Part 5 of series:
What is a Church?
Where Do People Get Their Ideas of Church? Part 3
In my last two posts I began exploring various sources from which people get their ideas of what a church should be. These included:
1. Past experience of church
2. Pop culture
3. The news
4. A projection of their personal needs and preferences
Today I want to explore one other source, a source that has a powerful influence on the way people think about the church.
5. People get their ideas of church from analogous institutions.
People often expect the church to be like some similar organization or event. For example, some people expect a church to be like a concert. When you go to a concert, you file into an auditorium. You sit in rows and watch something happening on the stage up front. If the concert is any good, you feel lots of positive emotions. At times you might even get into the act by standing, clapping, or even singing along. You leave a good concert feeling uplifted and satisfied by the performance. Church, for many people, is just like this, only better, because you don’t need a ticket, and don’t even have to pay anything if you don’t want to.
Others think of church like a school. They come for religious education. When I lived in Irvine, dozens of young parents start attending our church each year because they wanted their children to receive moral training. And we did provide this sort of thing. Children gathered in age-grouped classes. They had curriculum and teachers. They did learn, or at least that was our hope. We also had lots of classes for adults. And we did hope to educate people. In many ways, we were like a school.
For others, a church is like a club, perhaps a social club or a service club. We have regular meetings. We have members and a process for joining. Members can become leaders in the church. We do lots of different things together, including service projects and social gatherings. At church, as in a club, we make friends and find a center for our socializing.
Many people today see the church as some kind of store. Small churches are like neighborhood mini-marts; large churches are like department stores. Both churches and stores “sell” products. Both have professional staffs. Both “market” their wares in the community, hoping to attract interested “consumers.” Larger churches, like larger stores, offer a wide array of “products.” Smaller churches, like small stores, offer more personal service but fewer “products.” If the church you attend provides what you’re wanting to consume, you continue to go there. If that church stops meeting your needs, you think nothing of finding a better church, just as you might switch markets or clothing stores.
It’s also common for people to see the church as something like a hospital. When you’re physically sick, you go to a hospital to get well. Similarly, churches promise to help you overcome your spiritual ailments. Both hospitals and churches have professional experts to help you heal (doctors, pastors). Both hospitals and churches offer specialized treatments for particular ailments (in churches: singles groups, AA groups, etc.). Both hospitals and churches are staffed by people who care, or at least that’s the way it should be. Many churches and hospitals even share similar names: St. Luke’s Hospital/Church, Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian, etc.
All of these analogous institutions – concerts, schools, clubs, stores, and hospitals – are like churches in many ways. Thinking of a church in these categories makes sense, to a point. But to the extent that people see a church exclusively in light of these analogies, to that extent they misunderstand essential aspects of church life. For example:
• A church is like a concert, but it’s better to see a worship service as a concert in which God is the audience and the worshipers are they performers, turning the concert imagery upside down. If people come to a worship service thinking it will be like a concert, then they might very well miss the main point of the service: to offer praise to God, who is the audience of our worship.
• A church is like a school, but a church offers much more than religious and moral education. It seeks to transform people’s hearts and lives, not just to educate their minds. And it seeks for join people together in life-changing community. People who view church only as a school will miss much of what it has to offer.
• A church is like a club, but unlike most clubs, membership isn’t a privilege, but a gift, and non-members are welcome to participate in virtually every aspect of “club” life. A church, unlike a club, exists not just for its members, but especially for its non-members. Those who think of their church like a club tend to exclude others and to think that their church exists primarily to meet their own needs.
• A church is like a store, but it ought to do far more than offer “products” for consumption. A church will thrive only if its members are committed to the church in a way far beyond consumer loyalty. So if you think your church is like a store, you’ll never get truly involved in the life-giving, world-changing fellowship of the church.
• A church is like a hospital in that it offers healing to those who are spiritually sick, just like Jesus did. But a church is not like a hospital because it seeks, not only to get “patients” well, but also to enlist them on the caring team. When you go to a hospital, you’re not expected to become a doctor or a nurse. When you got to a church, you should join the care-giving team as well as receive care.
Ironically, biblical teaching on the church is rather like what I’ve just laid out. Scripture uses analogies to reveal the essence of the church. Each analogy has certain strengths; each analogy also has certain limitations. So, for example, we’ll soon see that the church is meant to be like a human body. But it is not meant to grow old and die in three or four generations. So, a church is both like a body and unlike a body. In the posts that will follow in this series, I’ll try to unpack the biblical analogies for the church. Taken together, these will reveal the true nature of the church from God’s point of view.