WE DON’T GO TO CHURCH. WE ARE THE CHURCH.
Written by Doug Ponder on September 28, 2014
When Clichés Are Trite But True
Christians don’t go to church; they are the church.
It’s a cliché as old as the hills (see what I did there?). But here’s the funny thing about clichés: they’re not necessarily untrue, just unoriginal. And being unoriginal is not exactly a crime. After all, orthodoxy is about as unoriginal as it gets (and that’s a good thing). So to say, “Christians don’t go to church; they are the church” is trite but true. It’s unoriginal, but it’s far from unimportant.
Perhaps one reason this cliché is so often repeated is that we don’t yet believe it. Not really. Just a quick glance at how we speak about the church reveals a great deal of what we think about the church.
I often hear people say, “I love my church. It’s a place where anyone can feel welcome.” I think I know what they mean, and I’m glad for their enthusiasm. But it’s not nitpicky to point out that their church technically isn’t a place. It’s the people. So, maybe they mean the people are welcoming. I hope that’s what they mean. A church certainly isn’t a place or a building.
It’s also common to hear parents tell their children, “If you don’t hurry up, you’re going to make us late for church.” Again, I think I know what they mean. But I do wonder if they think of their church as an event to go to instead of a group of people to gather with. Certainly the look and feel of many church services—with their fog machines, spinning lights, and expensive light-up set pieces—communicates that what happens on Sunday mornings is one big show. But Jesus didn’t die to create the greatest show on earth. He died to rescue a ruined group of people.
I recently heard of a church encouraging its members to talk with non-Christians (so far, so good) and to share the story of their encounters on social media with the hashtag #churchjusthappened (now we’re in trouble). Just imagine how that plays out: “The other day I talked with this homeless guy who said he never goes to church anymore. But after I talked with him, I was like, ‘No, bro. Church just happened right here!’” The church is a lot of things, but one thing it’s not is an “occasion” that can “happen”. That’s like saying, “Human just happened” or “Jesus just happened.” The church is a group of people. People speak, people act, people think—people do lots of things—but people don’t “happen.”
Even though some of those examples may just be loose language, at the very least the phrases came into existence because somebody somewhere didn’t grasp that the church is not a place, it’s not an event, and it’s not something that “happens.” Christians don’t go to church; they are the church.
This Matters, Because the Church Matters
The way we talk about the church reveals what we think about the church. In turn, what we think about the church shapes and directs how we live as the church.
If you see the church as a Sunday event, for example, it won’t be long before you begin to think of the whole Christian life as a “Sunday thing.” The sum total of ‘what it means to be a Christian’ will soon be reduced to “going to church on Sundays,” with little to no thought to how the life and teachings of Jesus lay claim on the other six days of your week.
If you think of the church as a show, you can’t help but judge the church by things like the music (sound familiar?), the style of preaching, the types of programs offered, how you “felt” while you were there, etc. None of these judgments are based on actual knowledge of the people who make up the church. They’re just surface-level, judging-a-book-by-its-cover kind of criticism.
Worst of all, by not understanding that a church is the people, you will never see yourself as part of a local church. Instead, you will see the church as some kind of inanimate thing you can interact with—a place, a show, an event, or a business—but not a group of people to whom you belong. For example, sometimes people will ask me things like, “How come our church doesn’t go on mission trips?” right after they have come back from a mission trip. I spy with my little eye a big problem. That situation is like a soccer player asking his team, “How come our team doesn’t score goals?”—right after he just scored a goal. Don’t his actions count? Of course they do. He is part of the team. The same goes for the actions of members who are part of a local church. The church is the people, but because they cannot see that, they don’t realize that their own actions, their own words, are an extension of the life of the church to which they belong.
Not seeing the church as the people leads many to make decisions individualistically, without concern for how their actions affect the people around them. For example, suppose a man moves his family across the country, leaving his city and his church just to chase a couple thousand extra dollars a year and the “thrill” of living in a new place. When asked about the wisdom of this move, he says, “Relax. There are healthy churches in every city.” That may be true, but it misses the point. All his relationships with neighbors, co-workers, and friends will be severed, and this never occurs to him because he thinks that joining or leaving a church is mainly (or even mostly) about him.
Finally, failing to see the church as the people causes us to live as critical spectators, instead of humble servants. Spectators endlessly comment on how, “they don’t agree with everything a church is doing” or how they would “do things differently.” Spectators talk as if they are commentators at a sports event, not members of the same team. Servants, by contrast, are willing to work for the good of all. They see a need in their church, and they willingly step up to meet that need because they see this as an obvious benefit to the group to which they belong.
Changing how we speak about the church won’t fix our problem (though it can’t hurt). We’ve got to change how we think about the church altogether. We must see that the church is a group, a team, a unit, a single body of people for whom Christ died, inseparably connecting them both to him and to each other: “We, though many, are one body in Christ, and each member belongs to all the others” (Rom. 12:5).
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.