Church, well, what do you mean?

Church, well, what do you mean? March 31, 2012

Aaron Niequist, in Relevant Mag:

For the last 35 years, one of the most anthemic phrases around my church is this one: “the Church is the hope of the world.”

I couldn’t agree more. The Almighty God is actively healing and redeeming the entire world, and doing it primarily through human beings who are willing to offer themselves to this movement. But I’ve been noticing a disturbing trend that, in my opinion, twists this truth.

In the wake of a handful of well-known pastors leaving their churches (Francis Chan, Rob Bell, etc.) to pursue other missions, there has been some grumbling and criticism from those who stay. One influential pastor said it like this: “The local church has been, and always will be, the PRIMARY tool for God’s will in the world. Other ministries are important but secondary.”

But when I heard it, I wondered, how is “the local church” defined?

If we were to say of the local church, “The primary tool for God’s will in the world is when God’s followers humbly submit themselves to His dream for humanity and to each other in the power of His Spirit,” then I completely agree.

But if our idea of the local church means, “The primary tool for God’s will in the world is any 501(c)(3) organization that calls itself a church, and anything outside of its walls is important but secondary,” then I absolutely disagree.

When church leaders are believed to have the most important job in the universe and everyone else is secondary, that is religion at its worst….

God has invited every person to join His work of redemption—whether they’re wearing a clerical collar or an orange construction vest.

How can the Church help foster this reality? What kind of church trains and launches people into the ministry of their everyday lives? What kind of church trains and retains people to receive the ministry of the Church? This is obviously a huge question.

I am way more compelled by a church of the people than a church for the people.

This is not to say that one is completely right and the other is completely wrong; but I’m becoming increasingly captured by the idea of “the priesthood of all believers.” Church as a movement rather than an institution; a Church created by the people rather than consumed by the people.



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  • RJS

    This is an excellent article.

  • hear, hear! I could not agree more. He might have added that it is not only self-identified “Christians” that are involved in the work of reconciliation and restoration … but anyone who pursues Truth … Love, or Justice, a la Matt. 7:21

  • EricMichaelSay

    That comment originally frustrated me as well. Aaron explains the reasons for my frustration very well.

    At this point, my response is often to say ,”they don’t get it”, and move on.

  • Rick

    I appreciated this part of the article:

    “In a church of the people, worship becomes: Prayerful, intentional space that empowers the people to co-create a worship experience—both as individuals and as a body, both at home and when together. The church helps people connect with God and each other, and then gets out of the way.”

    I am a little concerned, though, about this part:

    “In a church of the people, evangelism becomes: Training up disciples and launching them out to serve the world and share their story—and helping foster a community so alive and beautiful that people can’t wait to join.”

    I am not sure what he means by “share their story”. If it is not Jesus Christ focused (1 Cor 15), then that is a problem.

    He left out a lot about Jesus in the article, but did mention the Holy Spirit and also finished strong with the Ephesians passage.

  • RJS


    I don’t know what Niequist means by that – but I think it means that a church must have a robust and intentional program (dirty word though that is) to teach people the gospel of Jesus Christ – to make peers out of every member of the congregation (as many as will buy in) – so that they are equipped to go forth to serve and share the gospel.

    The emphasis in church is less on bringing new people in to hear the professional preacher and the music and more sending Christians out to reach the world.

  • Rick


    I hope you are right in your 1st paragraph.

    In regards to your 2nd paragraph, I agree. I read this yesterday,

    “Church is not like going to the movies. It is more like being a soldier in an army.”

  • Mijk V

    While there is truth here, such as pointing out the church’s bad habit of becoming an end unto itself, this article plays on the worst tendencies of evangelical Christianity in the West today. It simply takes our individualist/modernist assumptions about who we are in Christ, and further launches our communal identity toward oblivion in the name of “God’s dream for the world.” 501(c)(3) organizations are wineskins; the people of God expressed in a particular location, however, is the wine. The church always has been and always will be an institution, because institutions are inevitable when it comes to human social reality. Reducing Christ’s church to simply “God’s followers humbly submit[ing] themselves to His dream for humanity and to each other in the power of His Spirit,” will result in no church at all, fragmented beyond recognition, as everyone tends to have unique opinions as to what the above ideal for church means and how it will play out in the real world.

  • Thank you for this post. It is exactly what I have been wrestling with. I believe most everyone here agrees that “church” is the body of believers not a building or an institution. Unfortunately many “body of believers” have opted to build structures that now dictate their mission.

    I have seen far more miracles on the streets of our city than I have seen inside the structures of our churches. I agree strongly with the sentiments of this post. But I keep bumping up against attrational paradigms that simply do not function in a way that releases people into the world to be the hope of the world.

    In addition to our systems that teach “come and consume”, we have heavy structures that require a lot of funding to keep them alive. Sadly, funding comes from butts in the seats and good “entertainment” value.

    For eight years, I have been outside the walls of the church and have had the freedom to live missionally and see a “body of believers” emerge through missional engagement. I am now trying to help established churches experience that same kind of life and I am finding it painfully slow and far harder than it was starting from scratch.

    It is not for lack of heart or desire by these pastors and churches…it is the institutional structures. So yes, most everything is an “institution” but a structure designed for self preservation will never yield a church that exists for others. Our structures and our institutional design matter greatly.

  • Great post Scot.

    Where the issue gets a bit fuzzy for me is when a small group of people decide they no longer want to be a part of a ‘501(c)(3) organization that calls itself a church’, and decides to start meeting in their own home instead.

    Voila. “We are now a church” they decide.

    But are they? Unless they are organized around the practices Jesus laid out for his followers (baptism, communion and evangelism) they may merely be a bible study.

    Nothing wrong with a good old fashioned bible study.

    But don’t call it ‘church’.

  • Great article by Aaron Niequist! Now, if we can work in to this conversation the natural implication that follows, that we Church was once Family.

    Where we could embody the gospel in a tangible way of life that the world might look at us and know that God is busy, that Jesus is King, that his spirit is here and that it would cause them to ask questions to which parables and stories would arise.

    More than just “attending a service”, we have the great freedom to literally embody the gospel in all that we do, in the way we order our homes, in the way we literally forgive debts, share food, pray together, etc.

    More than just singing a song, we have the great freedom to worship through giving our voices over to music and lyrics in order to proclaim that the King has been given all authority (Mat 28) and the reign of God (Kingdom of Heaven) is breaking in at every turn–indeed, the worlds of heaven and earth have collided, thus the Spirit of God is here.

    More than just being a part of a Ministry Team–which is well and good–we have the great freedom to embrace our Vocation as a royal priesthood, as Ministers of Reconciliation. What’s more! is that we have been given the gracious gift of the Spirit who gives different gifts to each one in accordance with the spirit’s own wishes in order to bring healing rescue and awaken the world to the good news: the good news that Yeshua came as the Messiah, rebuilt the temple, defeated evil and became King and Lord of All.

    What Yeshua was and is for Israel, we are, by his spirit, for the World! This is, among other things, the very reason why we can’t do church and why we can’t move into a time of worship.

  • Kyle

    Thanks, Aaron. Great contribution.

    “If we were to say of the local church, ‘The primary tool for God’s will in the world is when God’s followers humbly submit themselves to His dream for humanity and to each other in the power of His Spirit,’ then I completely agree.”

    I have to say that the above risks expanding the definition of “local church” until it encompasses nearly every spiritual activity — conversation with a believer over coffee, mowing the lawn, extending compassion and perhaps a bit of the spoken gospel to a stranger, learning from a friend or stranger with different beliefs, worshipping God through a private iPod moment. At this point there is no cohesion, and the church is most certainly defined by cohesion and identity — ergo an institutional face — and especially in a fallen world, this institution must be prominent. Put another way, if the church were doing all that it should be doing, as opposed to all we observe it actually doing or not doing, would Aaron object to its primacy?

    I think Aaron reveals his bigger agenda two paragraphs later when he mentions pastors believing that they have the most important jobs in the world. This is a part-to-whole fallacy, as a church is a synergy of faithfulness between teachers and congregants, those provided for and those providing. This symbiosis is not about hierarchical importance as much as proper, balanced, and fluid servanthood occurring multidimensionally and in step with the mandate of God’s love. Pastors should play a role but not THE role, regardless of what ego-heavy fear-mongerers are clamoring for through not-so-subtle swipes at risk-takers like Bell. I would assume Bell continues to attend church somewhere, so he’s still crucially involved in the most important institution, and this is good for him and us. That he feels compelled to situate his talents as a leader in a different context is likely a calling of the spirit, and we hope this leads to new fruit and, if indirectly, the growth of the institutional church, the alpha and omega.

  • EricMichaelSay


    I actually see no problem with expanding the definition of the ‘local church’ to ‘every spiritual activity’. Can you expound on why you think it is a problem?

  • Kyle


    In one sense the activities of the God-inspired and God-covenanted constitute a harmony with and fall under the spirit of the local church and may, as I alluded to with Bell, bring about the expansion of the church as it is more formally known. But the local church must have a high degree of constancy of location and activity and outreach, and it must especially be recognized as a body by the outside world. This is not to suggest that this body is insular or opposed to nuanced and open engagement with the secular world, or that it doesn’t maintain a certain amount of flux in its beliefs, practices, or membership or that it doesn’t pursue alliances with other organizations and institutions within the community, but this body has definition and recognizability. The hope is that individual and scattered group efforts, in addition to directly inspiring and bettering those exposed, point back to the church, which is the distinct nexus of God’s growing kingdom. The church has to be concentrated and sustained harmony through worship, teaching, prayer, compassion — not just a better way, but a better way together, capturing the viability of God’s world-consuming large-scale project in small form. I see the institution as the center of this web and other spiritual activities as circular strands emanating from this center point. These satellite activities, then, fall under the penumbra of the church by relating back to the institutional core, but considered in isolation these activities could never constitute the church.

  • MikeW

    I am sympathetic to the article, but it verges on leaving us thinking that when it comes to forming the church we have to choose between the best of individualism and the worst of corporate culture. That sounds too much like American, anti-establishment discourse to me. I certainly believe that The Kingdom is the reality and that The Kingdom is not limited to any structure or institution, and yet as Hauerwas has said, evangelicals would do well to recognize that you they can’t have an unmediated relationship with God. We need the Body of Christ as a social organization to live as God intended.

  • Scot,

    You are going in the right direction. However, do not underestimate the strength of the tentacles of institutionalism. Wherever there is a human leader of the people of God, there is institutionalism. The true people of God follow no one but the Lord Himself.

  • Is tribal organization a requirement for the indwelling of Spirit? Does “putting on the mind of Christ” require a textual familiarity with Jewish-Christian history?

    Perhaps this is far too radical and universal a notion, but I’m convinced that Jesus has historically inhabited and motivated individuals from all nations, all cultures, all religions, and even no religion — often without their knowing anything about J/X-OT/NT history and religious ideology.

    I suggest that the freedom of true love cannot be captured and held hostage by any set of religious rules or tribal practices. I agree with #9 that the person of Jesus is our greatest example of life and Spirit, but also convinced that The Way transcends textual and ideological boundaries.

    In this light, “church” happens when God’s love expresses and gathers. This organic ecclesia needs no further religious identity for justification, no confession beyond the acts of sacrificial love. This “Body of Christ” is arguably mediated, but not by us. Not by propositional knowledge or creeds.

    Love is not ours to own. Spirit cannot be tied down. Jesus is infinitely greater than the religious boxes we have so eloquently crafted for him to fit into. Perhaps none of us has the eyes to see, or the ears to hear, the profound reality of love that defines a lived ecclesia.