Nowadays, when a well-meaning friend or acquaintance asks me,

“Where do you go to church?”

I often catch myself groping hard for a non-controversial answer. Because to me, this question reveals an almost unquestioned assumption that church refers to building or to an event held once a week, often on a Sunday, and normally called a “worship service.” But is that really the church?

In his book Organic Churches, Neil Cole says that this same question reminds us about the Samaritan woman’s question in John 4:20-24 to Jesus. The Samaritan woman’s concern was about the place of worship. Neil Cole says “where” is the wrong question to ask. The right question is “who?” We do not need to go and seek God in some special place. He has been seeking us right where we are. I have come to the conclusion that church happens where Jesus and His people are – not in one fixed location on a single day of the week.

In recent years I have tried to look at the New Testament church as described in Acts and the Epistles through fresh lenses – to try to understand it without the assumptions that accompany contemporary church practices. This was easier said than done and I still have much to learn (and unlearn). But life is a journey and with it the ongoing discovery and application of God’s plans and purposes for His people. We can only begin to act on what the Lord has revealed to us thus far.

Frank Viola in his book Reimagining Church, observes that the terms “going to church” and “worship services” or “church services” do not appear in the New Testament but emerged long after the death of the apostles. The early Christians didn’t view church as a place to go and neither did they view their gatherings as “services.” Church for them was a family – the family of God and His people. The New Testament’s favorite metaphor for the church is the family (and not the business corporation as is typically constructed for the Western institutional church today). Wolfgang Simson, author of the book Houses that Changed the World, remarks that the nature of church is not reflected in a constant series of religious meetings led by professional clergy in buildings specially reserved to experience Jesus, but in the prophetic way followers of Christ live their everyday life in spiritually extended families as a vivid answer to the questions society faces.

As I carefully study the New Testament, Viola’s and Simson’s comments begin to make more sense. Church life wasn’t focused on weekly meetings, or even on any kind of meeting for that matter. Today’s traditional church has placed a lot of importance and resources on the Sunday worship service that one would expect to find a lot of scriptural directives on this event. But there is none. Instead we find a lot of exhortations on how Christians are to live together as a spiritual family.

According to Neil Cole, the only time the words service and worship are put together (Rom.12: 1, 2) has no reference at all to the so-called “worship service” that we know today. Instead Rom. 12 implies a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week expression of Christ’s life in us. It would seem to me from this passage that worship is more than just an act or event – that it is more a way of life. But we have so strongly identified church with the weekly “worship service” event that we even read that into scriptural text that talks about church life. The result is an understanding of church that is not necessarily biblical. In fact there is much evidence that the church families gathered together daily, not once a week and informally, over a meal, not over a liturgical program. The focus of the church was how Christ’s followers were to live their everyday life, both individually and as a family and as Christ’s transforming agents to the world around them.

Today’s church buildings and cathedrals were unknown to the early Christians. They usually gathered in their homes (see Acts 2:46; Acts 20:20; Rom. 16:3, 5: I Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15; Philemon 2). Frank Viola believes that when they got too many to meet in a single home they simply evolved into a network of home-based groups. Today, the word church is often associated with an edifice. As we have observed earlier, the New Testament portrays the church as a family – the community of God’s people. An interesting uniqueness about the early Christian faith was the absence of religious buildings. For these Christians, the believing community is the “house of God,” not a structure. Judaism and pagan religions had erected sacred buildings such as temples. But for the early Christians, the family of believers is the temple (I Cor. 3:16; II Cor. 6:16; Eph. 2:21-22).

According to Frank Viola, “The early Christians understood that God sanctified people, not objects.” This mark of early Christianity cut across the grain of religious customs of their day. They were the only religious group that met in the homes of its members.” None of them erected any temple or shrine at least in the first 3 centuries. The church of God has never been a building.

Stephen’s assertion that “the Most High does not dwell in temples made by human hands” was made in answer to his accusers that he was always speaking out against the Temple. He paid for this conviction with his blood (see Acts 7). At least three other times in the Scriptures it is said that God does not dwell in a building made by human hands Solomon, the builder of the Temple, acknowledged that a huge temple could not contain God (I Kings 8:27; see also Isa. 66:1 and Acts 7:48-51; Acts 17:24,24). Jesus Himself was not impressed by such buildings (Luke 13:2-3). The early church did not have a building for the first three hundred years and did well. According to Neil Cole, if we could figure out how to do church without needing buildings, we would be much better off.

Buildings are not really the problem but we often begin to function as if the church building is the center of our church life. Someone once said that we shape our buildings and then they shape us. Our minds and hearts can be held captive behind four walls, when Jesus expects us to be out in the streets living as His witnesses to the world. But our problem is not in bricks and mortar; it is in our minds. The significance of this issue has become obvious to me in recent years. God meant His people to be out there in the world, acting as salt and shining as light (Matt. 5:13-16). There are times when His people are meant to gather together to encourage one another (Heb. 10:24-25) but most of their lives are spent out there in the world. As Neil Cole rightly puts it, “church happens where Jesus and His people are – not in one given location on a single day of the week.”

What does it mean for the church to be family then? According to Frank Viola, there are six implications:

* The members take care of one another. Real faith results in genuine love towards our brothers and sisters in Christ. Our help goes beyond the spiritual and emotional to the physical and financial (Eph. 4:28).
* The members spend time together. They take time to know each other. The early Christians ate and interacted together. (The Jerusalem believers met daily for a time.) The author of Hebrews says that Christians should encourage one another daily (Heb. 3:13). Fellowship is not just an event you attend once or twice a week.
* The members show one another affection. They expressed their love for one another visibly (I Thess. 5:26; I Cor. 16:20; II Cor. 13:12).
* The family grows. If it grows too large it will divide and multiply into many other fellowships. The church that lives as a family will produce spiritual transformation in its members. When people see them loving and accepting one another despite their flaws, they will be drawn to the church family.
* The members share responsibility. As in any family each members has a different role to play (I John 2:13-14). Each member actively functions but while each one has responsibilities, these are not held by position or office and neither are they hierarchical. They are organic and they operate by spiritual life.
* The members reflect the Triune God in their relationships. The three Persons in the Trinity give Themselves to one another and so should we in the church.
* A modern day example: Members of an organic church family caring for one another by visiting the sick, the depressed or members in mourning, helping them with chores and their practical needs when they are unable to function normally; refusing to give up on an erring brother or sister and loving them back to the Lord; eating together, recreating together, laughing together, playing together, working together, hammering out personal issues together and sharing their lives with one another.

Next article:

Church is a family, a community of God’s people who are encouraging each other and growing together in the process. It is not a building and is much more than a weekly event. This doesn’t mean that Christians do not gather together but when they do what can we expect?

981290: Organic Church: Growing Faith Where Life Happens Organic Church: Growing Faith Where Life Happens

By Neil Cole / John Wiley & Sons

Churches have tried all kinds of ways to attract new and younger members – revised vision statements, hipper worship, contemporary music, livelier sermons, bigger and better auditoriums. But there are still so many people who aren’t being reached, who don’t want to come to church. And the truth is that attendance at church on Sundays does not necessarily transform lives; God’s presence in our hearts is what changes us. Leaders and laypeople everywhere are realizing that they need new and more powerful ways to help them spread God’s Word. According to international church starter and pastor Neil Cole, if we want to connect with young people and those who are not coming to church, we must go where people congregate. Cole shows readers how to plant the seeds of the Kingdom of God in the places where life happens and where culture is formed – restaurants, bars, coffeehouses, parks, locker rooms, and neighborhoods. Organic Church offers a hands-on guide for demystifying this new model of church and shows the practical aspects of implementing it.

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