Ah, what power there is in a word. A skilled communicator agonizes over choosing precisely the right word for the occasion—that exact nuance in a verb, a noun, or an adjective, to guide the reader’s eye and the listener’s ear to the intended message. Miscommunication is always a danger. And it’s a danger that grows with passing days, for over time language becomes loose. With use, words morph to take on reduced and alternate meanings. Awesome. Gay. Sick. Wicked. You get the picture.
So, here’s a key word from a Christian’s vocabulary: “Church.” Imagine I’m an outsider to the whole Christianity thing. Let’s see if I can define “Church” by the way most Christians speak. …
“Do you want to go to Church with me, this weekend?” “The wedding will be held at the big Church, corner of Smith and Straight Street.” “I know you’re not really into Church, but why not give it a go?” “Wasn’t worship at Church great this last Sunday?”
Okay, let’s put it together. Church is an event, a building, a hobby, and a religious club?
Now, before you accuse me of nit-picking—“It’s all semantics, Dave. Ease up!”—realize the power of words. Christians believe it was with words that God spoke the universe into being; words are the means by which we acknowledge or deny Jesus; words convey the Gospel of life to those who haven’t heard; and words reveal the way we feel and think about our world. Maybe we need to dust off the word “Church” and get back to where it began. Until we do, our words may erect an unscalable barrier that blocks engagement with a Church-weary world.
Church: ἐκκλησία, ek-kle-siae, ecclesia. Nearly 500 years before Jesus, the ecclesia was the key assembly for ancient Athens’ democracy. Same with Rome. The ecclesia was the administrative body for the Kingdom. There were multiple Kingdom outposts, helping administer Rome’s Empire in the local regions. The ecclesia were there, like ambassadors for Rome, to make sure the everyday citizen experienced the flavour of the Kingdom. The ecclesia was not so much a place, or a program, but a people called out to represent the Kingdom in word and deed, spreading Greece’s or Rome’s influence wherever they went. The aim wasn’t to get outsiders into the ecclesia. The aim of the ecclesia was to get out and serve the citizens so they might freely align with the Kingdom.
Jesus borrowed this particular word, ekklesiai, from the political language of the day, to make sure his followers understood their call to be a new humanity, rather than forming another clique to replace the Pharisees, Sadduccees, Essenes, and Zealots. Rome was merely a cheap version of the true Kingdom, the Kingdom of God. And Christ called out and commissioned his disciples as a Kingdom outpost, to announce God’s reign and give this world a taste of how things run when God is in control (Mark 1:14-15; Luke 4:18-19). The Church isn’t a place you go. The Church is God’s pilgrim people, a body of believers selected and sent by God to administer the Kingdom and make Christ the King known by word and deed. Each region had its own ecclesia (the Church in Jerusalem, the Church in Corinth, etc.), but these various branch offices of the Kingdom were joined as one “catholic Church” as the Apostle’s Creed describes, united in Kingdom business. (Sounds ecumenical, no? Hmm.)
So, back to the present. We use “Church” with almost the exact opposite of Jesus’ intent. Instead of going to the world, we expect people to come to us. We think that getting our “lost” friends into a building to hear a religious service is the end-game for our witness. And we’ve offered the world the Church now and Heaven later, instead of the Kingdom of God which starts now and only grows in influence until the day Christ the King returns and sets everything right.
My local church knows how to celebrate when we get together on Sunday. But don’t be confused. The gathering of the ecclesia for corporate worship may attract some outsiders to align with Christ’s Kingdom. But the most powerful witness by far is when we serve up for our neighbours a taste of the Kingdom, whether by the way we love, the way we listen, or even the way we cook.
Yes, words are powerful. The average ‘unchurched’ person has no interest in joining a religious club and tying up their sunny Sunday inside a building. But when the Church is truly the ecclesia of Christ, there is nothing more attractive and no more powerful witness. It’s our love for each other, and radical acts of loving service for those outside our community, that best points people to Jesus. And this will only happen when we stop heaping our salt in a pile, and hiding our light under a building. I mean a bushel.
So, what is the Spirit of God saying to His Church today? In short, “Get Out!” Follow Christ outside the Church building and into the midst of our post-Christendom culture. And let’s stop going to Church, and start being the Church Christ gave His life to establish—the kind of Church against which even the gates of Hell will never prevail.