Structuring church

1 Peter 2:4-5,9 NIV As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. … But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

When Peter talks about the “living Stone rejected by humans but chosen by God” he is talking about Jesus. Peter is referring to Psalm 118 where it says the stone rejected by the builders has become the cornerstone. Jesus himself used this verse from Psalm 118 when describing himself because of how the religious leaders had rejected him.

Peter’s given name is Simon, but Jesus renamed Simon to Peter, which is the Greek word for rock. Peter is a living stone. In Matthew 16 Jesus added to this metaphor of a building when he told his disciples that he would build his church on this rock referring to Peter and the other disciples.

Peter is taking all this imagery that Jesus had given him and applied it to the church in general, reminding us what the church really is: A spiritual building that consists of people. We are the church.

When I talk about the church I make a distinction between what I call “the church” who are the people who believe in Jesus vs what I call “the church institution” which consist of buildings, parking lots, guest Bibles, air conditioners, job descriptions, bank accounts, scheduled programs like Sunday morning worship, Sunday School, prayer meeting, committee meetings, etc…

There are 2 distinct parts to the church (1) the people who belong to Jesus and who will be with Jesus in heaven and (2) all the tools the church uses so that we can do our work in the world which we probably won’t be taking with us to heaven.

Often times when we talk about church, we talk about going to church on Sunday morning and we think of church as a building. I was probably a teen when I first heard preachers reminding people that the church was not in fact a building, the church is the people. And that you can’t really go to church because wherever 2 or more are gathered in Jesus’ name, that is the church. Church isn’t so much a place as it is the people.

Many of us still call coming to the church building on Sunday morning as “going to church” and for the most part it isn’t a big problem as long as you remember that you are supposed to be the church no matter where you are and what time it is. What tends to happen is that people are on their best behavior while in this building during worship service and they revert to some lesser behavior when outside this building or at a time outside of our worship service. Yes, I have this problem too.

For me the distinction between “the church” and “the church institution” is important in that I consider “the church institution” as our set of tools to do the church’s work in the world. This definition has helped me keep a healthier perspective on what is important. (1) The people are most important, then (2) the church’s work or mission and finally (3) the tools we use to do our work.

When you think of the church institution as a tool it changes how you think about our building, our services, our programs, our bank accounts and our committees. Our building and our services are not holy except for the fact that we are here to make it holy. Imagine a Christian who is a carpenter who decides to make his own hammer to do his work. Does the hammer become a Christian hammer because a Christian made it and uses it? It is just a hammer, but it is made to be used for a good purpose.

It also helps to understand that we should never serve our church institutions. Our church institutions are our tools and they serve us in our work. To serve our tools is a form of idolatry. The most clear example of people serving an institution in scripture is found in how Jewish leaders put heavy restrictions around the Sabbath. In Mark 2:27 Jesus reminds us that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. The Sabbath was intended as a good thing but it was made to hurt and control people. The same with our church institution, if it hurts us, then we must be using it wrong.

Acts 2:46 Every day [the church] continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts

The very first church in Jerusalem is the first mega church. They had thousands of converts in their first week. There were too many people to meet in any home so they met in the temple courts. They also met in peoples homes to share communion and for that, they couldn’t meet as a large church, they broke into small church sizes.

This mega church didn’t last. Eventually persecution broke out and the church was scattered. Going from a mega church to many small churches was not a problem structurally for the early church because they didn’t have anything invested in church structures. The big problem for them, obviously, was that they were being persecuted.

Our church is different. We’ve been around for a long time, more than 250 years and we’ve invested a lot in structures. This congregation grew to somewhere around 400 regular attendees and our institution was built up for that. Then through some difficult times, not caused by external persecution but internal struggles, the church divided and our congregation shrank. After that, for other reasons, mostly not due to conflict, the congregation shrank even more and we are now a small church. Is it a problem to be a small church? The majority of churches in the world are small churches (100 believers or less) and it has always been that way.

Our congregation is now a small church and that’s not a problem. The problem is that we are a small church with a large church building. The problem isn’t that we have a large building, the problem is that a large building can cause an identity crisis by making us feel like we should be a large church instead of being content as a small church.

Structurally, we have trimmed down our institution a lot from the days when we were 400, but we probably need to trim down even more because we are a small group of people filling a large number of roles for our institutional structure. The point isn’t to complain but to make clear a potential problem that needs to be prayed for: If we don’t watch it, we will burn out our volunteers and that is not good. To be burned out by church is bad news especially for the future of the church.

The church should not spend itself in supporting the church institution. The church institution is our tool to do our work in the world and if it burns us out we need to reconsider our tools or how we are using them.

Acts 6:1-7 NIV In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.

When there was a political/social issue within the church structure, the early church had a good response. The disciples ask the people who are being neglected to elect 7 leaders to take care of the issue with only 2 conditions: They need to be full of the Holy Spirit and they need to be wise. Seven Hellenistic Jews are chosen to distribute food. Then the apostles endorse their selection without a lengthy interview, they just pray and lay their hands on them and done. Church leaders are created. The word of God spreads quickly. The church is built up.

As soon as there is a structural need, the early church responds by calling for new leaders and building them up into that spiritual building of living stones that Peter talks about. The focus for church structure should not center around institutional ideas. We should focus on calling new leaders and building them up to handle any current and upcoming challenges.

The church is made up of 2 distinct parts which often get blurred together, (1) the people, which is “the church” and (2) the church institution which I call the tools the church uses to do the church’s work in the world.

A challenge that we face as a church is to not be controlled by our church institution in a way that prevents us from responding to the Holy Spirit’s calling in the world. A consequence of not being able to respond to the Holy Spirit and serving the church institution is burnout.

Building the church isn’t about creating a large church institution that will live on for hundreds of years it is about building the church of living stones that will last through eternity. This is done by calling servants and showing them how to lead by giving them authority.

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