The church is not a building

I gave this message in 2016. Article 9 of the confession of faith in a Mennonite perspective.

From the first paragraph of Article 9 of our confession of faith: We believe that the church is the assembly of those who have accepted God’s offer of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. The church is the new community of disciples sent into the world to proclaim the reign of God and to provide a foretaste of the church’s glorious hope. The church is the new society established and sustained by the Holy Spirit. The church, the body of Christ, is called to become ever more like Jesus Christ, its head, in its worship, ministry, witness, mutual love and care, and the ordering of its common life.

The world has changed our understanding of church. The very word “church” means “assembly”. While it is correct to say “I’m going to church” because we travel to the place where we gather, the church building itself is not the church because the building is not a person. Article 9 of our confession of faith makes it clear: the church is made up of people that dedicate their lives to following Jesus and who are committed to gathering together as a family.

The early church that we find in scripture gathered mostly in homes. There weren’t many buildings dedicated to church gatherings early on. Things changed. Since the time when Christianity became the official state religion of the Roman Empire, church buildings have defined Christianity. Just like a town reaches a milestone when it acquires it’s first McDonald’s, so a church reaches critical mass when it has a building project and builds it’s first meeting place.

Church buildings have been a great help to the church in it’s work. Administratively and economically, buildings have allowed the church to gather as a larger family and help the community in many ways. Despite all these benefits, it’s really important to remember that our building and our programs are not the church simply because they are not people. Church is when we gather and it’s every place where we are gathered.

There are two churches. The first is the real church, the people. The second is the institution including the church’s buildings, our programs, services and other resources.

Officially, the world only recognizes the church’s institutions. The world sees organizations with assets, programs, services, members and a governing board. The problem for the church is that we start to see church this way too. The danger with this twisting of the definition of church is that we become attached to our institutions and not recognizing them for what they are: tools that church uses to accomplish our work, not entities that we serve.

The church is not a social club

Cornelius, a Roman centurion, was the first Gentile convert to Christianity. Gentiles and Jews were often divided in the early church, but this is something that Paul worked hard to heal.

From paragraph 2 of our confession of faith: We acknowledge the church as the society of believers from many nations, anointed for witness by the Holy Spirit. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, divisions between nations, races, classes, and genders are being healed as persons from every human grouping are reconciled and united in the church. In times of suffering as well as tranquillity, the church depends on the Spirit’s presence and power, rather than on the power or benevolence of government, for its preservation and mission.

From paragraph 4: The church is the household, or family, of God. Commitment to one another is shown in loving one another as God loves, in sharing material and spiritual resources, in exercising mutual care and discipline, and in showing hospitality to all. The church welcomes all people who join themselves to Christ to become part of the family of God.

The early church learned in a short time that the church is not a Jewish people only club because the Holy Spirit started working in the lives of gentiles. The early church changed it’s official policy and included everyone because the Holy Spirit included everyone.

To this day, the exclusive social club mindset plagues the church. I’ve heard stories of church members at churches I’ve attended in the past telling visitors that they didn’t belong there. Most congregations are a mono-culture which lead Martin Luther King Jr. to call Sunday morning’s the most segregated time in the US.

Jesus clearly defined who belongs and this even challenged his family:

Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.” “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked. Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”

Mark 3:31-34 NIV

The social club mindset has taken away from the inclusiveness of the church. The social club always looks inwardly asking the question “who doesn’t belong here?” as they look to exclude people. The church needs to adopt the posture of looking outward asking the question “who belongs with us?” as we look to include those anointed by the Holy Spirit.

The church is not perfect religion

The Catholic church has suffered a lot by trying to cover up it’s mistakes of child sexual abuse.

Paragraph 3: The church is the assembly of those who voluntarily commit themselves to follow Christ in life and to be accountable to one another and to God, while recognizing that the church is imperfect and thus in constant need of repentance. The church’s identity as God’s people of faith is sustained and renewed as members gather regularly for worship. Here the church celebrates God’s boundless grace, reaffirms its loyalty to God above all else, and seeks to discern God’s will.

The world has a high expectation of the church. That’s not surprising since we have the inside track on God’s Kingdom. Not only that, the church has accomplished amazing things. Our accomplishments and high expectations can lead the church to become a little proud.

But the church makes mistakes and the church has found it difficult to own up to it’s mistakes. To ignore these mistakes causes good people to stumble in their faith and it causes those who had hope to despair and people who would’ve joined the church in it’s mission choose instead to be apart of the world because they see the church behaving just like the rest of the world.

A big part of the churches inability to own it’s mistakes is our attachment to our institutions. Our belief that our institutions are the church causes us to protect our institutions at all costs which includes ignoring our mistakes. In this way, the world has pushed the church into a corner that it cannot get out of easily.

It’s ironic that the church, who’s work is healing and reconciliation, finds it hard to do among itself what it promotes in the world.

Our confession makes the point of saying that we as a church are in constant need of repentance. This repentance is supposed to happen because we gather on a regular basis and hold each other accountable, but the problem is that we don’t gather with this purpose in mind. Our gatherings center around the worship service and socializing. Attempts at accountability often fall short and for this reason, the church doesn’t have the chance to repent and be reconciled.

We love the idea of accountability, but we hate it’s reality. In this area, the world is clearly beating the church badly. All I can say is that there is a deep fear of being truly transparent with one another and I include myself in this and I wonder is it because we don’t really trust each other?

The church is one body

Paragraph 5 & 6: We believe that the church as the body of Christ is the visible manifestation of Jesus Christ. The church is called to live and minister as Christ lived and ministered in the world. As many members belong to one body, so all believers have been baptized in one Spirit into the one body of Christ. There are varieties of gifts and ministries in the church, all given for the common good. Believers are to love each other and to grow toward the likeness of Christ, who is the head of the church. (6) The church exists as a community of believers in the local congregation, as a community of congregations, and as the worldwide community of faith.

Many congregations are defined by church splits. Blue Rock Mennonite, for example, is defined by a painful church split with our congregation. Things would’ve been different had Blue Rock been a church plant, and yet, things can be redefined because there is always a chance for redemption.

If the church is the representation of Christ’s body in the world, then Christ’s body would appear to be falling apart. Paul worked hard to prevent his churches from falling apart using the image of a body to persuade people to work at staying together despite their differences, it’s one of Paul’s recurring themes in his letters to churches: work it out, stay together.

It is interesting that Paul himself had a falling out with Barnabas over including John Mark in their missionary work and the two split apart and went on separate journeys (Acts 15). I wonder if Paul regretted the disagreement later in life? Or perhaps he realized that going separate ways wasn’t such a bad deal in the long run. It does seem that Paul is later reconciled with John Mark and in the end, Paul and Barnabas covered more ground and discipled more Christians.

The church as defined by our confession of faith is not something defined by institutions or nations or any human being. The church is not defined by division. The body of Jesus at work in the world is defined by the Holy Spirit.

The church wins

And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.

Matthew 16:18 NIV

There is a cave entrance near Caesarea Philippi where it is suspected that Jesus made this statement about the church. This cave was considered by pagans as one of the entrances into Hades realm of the dead.

The gates of Hades are attacking the church. The world is constantly trying to redefine “church” in it’s own image because the only way for Hades to defeat the church is to make the church into a worldly institution that can lose.

The church is not our institutions. It is built of people, anointed by the Holy Spirit, and no matter what happens to our buildings, programs, services and institutions we will not lose.

The Mennonite church is going through a lot of turmoil in these days. Our church conference has left Mennonite Church USA over the issue of same sex relationships being tolerated in credentialed leadership roles. Our conference struggles with being effective in our mission as we see our membership numbers decline. A number of churches in our district are struggling with the denominational changes and some churches in Lancaster Conference are leaving. In the process of this, many brothers and sisters in Christ have verbally attacked and hurt each other intentionally.

It does look like the world is doing a good job in dismantling us. While the church isn’t defined by it’s institutions, it is sad to see how the world has twisted our own tools against us. Like a carpenter hammering his own thumb, it smarts and our work is hindered.

We need to remember the true definition of church and recognize how the world is trying to twist our identity into it’s image. While we do our work in the world, we do not need to play by the world’s rules.

When we gather and remember who we are as we worship God together let us also call each other to repentance when we fall short, and work at helping each other in love to recover after failure, because when we gather to be the church, we can’t lose.

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