I am the church

Though my husband and I are still attending a congregation in our former neck of the woods, a good 40-45 minutes away, we do wonder if it makes sense to continue to do so. Our move last summer placed us in an area home to the main campuses of two well-known megachurches (Willow Creek Community Church and Harvest Bible Chapel), satellite campuses of these churches as well as least two other franchise-generating multi-site churches. There are a handful of smaller churches in the area, but the landscape here is dominated by Big Box churches.

barrington map a

There are a number of smaller congregations sprinkled throughout the area, but the growth of megachurches and multi-site congregations has redefined the way people worship in this region. My conservative guesstimate is that the paintball splotches on the map above describe the Sunday morning church attendance of at least forty-five thousand people. There are a few doctrinal variations between the four churches highlighted above, but the differences between three of them are so small that a fine tooth comb wouldn’t catch a single theological tangle. There has been a drive during the last three decades to consolidate/gather into megachurches, then franchise those mega-churches into multisites, effectively forming what appears to be a series of look-alike Evangelical micro-denominations.

I know from my work with the former Christ Together Chicago that the leaders of many of these congregations talk and occasionally pray together. They insist (!) they’re not competing with each other, that there are plenty of unchurched fish in the sea…er, suburbs….and that they’re each doing what they believe God is calling their respective institutions to do in order to “catch” said fish. I can’t make sense of the fact that the nets each organization casts looks like a copycat versions of the ones the others are using. (And so many of the other churches in the area, the small and mid-sized independent or old school denominational congregations, end up aping what the Big Box Boyz are doing, only those doing the aping are using smaller nets.)

I wonder if all of the resources expended on building these branded church chains is modernity’s last gasp; the equivalent of faddish 3-D movie technology that came of age during the 1950’s as a way to save movie theaters from TV-based extinction. The building and sustaining of these contemporary franchised cathedrals (with far uglier architecture, but far more impressive org charts and extra-clever strategic plans) is an always-hungry hippo that demands much in terms of time, energy and finances but gives little in return. The truth of the matter is that they are not the church. No organization ever is.

At Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics blog yesterday. Amy Simpson wrote a wonderful piece entitled “Churches: Take A Lesson From The Postal Service”. In it, she paints a picture of church as organism:

The compelling churches are the ones who know who they are: a collection of people created and redeemed by God, even though they don’t deserve it. They are not concerned only with meeting people’s needs on Sunday mornings, or only within the confines of a church building. They meet in coffee shops, houses, bars, on street corners, and online. They serve as much as they preach, and they recognize there is no difference in their calling when they’re “at church” and when they’re not. They have decided simply to be the church, regardless of the day of the week. And of course they welcome people who walk through their doors, but they realized a long time ago that we now live in a world where buildings themselves hold limited relevance, that a loving community should never be defined by its walls, and that people who want to follow Jesus had better be willing to go where he goes.

This has always been the case for the “called out ones” who want to follow Jesus everywhere he goes. But perhaps today, when so much effort is being expended to build organizational monuments to the big personality preachers helming these big boxes, or when a good church is hard to find, it is good to remember

I am the church. And so are you, if you want to follow Jesus.

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  • Megachurches have always “made my spider-sense tingle,” so to speak. It seems like people would just get lost and worse, be “absorbed” by some sort of “glitzy” message rather than expect to encounter God.

    The church I go to now is about 250 members or so. It’s pretty “old school” in many ways, particularly in its music and order of service. They have a huge drive to support missions and also to support Israel and the Jewish people (might be due to the fact that the Pastor is an MK, was a missionary, and lived in Israel for 15 years).

    I agree, we are the church. You are. I am. We encounter each other and in doing so, we encounter God. Then we share that so that others can encounter Him, too.

    Oh, and the font type and size seems to change in this blog post in ways you probably don’t desire. Just sayin’.

    • Michelle Van Loon

      I just sent a note to my WordPress guru, and asked for some help with the formatting. Something went wonky, and I have no idea why. Thanks for letting me know.

      It’s good to hear that your church is supportive of Israel, missions and the Jewish people. The number of churches willing to take this stance seem to be declining a bit in number. I would imagine your pastor’s decade and a half in Israel must shape his preaching in all sorts of interesting ways. That’s a great blessing for your congregation.

  • They should perhaps take a page out of the Roman Catholic Church heirarchy that “bigger is not always better”.

  • Mar

    It’s just my two sense, but I observe over time people depend on “professionals” and lose a sense of their own gifting, calling, and empowerment. It’s like a subliminal message of some sort that what you already are/have as a part of ekklesia isn’t enough without a persona that looks god on a big screen. It takes intention to continue to do small things with great love and to be willing to be unseen …

    • Mar

      “Cents” — ha!

      • Mar

        Looks GOOD on the big screen …

        • Michelle Van Loon

          I think your Freudian slip of the finger captured a bit of uncomfortable truth in the first version of “GOOD”, Mar. 🙂

  • Tim

    “I am the church. And so are you”

    Precisely. Whether its in a very large congregation or a tiny one, the Church is present in God’s people. Some congregations might act like it better than others, but it’s all the Body of Christ.

  • Don

    Michelle, you and I agree on much, but “I am the church and so are you” I believe is the greatest detriment to Evangelical Christianity. I understand where you are coming from, but faith has become all about the individual, whether it is the naval gazing of the congregation or the career of the mega pastor. The church was intended to be an organism of which we are all merely parts. Instead of recognizing the Church is greater than the sum of her parts (she is the bride of Christ, His “body”) the trend is to place the utmost value on our individual spiritual experience. I do not think that is what Christ intended at all. It is a common error in both a Fundementalist “House Church” and a Walmart Mega Church.

    • Michelle Van Loon

      Every time I pray the Lord’s Prayer, I am reminded of the corporate nature of the big “C” Church. You’re right, Don, in that each one of us is not individually The Church, or even A Church.

      And yet, to push back a bit, two or three gathered (about as individualistic as it gets) becomes a habitation of God’s presence. Two gathered can be a worship service. No, of course not all the gifts function in that sort of gathering, but the two gathered may be exercising their gifts to the praise of God and the edification of the other and the world beyond in a more active way than they would by passively filling a pew/chair in a church service.

      Perhaps a better way to put it might “I am the church – but I am not the whole church”.

      No man is an island, nor is any individual the entire Body of Christ.

  • Don

    Michelle, we are much closer to agreement, because “two or more” is still a “we” :o). Yet even this passage doesn’t describe the church, it describes our need for unity. I do agree that there is rightfully a critical individual aspect to our with God, but that isn’t “the church” any more than an individual Jew was the nation of Israel. Even God is identified as a Unity of persons. We are supposed to be made in His image. If anything, I believe the Christian life is to be a denial of Self, and that we learn best in a group where we do not choose who is “in charge” or who “belongs” and we are involved sometimes in spite of our wants (and even perceived “needs”) and place the higher value on serving God by our involvement than looking to be served.

    • Michelle Van Loon

      Don, I just now discovered that you’d replied. (Thanks, WordPress.)

      I agree with what you’re saying. However, this is where the theoretical meets reality for me, and this is where I wrestle: Does driving to a Big Box church, attending a service, and leaving again constitute the kind of learning of which you speak? Is this the Church? Or are you and I?

      My question is rhetorical, and I suspect you’d have the same negative answer that I would, though probably for different reasons. 🙂