So at Irvington Covenant Church, we’ve just finished wrapping up one series, and we’re heading into another.
For those who have been missing-in-action for awhile (and you know who you are), here’s the skinny.
In May, we launched a series on prayer called Pray With Simplicity, where we examined the topic of prayer through a series of teachings drawn from the text of The Lord’s Prayer. We ended this series with a prayer service, because it’s a little silly to talk about prayer without taking the time to… actually… pray.
(Haven’t we learned anything from MC Hammer?)
Following that we had a Missions Sunday, where we talked to people connected to our church about the work they do both locally and globally — including a live remote via Skype to Trevor and Chrissy Davies in Johannesburg. We ended that service with a challenge from my man Ronn Elzinga, drawn from John 4:34 — look around, check out the harvest before you, and pray for an opportunity.
This is all part of a larger season of examining our spiritual foundations. We want anybody connected to ICC — even tangentially — to understand why it is we do what we do. We want folks to be armed and dangerous with the truth, always prepared to show and prove (1 Peter 3:15-17). You know, “Take the Stand” and such.
So now we’re turning our attention to the church.
But before I do that, let me tell you about this book I read earlier this week.
I’m a fan of John Grisham, and legal thrillers in general really, but I recently picked up his first work of non-fiction, entitled The Innocent Man.
As always, I was absolutely spellbound.
The Innocent Man is the story of Ron Williamson, and his friend Dennis Fritz, who were wrongfully arrested, convicted, and in Williamson’s case, almost executed — for a capital murder they didn’t commit. Set in rural Ada, Oklahoma, it’s a tale of small-town injustice.
Once I started, I zoomed through it pretty quickly, for I was confounded by the basic premise:
How does this happen?!? How does a man almost get a lethal injection for a crime he had nothing to do with???
* * *
As it happens, I wanted the answer so bad I was trying to figure it out before I even started reading the book.
Which happens often, actually. As the mind races to try to make sense of such abject tragedy, we often fill the blanks with familiar notions.
Like, for example, one might subconsciously think… hmm… small town… wrongful conviction… death penalty… must have been a Black guy.
But that would be wrong. Williamson and Fritz were both White.
Okay, well… fine… then, it’s a case of small-town folks being distrustful of outsiders.
But that’s not exactly the truth either. Ron Williamson grew up in that town. As a matter of fact, he was once considered the pride of Ada, having parlayed a successful high school baseball career into a shot at the big leagues.
Well then, what was their deal??
I’m glad you asked.
The truth is that Fritz and Williamson went through their ordeal not because the policemen and the district attorneys of Ada, OK are evil people. (Though, by the end of the book, it really does make you wonder.)
It happened because those civil servants made some assumptions pretty early on in their process. And as the investigation went on, their view of the evidence continued to be slanted toward their original assumptions. Through a combination of ignorance, fear, and arrogance, they fought to keep those assumptions from being challenged.
The result: two wrongful convictions, several verdicts overturned, an absolute tempest of bad P.R. for the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigations, and one man who was almost executed for a crime he never committed.
After finishing The Innocent Man, what I walked away with was this:
One wrong assumption, over time, can produce a world of hurt.
* * *
Unfortunately, this kind of thing happens much more than we think.
And not just in the criminal justice system, either. The people of God, the people of church, people who call themselves Christians, are often guilty of false assumptions — about God, and about the church — that produce a world of harm.
And just like those Ada cops, they don’t do it because they’re evil, but mostly because they don’t know better.
It’s not hard to do, really.
If you’re part of a church for awhile, chances are you might experience some benefit. You might kick an addiction, or be healed of some affliction, or have some sort of mountaintop epiphany in the middle of a service.
So you keep coming back, because you’re not dumb enough to turn down more of a good thing.
Churches are aware of this, and some even market themselves this way.
“Come to our church to receive a blessing!”
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, because hey… if God is in the house, and the people encounter God, the people will be blessed.
The problem comes when churchgoers start to make the unspoken assumption that you go to church in order to get a blessing… that the purpose of the church is to get one’s needs met.
Unfortunately, successful churches often instill this mindset unwittingly because they do such a good job of meeting the needs of their parishioners.
But this mentality, over time, tends to skew our perceptions. It leads us into a MeChurch mentality, where the church is just another consumer-driven entity that exists solely for the purpose of meeting my needs.
Now I realize some of you have heard part of this before. You’re probably thinking:
Okay fine … the church isn’t about me… I get it.
But it’s not enough to just get this far. Such a realization begs the question: if the church is not about me, then what is it for?
Unfortunately, many churchgoing Christians have never taken the time to find a solid answer, so the blanks are occupied by their assumptions.
But if we are to truly function as the church of Jesus Christ, this is the question that must be answered. We must intentionally fill in the blanks, and eradicate these fault assumptions once and for all.
For the answers, we must, as always, go to the Scripture.
[And speaking of Scripture, there are great free Scripture study tools available online, so you have no excuse for not studying the Bible, other than, well, you just don’t feel like it.]
Here are three foundational ideas that will help us answer the question of what the church is for…
The church is for gathering.
As a matter of fact, that’s what church means. The word translated as “church” in the New Testament is the Greek word ekklesia, which means “gathering.”
This is an important idea, this gathering thing.
Because us postmoderns have embraced the idea the church is not simply a building. But we often take it to the opposite extreme, where we act like anytime we’re in the presence of other Christians, or reading the Bible, listening to Christian music, or doing anything remotely spiritual, then that counts as “church.”
(And don’t even get me started about people sleeping in and trying to churchify it. We Christians have all kinds of euphemisms for sleeping in on Sunday mornings. Bedside Baptist, Pillow Presbyterian, and my favorite, courtesy of my wife’s mother Deanna: Church of the Inner Spring.)
Jokes aside, though, have you ever heard anyone say anything like this?
“Hanging out with friends at a coffee shop? That’s church to me.”
“Communing with God out in the wilderness with my family… that’s church to me.”
“Spending quiet time at home with God… that’s church to me.”
Problem is, the whole church-is-what-I-want-it-to-be thing not exactly Biblical.
Oh sure, people who say that may quote Matthew 18:20 (“where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them”) but Jesus was talking in that quote about church discipline.
Scholar Frank Viola says it this way:
New Testament scholarship agrees that the word ekklesia (translated “church”) meant a local community of people who assemble together regularly. The word was used for the Greek assembly whereby those in a city were “called forth” from their homes to meet (assemble) in the town forum to make decisions for the city. The Christian ekklesia is a community of people who gather together and possess a shared life in Christ.
As such, the ekklesia as used in New Testament literature is visible, touchable, locatable, and tangible. You can visit it. You can observe it. And you can live in it. Biblically speaking, you could not call anything an ekklesia unless it assembled regularly together.
In Hebrews 10 there’s a passage that embodies most of the essential elements of what we do in a church.
16“This is the covenant I will make with them
after that time, says the Lord.
I will put my laws in their hearts,
and I will write them on their minds.”[a]
17Then he adds:
“Their sins and lawless acts
I will remember no more.”[b]
18And where these have been forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin. 19Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. 23Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. 25Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
The author of this epistle to the Hebrews (who some think may have been the apostle Paul, but there’s no clear consensus on the matter) is using Old Testament imagery to relate to Jewish converts to Christianity.
See back in the OT times, there were laws that required sacrifices, including blood sacrifices, for a variety of things: entering into a covenant agreement, receiving the forgiveness of sins, the consecration of the priests, etc. (See: Exodus 24, 29.)
Not only that, but part of the duties of the Levites, the priestly tribe of Israel, was to enter the Holy of Holies, the veiled part of tabernacle where the Most High God, Yahweh, was believed to dwell. God’s presence was so powerful that only the priests, who regularly purified themselves with ceremonial cleansing rituals, were allowed to enter the veil into the Holy of Holies.
And even this was dangerous, for if a priest dared to do so without purifying himself, he would be struck dead (Leviticus 16:1,13).
What the author of Hebrews is trying to say is that, because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the veil separating us from God’s presence has been torn. The Most Holy Place, previously inaccessible to ordinary folks, is now accessible. Because of Jesus, we have incredible access to God.
This should be the basis for our gathering. This access to God is the reason why we have church. And it’s the undercurrent of all that goes on in our church services.
Go back and reread this Hebrews passage, keeping in mind the kind of things we do in church.
Putting His law in our hearts (vs. 16), that’s understanding and internalizing the truth of God’s Word. And then there’s receiving the forgiveness of sins through the sacrament of communion (vs. 17-18), entering the Most Holy Place in worship (vs. 19), drawing near to Him in devotion (vs. 22), holding onto the hope we’ve been given (vs. 20), spurring each other onto good deeds (vs. 23)… all of these things we do as part of the church, and we do them together.
This is why the last part of the passage (vs. 24) is a reminder to his Jewish audience to not forsake meeting regularly. It’s not because the author is concerned about poor attendance levels, or because the author is worried about contributions to the church drying up.
He wants them to keep meeting because so much good happens when believers assemble in one place in Jesus’ name.
This is what the church is, a gathering of God’s people for God’s purposes. You can’t call it an ekklesia unless these things are happening. Conversely, wherever these things are happening, that’s where the church is.
Which is not to say that these things — the absorbing of God’s Word, the receiving of Christ’s forgiveness, the sacrament of communion, etc. — can’t happen in a Starbucks, or out in the woods, or in someone’s home.
But in order for it to be ekklesia, there must be an intentional gathering of believers for these purposes.
This is what the church is, and this is what sets it apart from the world.
Which leads me to the next foundational idea…
The church is for displaying God’s glory.
The access to God that we saw in Hebrews 10 is the main thing that sets the church, and Christianity in general, apart from the rest of the world.
God wants us to connect with Him, not just for our sake, but for the purpose of putting His glory on display.
Consider the apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans, where he is discussing God’s patience with unbelievers (in this case, Jews):
Romans 9:22-24 (emphasis mine):
“What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? 23What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory— 24even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?”
Consider also Paul’s second letter to church in Corinth, where he is discussing the new covenant under Jesus’ blood, and the glory that awaits those who trust in Him:
2 Cor. 3:17-19 (emphasis mine):
17Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
God loves humanity, because He is love and we were created in Him image. But God did not ordain the church only to serve the needs of its members. Rather, He desires to use the church in the same way that, in Old Testament times, He used the nation of Israel — as a light to show off His glory to the rest of the nations.
Think of just about any of the Old Testament stories you were taught as a child. Moses and the Red Sea (Ex. 14)… Elijah and the prophets of Ba’al (1 Ki. 18)… Daniel in the Lion’s Den (Dan. 6) … the Hebrew boys in the fiery furnace (Daniel 3)… the list goes on and on. These stories exist as part of God’s sovereign plan to show off his power and authority to those who did not know Him.
And this is a large part of the purpose for the church today, for there is no greater witness to the redemptive power of the blood of Christ than when unbelievers get to see people, fallen, fleshly, imperfect human beings, somehow choose to gather together week after week to confess their sins to one another, worship together, rejoice and mourn together, and generally live in the confines of authentic, messy community.
When viewing this divine experiment up-close and personal, unbelievers should (and often do) gawk in disbelief.
How in the world do they DO that?!
Unbelievers are often confounded by this because they are conditioned by the world’s system to believe that higher, nobler forms of living can only be achieved through decades worth of self-refinement. In the world’s way of living, we must work to become better versions of ourselves, more well educated, more physically fit, less emotionally needy, more giving and less corrupt, etc.
As believers in Christ, we rejoice in God’s goodness precisely because we know we can’t make any of those things happen. Yet somehow He makes it work. His grace animates and lubricates the functionality of the church, inexplicably causing the impossible to become possible on a week by week basis. We come in, needy, frustrated, driven by fleshly desires, prone to anger… and yet, somehow we refrain from killing each other. Somehow, we forgive. Somehow, we reflect His power, and by extension, His glory.
Later in the same letter to the church in Corinth, Paul refers to the ministry of reconciliation between God and man, the ministry that God has entrusted to him, this way:
For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,”[a]made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. 7But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us (2 Cor 4:6-7).
That is the glory of the church, in a nutshell.
He pours Himself out into weak, plain, unspectacular vessels. And He does this intentionally so that people will know that the treasure is from Him.
We get continual life transformation, and He gets to pad His rep as God Almighty.
Talk about a win/win scenario.
This leads me to the final crucial thought…
The church is for advancing God’s kingdom.
Come with me now to Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus:
Eph 1:18-23 (emphasis mine):
I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, 19and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is like the working of his mighty strength, 20which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. 22And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, 23which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.
Paul’s prayer is a theological mouthful, and properly unpacking it could take all day. However, let me sum it up this way. Paul is praying that the believers in Ephesus would truly embrace the hope they have in Christ, and that hope is rooted in Christ’s power, which fuels their relationship and participation with Him.
The key verses are 22 and 23, where Paul says that Jesus has been appointed head over everything, and that the church, then, becomes his body.
Paul is hoping that these Ephesian believers will be able to fully get on board and embrace the power that Christ has conferred onto them. This is what Paul means when he refers to the church as Jesus’ body.
In churches, we often are taught the Pauline analogy that we are one body with many members (Romans 12:3-5), but here Paul is taking it further. He’s saying that we are not just the body of some random joe schmoe… but we are Christ’s body. We are the embodiment of all of the authority and dominion that has been given to Christ Jesus by God the Father. And if we truly embrace our identity as part of His body, then we’ll be able to exercise that dominion and authority.
The image I keep coming up with is from Voltron, the 80’s cartoon show. It was a show about these five, giant, primary-colored robotic lions, controlled by these fierce human pilots. And they would rove the anime battlefields, generally kicking evildoer booty, until they came upon a truly evil behemoth that could not be conquered normally.
And then, all five lions would come together, lock into formation, and transform into this superpowerful robotic being called Voltron. And if you thought the five lions were powerful… look out. Voltron’s power was on a whole ‘nother level.
When Voltron was on the scene, absolutely anything was possible.
And that’s the image that I think Paul is trying to impart to these Ephesians, a message just as relevant to believers today.
We are Christ’s body. We are His voice, His fists, His muscles. Jesus said that we would do even greater things than He did (John 14:12).
That means all of the miracles.
All of the prophetic confrontations.
All of the Chuck Norris-style roundhouse kicks in the face of evil.
And that, and then some.
The thing is, Jesus only did what He saw the Father doing (John 5:19). He was fully committed to doing His Father’s business. In other words, Jesus was God’s vehicle to advance His agenda.
And that’s what He wants us to be.
That’s His desire for the church.
Consider one more foundational scripture… Matthew 16:18-19:
18And I tell you that you are Peter,[c] and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades[d] will not overcome it.[e]
19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be[f] bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be[g] loosed in heaven.”
Ignoring for the moment how momentous a moment that had to be for Peter personally, consider what this means for the church.
I’ve heard some Christians quote vs. 18 as a sort of pre-emptive lament over the inevitable trials of the world that will rock the church to its core.
Oh yes, the gates of hell will unleash their fury against us, but by the grace of God we will somehow prevail (*gulp*)… I hope.
It’s as if this verse is talking about defense.
That’s the thing, though… Jesus is talking about defense here, but not the church’s defense.
He’s talking about the enemy’s defense.
Jesus is speaking prophetically here, saying to the knucklehead disciple who will one day become a pillar of the church… look, I’m going to build a church through you, and it will eventually become such an offensive juggernaut that the very gates of hell will be powerless to stop it.
This is an INCREDIBLE idea, and it’s so countercultural compared to what I see from so many Christians in so many churches.
From the beginning, God’s design for His church was for it to be a powerful agent of change in a corrupt world. He designed it to be a light to the rest of the world, a powerful beacon of hope that can withstand a constant onslaught of depravity.
And, in a manner of speaking, that’s what it is.
Not just our church, not just our denomination, not even just the North American church, but the worldwide Church of Jesus Christ has, throughout the annals of history, been a powerful force for change.
Not that the change has always been for the better (see: The Crusades), and we’ve certainly endured our share of scandals, but that’s beside the point.
The point is that the overall catholic church (as in universal, not Roman Catholic) is a force to be reckoned with, and that’s exactly what God had in mind from the beginning.
That’s why we gather, that’s why we show off His glory… so that His will and His kingdom may be established on the earth.
Here at Irvington Covenant, we’re in the middle of a reboot of sorts, where we are rapidly evolving into a different version of church compared to what we were in the past.
But at the end of the day, our mission is the same as it’s ever been.
And if the changes have come too fast, or have been too scary, or too painful… then, speaking as a staff person, i apologize. We haven’t always done the best job of communicating what we’re trying to do, or following through on our commitments. We haven’t always done the best job of walking alongside people and helping folks to find meaningful places of connection. Truly, there is a laundry list of mea culpas that I could rattle off from here to kingdom come of things we’ve found some way to screw up.
But you know what we won’t apologize for?
We won’t apologize for identifying, prioritizing, and walking in our purpose.
If you’re reading this, and you’re considering whether to engage with us in our brand of Christian community, or any church for that matter, then I urge you — decide for yourself, and don’t let anyone dictate what you should do because it’s convenient for them.
But if you’re trying to figure out whether or not a church is really being true to its calling, then you better fill in the blanks. You better examine your expectations. And you better read the Scripture and see what it says, because if you don’t, I promise you… you’re in for a world of hurt.
Igniter Media sums it up with a great video contrasting church metaphors.
Check it out, and tell me what you think.
And if you’re an ICC attendee or member, tell me what you think we can do to live up to this standard. Because that, among other things, is why we gather. And I need just as much help as anybody else in filling in the blanks.
I’m Jelani Greenidge, and thanks for mixin’ it up with me.