I come across the language “significant church” or “significant churches” in different conversations. What comes to your mind when you hear such expressions? It could be intended to convey all sorts of things. Often, it conveys a large church, perhaps a multi-site church that is well-known and deemed influential, a church with a variety of well-funded programs intended to benefit the community of faith, as well as vast amounts of outreach to the community at large. The merits of these characteristic traits depend on how such churches are structured, how biblically based and relationally sound they are in terms of soul care, leadership, service, operations, and other important dynamics. Hopefully, though, we realize that no matter the size of the congregation or its budget and recognition by others, every church where Jesus is present is significant. If Jesus is present to each and every church, then each and every church is significant.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer goes so far as to assert that Jesus is the church. In Sanctorum Communio, Bonhoeffer claims that Jesus exists as the Christian community. Here are two statements:
It is ‘Adam’, a collective person, who can only be superseded by the collective person ‘Christ existing as church-community’ (Sanctorum Communio, 121).
In and through Christ the church is established in reality. It is not as if Christ could be abstracted from the church; rather, it is none other than Christ who ‘is’ the church. Christ does not represent it; only what is not present can be represented. In God’s eyes, however, the church is present in Christ. Christ did not merely make the church possible, but rather realized it for eternity. If this is so, then the significance of Christ must be made the focal point in the temporal actualization of the church (Sanctorum Communio, 157).
In Ethics, Bonhoeffer writes along similar lines:
So the church is not a religious community of those who revere Christ, but Christ who has taken form among human beings (Ethics, 96).
The church is nothing but that piece of humanity where Christ really has taken form (Ethics, 97).
If Jesus is the church, every church that bears his name is significant. Any time we claim that some churches are significant because of style, sophistication or related traits and others are not based on the lack of these characteristics, we are operating like the fleshly and factional Corinthian Christians who were boasting in the cult of personality and forms of power and wisdom not centered and shaped by Jesus’ cross (See 1 Corinthians 1).
Further to what has been argued to this point, a church is significant because it belongs to Jesus. Tony Huynh, Associate Pastor of English Ministry, Aloha Vietnamese Baptist Church, Hillsboro, Oregon, highlights this point beautifully when he shared with me:
We all want to be significant. There is nothing wrong with this acknowledgement. It is honest and truthful to say that we all desire to be of worth and value. The same goes for the communities to which we all belong—in particular, churches. But this begs the question: what makes us as individuals significant, and what makes the churches to which we belong significant?
Is the church the programs we operate? The styles of music our worship teams play? The dynamic sermons that our pastors deliver? None of these things are wrong in and of themselves. But if they are the metrics by which we determine the significance of our church then we are mistaken.
The significance of the church is not found in who belongs to it, or what accomplishments it can claim. Rather, the church is only significant because it belongs to Christ. Claims to significance cannot be made by what the church has done, but instead its value is found in that Christ claims it. It is of second order what the church does, the church is significant because of what Christ has done for it. It is in the church belonging to Christ that we find its significance.
Such belonging does not deny the importance of how seriously we take that belonging, or how obedient to Jesus we are. Our belonging to Jesus is primary, as Tony claimed. Everything follows from it. So, faithfulness to Jesus matters a great deal, albeit in response to his prior and constant faithfulness.
Concerning our own faithfulness, I would rather belong to the church of Philadelphia than the church of Laodicea (See Revelation 3). The church of Philadelphia did not appear to be great by religious or secular standards (whereas the church of Laodicea appears to be affluent and perhaps influential). However, the church of Philadelphia was noteworthy to Jesus because of their faithful witness. Jesus declares: “I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name” (Revelation 3:8; ESV).
Along these same lines of faithfulness, substance and character matter a great deal to Jesus. We should prioritize substance over style, and the faithful discharge of Christian duties over against fame. Bonhoeffer brings home this point in Life Together in his discussion of pastoral qualifications:
The authority of bishops lies in accomplishing the tasks of their service. There is nothing to admire in the person himself…The community of faith does not need brilliant personalities but faithful servants of Jesus and of one another (Life Together, page 85).
Taking seriously our significance in belonging to Jesus and one another in the community of faith entails faithfulness in such areas as proclamation of the Word, the celebration of the sacraments/ordinances, adherence to church discipline and accountability, and witness to the surrounding community.
Now in light of the following, we may be tempted to go in search of the ideal church. That won’t do either if we take seriously Jesus Christ’s incarnate reality. Again, in Life Together, Bonhoeffer writes:
Every human idealized image that is brought into the Christianity community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be broken up so that genuine community can survive. Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial (Life Together, 10).
The bright day of Christian community dawns wherever the early morning mist of dreamy visions are lifting (Life Together, 11).
Why would we go in search of the ideal church in the heavenly mist, when Jesus as the church’s significance is already present here in the earthen mess? Jesus is our ideal as the concrete reality he is as the head of the church–his body, with whom he is inseparably joined (Ephesians 5:23). Jesus is his whole person, head and body. As the totality of who he is as head and body, Jesus is the one and only significant church.