, fortunate. As that kid who grew up to be a pastor I have heard story after story from good, honest and decent people, about how “the church” has – worse than failing them – attacked, maligned and scarred them. Their stories are unfortunate, sad, and deeply troubling – and yet at least in my mind completely predictable. Now before you get your hopefully clean and recently purchased undergarments into a bundle, let me explain WHY I would say something as preposterous as that. I don’t think that church means what most people think it does.
The first word used to describe the “church” in the history of our world, is a seemingly innocuous Greek word, Ekklesia. Jesus tells his buddy Peter that he is THE rock, on which He will build HIS Ekklesia. From this one exchange, it’s easy to see where the common misconception of church comes from. The words build and rock imply that Jesus is going to build a physical building, on something stable and able to keep it from falling. Jesus even told a story once about a people building houses, and told anyone who would listen that they should build their houses on the solidity of solid rock. So it only makes sense to assume that here He’s talking about building the physical house of God on proper footing.
But ready for this? Here’s what Ekklesia means – “a calling out,” especially “a religious congregation, an assembly.” That’s not a building at all – it’s a group of people that has been “called out” or removed from something larger and brought together for something different. And more, it’s not something that you can build with hammers and nails – steel or concrete. Instead, it’s the development of people, through treacherous and time consuming practices like; training, discipleship and shared experience. All of the sudden this “church” is sounding a lot less like somewhere to go and a whole lot more like something to be. And that, I think, is exactly where Jesus was taking us.
Body parts make horrible buildings. They don’t stack properly and the only things that interlock are fingers and toes, and there aren’t enough of those to form any sort of solid structure. Moreover, spleens and appendixes, which already seem to have minimal functions, would fair even worse as a floorboard or ceiling tile. So it stands to reason that Jesus wasn’t talking about anything physical – but rather an emotional and spiritual movement – made up of spirits and souls – capable of moving all over the globe.
It was no accident that He used Peter, proudest (and yet most broken) of all His followers, a man ready to fail at a moments notice, as the guy through which He would begin the process of bringing people together to influence the world, and the Kingdom of God to those who need it the most. I think in doing so, Jesus set the standard by which all other members of his “church” would be judged. That standard was clear. No one, no matter how many times they have failed, no matter how many mistakes they have made, no matter how big the screw ups have been – even if they had at one point walked away and denied the existence of the whole thing – NO ONE was too broken, bandaged or bruised to be let in. INclusive. INviting. INvested. Everyone would be allowed “IN.” And because there is no building – there will be no bouncers at the door, no fob required for entry, and dues needed to join. Just ask him into your heart and you’re a member for life. A breathtaking and beautiful plan – with only one glaring weakness – us.
And that is how we have found ourselves here, in a world where so many can tell there story of how the church has hurt, hindered and hung them out to dry. A building could never do that. But people can. And people have. Some because they wanted to. Others because they got the message wrong. Still more because they were SURE that THIS was THE issue on which to take a stand. But more often than not, I think when churches get it wrong – it is nothing more than the result of imperfect vessels who are sometimes incapable of expressing the amazing love of God in the perfect ways that it deserves and demands. If we’re honest, sometimes we just get it wrong. Like everyone else, representing every other cause known to man – we’re flawed – and our message is what suffers the most.
But what if… what if we focused on what we can BE and what we can DO when we get it right? What if instead of dwelling on our failings, we celebrated and therefore multiplied our successes? What if, despite those who don’t understand us, and their seemingly growing criticisms, we remained centered in on those in our world who need us the most? Because they don’t need a building, and they don’t need a service every Sunday morning – they need US. People striving and trying to the best of our ability to follow after Jesus Christ. People willing to walk with them while try. Sometimes maybe even carry them. Those people people are the ones that made my “church” the one I kept going back to. The kind who made this kid turned teenager into a man who loved people like them so much – he decided he wanted to spend his life helping to make more of them. So, for as long as I can remember, and for as long as I live, these people will be my friends, my family, my Ekklesia, my church. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.