The year was 2005. My wife and I were co-workers in a large church in central Germany. Though the church had been going through some rough times, it was growing and people were streaming in the doors, especially through the healing services that we held once a month.
I was a member of the pastoral team. I was responsible for 14 house cell groups, two of which I led myself. I led a leadership school, a ministry-training school and a new believers course and did a lot of teaching in these three courses. I really enjoyed the teaching, as that is one of my strongest gifts and very fulfilling for me. I also did pre-baptism classes which I enjoyed greatly, as the enthusiasm of the new believers was contagious.
All was apparently well, yet something in me cried out that this couldn't be all that church was meant to be. Certain facts had begun to stand out to me:
I would like to underline at this point that I was not bitter or damaged by the church. I had no ax to grind. The truth was that my heart could no longer be content with what I was experiencing. Even while still in Bible school I had begun to recognize that our teaching and practice of church had little in common with the teaching and practice in the Bible.
Now it may be that you have never observed these tendencies in your church and you have no idea what I am talking about. If so, lucky you. Yet I believe that these points describe the greatest part of western christianity.
For years I put up with this dichotomy simply because I didn't know anything else. I had never seen or experienced a church that reflected the life and ministry of the first century church, even though I had attended churches from 4 or 5 different denominations over the years, ranging from conservative baptist to charismatic.
For years I thought that there must be a better way to practice church-as-I-knew-it. Every few years I would get on board with the newest trend in church growth, cell church improvements, and calls for prayer for revival. I gave myself heart and soul to each one, believing that our walk with God and experience of church desperately needed to come onto a higher plane.
Along the way we ministered in churches across eastern Europe, in Hungary and in Germany, wherever we happened to be living at the time. I flew to Columbia in 1999 and 2001 to learn all I could about the G12 cell church concepts so we could apply it to German churches. I delved into the Jewish roots movements, seeking to find out what we had lost as Christians in the early centuries as anti-semitism developed in the church.
What I learned through all of these different movements was helpful, particularly my studies into Jewish roots. This search revealed that there truly is much that we have lost as a Christian culture through the alienation of the Jewish people, but also that the true treasures lie in rediscovering life as God originally gave it to the people of Israel, not in the Jewish religion as it later developed. Judaism became an entity just as totally divorced from its roots in the Old Testament as the modern church is divorced from its roots in both Old and New Testaments.
These discoveries are detailed in my book, available on this website, called "Responding to the Shofar's Call: Rediscovering Hebraic Christianity in Light of God's Eternal Purpose." I believe that this book can dramatically help any person who identifies with what I have written here and help restore a right understanding of the kind of relationship that God has always been looking for with us.
Unfortunately, I no longer believe that there is a better way to practice church-as-we've-known-it. My research into church history revealed that within 300 years the original church, its belief system, its understanding of life in Christ and its practice of church almost completely disappeared, to be replaced by an institution which called itself in fact the church, but had little in common with the church established by Jesus Christ and the apostles. (see also: Historical Perspective of Church)
Since that time the most common concept of church is of a building-oriented institution with a pastor/leadership team that is tasked with growth (following the great commission) and maintaining the flock.
Don't believe me? Just ask any church planter what the main requirements are that they have to achieve before they can consider themselves to have successfully planted a new church (or what people most commonly expect to see before they will concede the at the new church is now a "real church"). In my experience these are the minimum expectations:They have to have:
And yet, what do any of these have to do with the biblical idea of church? Not one of them can be found in the Bible! Does that surprise you? Yet look at the historical record:
Does it even matter? I used to think it didn't. I used to think that, while theology was important, how a church chose to organize itself, and what its practice and traditions were, was secondary, if not completely neutral. I no longer think this way.
Why? ... well it has to do with our whole idea of church. What is a church?
Remember that I already said that I no longer believe that there is a better way to practice church-as-we've-known-it? That is because it has to do with our whole idea of church. Ideas matter. The picture we carry in our heart of what we believe it to be will determine our whole approach to church, our faith, our whole lives.
I believe that if we really internalize what church was meant from the beginning to be, that we will not be able to continue practicing church as it was handed down to us, not from the true "church fathers," the apostles, but from those so-called "church fathers" who led it into apostacy after the first century.
What is church then?
There are four pictures or picture-parables which resurface throughout the entire scriptures which describe God's purposes with his people Israel (into which every true believer in Jesus Christ has been grafted). These are purposes of his which transcend creation, transcend salvation history and the action / interaction of God with his people. They are his intentions worked out in eternity past before the first star or first angel was created.
They describe, more than anything else, what God considers important, because they have been his goal, his reason for creating anything, from the very beginning. They have everything to do with love, and they are all about his desire for relationship with mankind.
In the interest of keeping things simple, I am only going to mention two, because they are most vital to our topic.
She has a living and nourishing relationship with the Father because she is now in and part of Jesus Christ himself and as such has been lifted up into direct relationship with the God of the universe.
(Remember the verse stating that we may now go through the veil into the very holy of holies? And the one in Jesus prayer of John 17, in which he prayed, "just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me ... I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.")
You see, Jesus identifies himself completely with us. That we are his Body is more than a metaphor, it is the reality as God sees it. That's why Saul, at his Damascus road experience, heard Jesus saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting ME?" When bad things happen to you, when difficult things happen to the family of believers that you belong to, He sees it as happening to HIM! When you are overjoyed, so is He!
Since this is true, then the first conclusion we can make is that in the true idea of church, we, as the Body of Jesus, join in the free flow of love and giving and life that is constantly taking place between our heavenly Father and his Son, through the Holy Spirit.
In Christ, and because we are joined to Him, we join in the great dance (as it was called in the first centuries), the expression of love and voluntary laying down of self-oriented agendas and mutual adoration that is the daily expression of life in the Godhead.
We were always meant to walk with God (Micah 6:8), to know Him intimately and live in a willing dependency from Him.
This is one of the things that the disciples learned from Jesus as they lived with him for 3 1/2 years. They observed his relationship with Father, they saw his total dependence and how he lived only from his Father's life and at His Father's word. They saw the Holy Spirit ministering to Him. And eventually Jesus drew them into this relationship with the Father. "The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures of speech but will tell you plainly about the Father. In that day you will ask in my name, and I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God." (John 16:25-27)
After Pentecost, the apostles gave the new believers a crash course in what this new life in the new dimension of the new covenant would be like as they taught in the Temple courts, but then it was necessary for them to go from house to house and demonstrate by example how the family of God enters into this corporate fellowship.
Paul described another side of what it means to be the Body. It is that we are all needed. Each of us has something to contribute when we come together. "When you come together, let everyone be ready with a psalm or a teaching or a revelation, or ready to use his gift of tongues or give an interpretation; but let everything be done for edification." (1 Corinthians 14:26)
Ephesians repeats the same with different words: "Sing Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to each other; sing to the Lord and make music in your heart to him; always give thanks for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ." As does Colossians 3:16: "Let the Word of Christ, in all its richness, live in you, as you teach and counsel each other in all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude to God in your hearts."
Did you notice the dynamic of what happens in these meetings? They are not sitting in rows singing as a crowd, nor could they be listening to a preacher. They are singing to the Lord AND to each other! They are encouraging each other one on one. They are teaching EACH OTHER, building EACH OTHER up. There is a great deal of interaction going on.
What they are also doing is coming to the meetings prepared to GIVE. You cannot give what you have not received. Where are we meant to receive our spiritual food? Nowhere but from the Lord directly. You and I are meant to spend time with our Lord and feed on him. No preacher, no teaching can effectively substitute for a daily interaction with Jesus himself without you eventually coming to the verge of spiritual starvation. You may continue to survive as a Christian, but spiritually you may be looking as malnourished as a prisoner in a concentration camp.
Paul is describing people who themselves are spiritually alive, who walk with God during the time away from meetings. When they come together, they SHARE the food that they have received during the week. They are excited at seeing God at work, excited at what their heavenly Lover has shared with them and they can't wait to tell each other. They encourage and build each other up mutually. They are LIVING the good news, not merely meeting to hear someone preach the gospel.
Each of them is different from every other. Each has a different personality and gifting. So therefore this "Body" is able to offer much more diversity than a pastor or leadership team. Like a human body, like any organism, they are made stronger because each is a different part of the body and each is giving according to his purpose. A hand is not an eye. A foot is just as necessary as the mouth to a healthy, whole body.
A body is meant to function in such a way that each part contributes to the whole. If any one part dominates beyond a healthy balance and function, the body will be dysfunctional and cancerous. We need each person, from the newest believer to the elderly woman with much life experience.
By the way, your pastor is not the head of your local body. If he and you are submitted to the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the authority of the scriptures, he can't be. That is because Jesus himself is alone head of the body. "And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent." Colossians 1:18
Any pastor who sets himself up as head of the church is putting himself in a dangerous position. Are you aware that the meaning of the word "antichrist" is "in the place of Christ"? The greek word-portion "anti-" has "against" only as a secondary meaning. Most usually it means to put onesself up in place of Christ. If the pastor should not put himself up like this, then we, the rest of the body, shouldn't do that to him either with false expectations.
Since the reformation we have been giving lip service to the biblical description of the church as the "priesthood of all believers." Because it is clearly in the Bible, we acknowledge it as true, but in the next breath deny certain activities to the laity, the non-professionals. We need to restore the ministry back where it belongs - in the hands of the whole Body, under the direction and leadership of the Spirit of God alone.
I think that most of us simply cannot imagine church any other way. We can't believe that a meeting can truly function under the leading of the Holy Spirit, that we can receive meaningful input from each other without having a trained professional "feeding" us. This is true. Few of us can imagine it. But we are far weaker because of it.
Can you imagine how much stronger, how much more healthy, how much closer we all would be to the Lord if we were not made dependent - or made ourselves dependent - on people to do things for us? I'm not referring to people who need help, those who are taking their first steps in this life or who have been damaged and need healing. I'm talking about others here, others who could have grown so much stronger than they are today because of the dysfunctional relationship existing between church leaders and the flock.
Let's be honest. Few church services today are anything more than a show. I can prove it. Almost all church services take place in a room with rows of chairs facing a raised platform with a microphone. Any normal person entering such a room immediately reads the "body language" of this arrangment. A performance is about to take place. Those without a place in the planned program are expected to sit quietly and not interrupt unless asked to stand, come forward and be part of the show.
Isn't this true? Friends, the very word-picture of the Body whispers to us that something else entirely was intended. The original Idea of church must be more intimate, more interactive than that.
So let us make another conclusion from the concept "Body of Christ:" The body can only function in the framework of a smallish group, so that everyone has the opportuntiy of participating. Remember, most people will need encouragement to share, espcially at the beginning. It cannot effectively work, unless the group is small enough for the shy people to feel comfortable. Also, it has to be small enough for everyone to know everyone else. The very idea of the body is of close, supportive relationships. If we don't learn to know each other, we cannot, will not, EVER be a loving body of Christ.
It may surprise you to know, but I am not a fan of house churches as such. Most house churches are nothing more than "Honey, I shrunk the church!" Almost all that I have met or heard of are just the institutional church in a living room. These might be better than big churches, but only because the members are more likely to have gotten to know each other a little closer.
In actual fact I am forced to insist on the church being small enough to meet in a living room - or in a restuarant, or in a park, or just about anywhere - because of the Idea of church expressed as the "Body".
You may not recognize my church, your church, or the church down the road in this picture, since most of us are well aware of our own shortcomings and are even more aware of the failures of others ... but this is GOD'S own description of his goal in us, to have a beautiful, spotless and holy Bride for his Son.
This goal of God's can be seen in the first two and last two chapters of the Bible, the only four chapters which describe events which take place before and after the reign of sin and death. They are wholly unrelated to the great mission of Jesus to save us and reconcile us back to the Father, since they pre-date the fall or come after the last judgment when all who are left are those who are fully his, when sin and death are no more.
Eternity past ends in the creation account, in a wedding, of the first man and the first woman, Adam and Eve.
Eternity future starts with a wedding, the wedding of the last Adam (Jesus, see 1 Cor. 15:45) and the last Eve, his Bride.
This idea of a bride, the Bride of Christ, is of extreme importance to God. Ephesians 5 describes her too: "Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, ... This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church."
All we who believe, together, constitute this beautiful bride, who is His delight.
I am constantly amazed by how many long-time Christians tell me that they never realized that we were created to be the counterpart for Jesus himself. It seems so obvious through the whole of the Bible - obvious, that is, once you have seen it. Israel, for example, recognized that the events that took place at Mt. Sinai with Moses, where she received the 10 Commandments, came within the framework of an engagement, or a wedding. She was to be the wife of God, separate from the nations and special to him.
But let's stay on topic: what does this mean for the idea of church?
Well, for one it shows us the depth and passion of love that Jesus has for us. He is not indifferent, he is passionate about us. It illustrates again how closely he chose to relate to us. Man and wife from the beginning were meant to be ONE. As we already read from John 17, Jesus said he is to be one with us and we with him.
It also means that when we meet, we meet to experience God together. We were never meant to be individualists who each works on his personal, private and individualistic spiritual house. We are made in the image of God!
"Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. (Our identiy is bound up in his!) By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world." 1 John 4:15-17
We - his Body - are in this world like He is. We exist in the same manner. One thing that this surely means, is that we have his nature. (2 Peter 1:4 - we become partakers of the divine nature.) What is one aspect of his nature? That he exists in a divine unity. God himself lives in and is a community. God is not an individual. He is a corporate body.
We need to get it through our heads that we were always meant to worship and know God together, as a corporate body. Yes, you are an individual and will always need to grow in your own walk with the Lord. This is your great responsibility. But you are just as responsible to be part of a group of people who are learning to worship and know the Lord as a new person together, not persons, individually.
I think for believers who grew up in western civilization, this may be the hardest thing for us to understand. Our whole value system revolves around rugged individualism, especially in America and Canada. We are encouraged by audio-visual programming in television, films and advertising to be selfish, to think primarily about ourselves. We can hardly imagine how a group of people could so grow up together that they begin to be a new, single person together.
Yet this is what the whole Bible points to. The letters of the apostles constantly talk about the "one anothers". Love one another, encourage each other, teach one another. It is all about living "for one another." To use another word-picture of Paul: we are being built up together into a holy temple for the Lord.
I am afraid, however, that this is not the normal experience - not in any church I have known. Using Paul's language - and Peter's, who called us "living stones" - I would say that the results of our evangelisation efforts usually go in one of two directions. One variant is to do an evangelistic event, see people come forward to become believers and afterwards go on to the next event and do it all over again. Effectively we are leaving the new believers as living stones strewn across the spiritual landscape.
The other variant would be to responsibly integrate the new believers into our churches.
But if our experience of church is centered around meetings where a show is taking place, whether showcasing preaching, teaching or opportunities to be ministered to, then in essence all we have done is to gather the new living stones into barns, lay them out in rows side by side, and perhaps clean and polish them up nicely, and exhort them to grow and be good Christians.
What has not happened is: they have not been built together into a temple, which has become the dwelling place for the Lord. They have not been laid stone on stone, with mortar, according to the blueprint.
Think about how often (at least some) churches say, "we want to experience a visitation of the Lord!" But He doesn't want to come for a visit, He wants to move in with us! This has to be more than my personal experience with God. When he moves in, it is into a community. The whole Old Testament story shows us that the Temple has to be built according to His plans and standards, or it isn't an acceptable Temple.
We are meant to become together the gorgeous bride who has made herself holy and beautiful for Jesus. We are for the praise of HIS glory. The powers and principalities should look at what we have become together, against the pull of our sin nature, and be astounded! This person we are to become together - a corporate person made up of each of us learning to know, uphold, teach, correct and encourage each other - is the One New Man that Paul talks about in Ephesians 2. One New Man made up of three entities: Jews, Gentiles and Jesus himself. But notice that it is one man, one individual before God, not an assembly of believers.
I have been holding up a very high picture of church. I have to. This is what the church was in the beginning, and it is what we must become again.
It will not be easy to return to the height from which we have fallen. Almost two thousand years of churchianity's culture is pulling against us. The opinions of other believers who have had very GOOD experiences of church will discourage us from leaving the good for the better.
But the restoration of the church will be worth the effort. It may mean leaving the systems that we have grown accustomed to. It may mean becoming a pioneer. At this point I believe we are all in a pioneering phase, but there are those who have gone on before, from whom we can learn. I highly recommend reading the books of Frank Viola, Milt Rodriguez and Gene Edwards.
As Frank Viola says, there are two deserts every believer today has to cross in his spiritual life. One is confronted with the first desert after coming out of the world, Egypt, and after baptism, symbolized by crossing the Red Sea. It is the overcoming the pull of the world and the habits of a lifetime in the fleshpots of Egypt before we are truly able to live in the rest of the promised land.
The other desert is the one that presents itself after deciding to leave Babylon and return to the promised land. This desert is very hard to face. After all, Babylon is comfortable. Life is orderly and systematized. Everyone knows what his place is. You can live comfortably there, the rulers even let you believe as you choose to. But it is not the Israel we were promised. (I am here defining Babylon as organized religion, an institution meant to provide control and system, whether benign, gentle and helpful or overtly manipulative and enslaving.)
Did you know that only about 2% of the Jews left Babylon and Persia to return to the promised land once the government let them go? It is comfortable there. They had built their own versions of the Temple there, little temples scattered in every town and city called synagogues. They had built replacements for God's way and plan, called rabbis and an oral tradition that no one dared resist
That said, I do think it is better to remain in Babylon until you know in your heart that Babylon is not where you were meant to be. Until you have heard the Lord's own voice whispering in your heart that church was meant to be something more, you should stay where you are. Until you have recognized that it truly is Babylon, you won't be ready for the freedom awaiting you in Israel.
I can only speak for myself when I say that I have seen and tasted an experience of what it means to be the Body of church that I believe to be what we were always intended to have. It tastes really good! And I for one will never go back to church-as-we've-known-it.