While we were posted in Africa, I had the wonderful opportunity to study and observe the diverse cultures of the Southern countries with their various influences from Western, Asian and African roots. One of the observations that bothered me a little bit was they way western missionaries and church planters have influenced the way that Africans “do church.” Everything from buildings and seating arrangements to worship styles and preaching cadence are patterned after what was taught or what is seen on satellite T.V. Very rarely does one encounter what could be described as a truly African church.
I have spent considerable time thinking about what a truly African church might look like. I think the building would be simple or non existent, without pews or connected chairs that tend to get in the way when Africans start moving with the music. Worship songs would be in their own language and rhythms and would utilize their own traditional instruments. Pastors would share the gospel in narrative form with all the art and passion of great story tellers. Often the way that some South Africans do church seems foreign and disconnected from their culture and way of life.
I have heard that many younger people feel the same about churches here in Canada. One of my high school friends has stopped attending church as an adult, claiming that it has become irrelevant. Many emergent churches have been founded on the principle that the old ways of doing church just don't fit today’s culture and society. As a result, there are many modern day prophets out there trying to reinvent the church in a way that is more attractive to the unchurched.
What if we could start all over? What if we happened to be the very first Christians in Canada? What would church look like for us? What would we want it to look like? Where would we start? What would we do? How would we measure success?
Unfortunately, many well intentioned pastors and church planters today are starting by looking at society and working back toward developing a church that will fit. I think that what is often overlooked is a deep appreciation of the theology of church. What does God intend for the church to be? What does He want it to look like? What has He called it to accomplish?
We know that the church is not a building or location but rather the people. Without going into the arguments of the church visible, invisible, or universal, I like the simple definition that the church is “the assembly of people who belong to God.” After all, it is not the definition that is important, it is the church itself that matters most to God.
I believe that the church is an actual reflection of God and His nature. In the New Testament we see the church described in Trinitarian terms. I would like to take a few moments to reflect on three of the images that Paul used to describe the church.
I. The People of God.
2 Cor. 6:16 says that we are the temple of the living God. “As God has said: ‘I will live with them and walk among them and I will be their God, and they will be my people.” The church is constituted of God’s people. They belong to Him and He belongs to them. Paul understands the church to be the people of God who are chosen and called by Him (1 Thess. 1:4, 2 Thess. 2:14-15).
Called by God, and belonging to God, God has a special expectation for the church. The church has been called to be holy. The church is also called “the bride of Christ”, and as such is called to be pure and sanctified. God loves the church so much he gave his only son to make the church holy. That is the image that Paul shares in Eph. 5:25-27 when he exhorts husbands to love their wives the way Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, to make her holy. The people of God are to be holy.
II. The Body of Christ.
Paul has much to say about the church as the Body of Christ. One of the primary passages is found in 1 Corinthians 12. V.27 states, “Now you are the Body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” In this passage the church is represented as a physical representation of Christ with Christ himself as the head (Col. 1:18). Each part of the Body is important for the functioning of the whole. Each spiritual gift is important and all of the parts are interconnected. This demonstrated the unity that God intends for the church. Individual believers or individual churches are not intended to stand alone, but rather to work together. In John 15 Jesus demonstrates with the vine analogy that all of the branches are nourished through him. Paul and Christ are demonstrating the interconnectedness of all believers. (Ephesians 1:3-10) The health of a body is determined by the health of each part and all of the individual “cells” that make up the body.
So much of what we know and love about the church is tied to this image of the Body. Within the Body we bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2), we share fellowship and intimacy (1 Cor. 12:26), we are united (Eph. 4:4-6) and we are open to all regardless of race, gender, language, culture, or past (Col. 3:11, Rom. 11, Gal. 3).
Perhaps one of the most significant outworkings of the Body of Christ is that the church serves as the extension of Jesus’ ministry here on earth. When Jesus returned to Heaven, the church became His hands and feet in our world. When Jesus gave the great commission He gave the church her mission and marching orders. As the Body of Christ, the church is charged to go into all the world on His behalf and make disciples of all nations. (Mt. 28:18-20, Jn. 14:12)
I would add a note of caution here. The missional church movement uses the terminology of the church being “the incarnational presence of Christ in the community.” This phrase is OK if we are clear that it is not a literal incarnation, but we need to be cautious not to promote a teaching that is actually pantheistic. While the church is not God in human flesh, it is indwelled by God’s spirit, and that makes it different than any other social gathering. The body of Christ has spiritual life as the Temple of the Holy Spirit.
III. The Temple of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit brought the church into being, “we were all baptized by one Spirit into one Body.” (1 Cor. 12:12) While addressing divisions and challenges in the church, Paul writes to the church, “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s Temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you?” (1 Cor. 3:16). There is no church without the Holy Spirit. The first church was born at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came and brought power. (Acts 1:8) Peter wasn’t a preacher and the message he gave in Jerusalem wasn’t the best I’ve heard, but it had power!
The Holy Spirit gives vitality to the church. As a tree without fruit is just a tree, a tree with fruit has life and vitality and something to share. In his letter to the church in Galatia, Paul describes how the Spirit imparts vitality to the church as it is evidenced by spiritual fruit (Gal. 5:22-23). The fruit demonstrates the genuineness of the church. Where there is no fruit, there is no spiritual vitality.
Not only does the Holy Spirit empower the church and give it life, but the Spirit makes things possible that would not be humanly possible. The Spirit brings unity to the church. Only the Holy Spirit can create a setting where “All the believers were one in heart and mind…” (Acts 4:32). The Spirit makes us sensitive to the Lord’s leading in our lives. (Jn. 14:15- 31) The Holy Spirit is our counselor who teaches us all things and reminds us of the words of Christ.
I think one of the most exciting things about the Spirit’s role in the church is that it is the Holy Spirit who breathes power into the church through spiritual gifts. The Holy Spirit determines what gifts are needed in the body and who best to entrust those gifts to (1 Cor. 12:11). The Holy Spirit purifies the church so that we can be the people of God (1 Cor. 6:19-20). He breathes life into the church so that we can be empowered for the mission that God has given to us as the Body of Christ, and the He bestows upon us the spiritual gifts and manifests within us the spiritual fruits that we could never produce on our own. Together, these three images demonstrate the Trinity in the church. The People of God who are chosen to be Holy, the Body of Christ that is united, nourished, and extended, and the Temple of the Holy Spirit where we are empowered, equipped and imparted with spiritual vitality.
What if we could start all over from scratch? If we could start all over would we do a better job? Many people in my generation are trying to start all over, but I am fearful that they may not be getting it right. I agree that it is important for the church to be culturally relevant in its community. We didn’t see any rapidly growing Afrikaans churches springing up in the black townships of South Africa. The church must be dynamic and its life will reflect the culture of the believers in that community. However, to start with the community and try to design the church to fit doesn’t seem to mesh well with New Testament theology.
Churches today must reflect the character of God. Do our new expressions of church reflect that we are the people of God? We have been chosen and called to be holy. Peter is very clear that we are a holy people. New churches must not loose sight of our call to be set apart from the world. Trying to fit in with the world is not the answer, but rather we should strive to be holy but not allow our church culture to be a repellent to the unchurched. The church can be culturally relevant and holy at the same time.
Churches today must represent Christ in our communities. United in Christ and nourished by Him we must do better than “get along” with one another. We need to work together. Congregations must find ways to partner with each other in the great commission. I believe that we need to see a significant shift in our churches by moving away from a tendency to serve ourselves toward being a service to our communities. This is where we need to learn from the missional church movement. The great commission is not about comfort, personal preference, or performance, it is a call to make disciples. Our research continues to identify that one of the greatest needs in evangelical churches in Canada is evangelism and discipleship. This should be our strength. This is what we are here for. Evangelicalism has lost much of its foothold in Canada because we have lost our bearings and are falling behind in our efforts to evangelize and disciple our nation. Jesus had no place to lay his head. His comfort was found in doing life on life with his disciples. The church, as the body of Christ, needs to do life on life with our nation.
I am relieved that we are not alone. The great commission is not dependent on our skills but on our obedience to the Holy Spirit and our faithfulness in using the gifts He has given us. “Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord Almighty.” (Zech. 4:6)
If I could start all over I would concentrate outside of the box. I would disciple new believers to focus on sharing their faith with others and I would try to develop an expression of church that was nurturing and equipping for the saints and a positive reflection of Christ to the community. I would celebrate holiness that is ours in Christ and I would celebrate the gifting of the Holy Spirit by encouraging every believer to use his or her gifting to serve the Lord and I would measure the success of the church by the fruits of the spirit.
Wait a minute, isn’t that what we are already trying to do? I hope we are able to do some future shifting for the church in Canada as we help churches to focus back on the basics. I hope and pray that at Outreach Canada, we will be known not only for our work in areas of specialization, but also for our commitment to the great commission and our mission to evangelize and disciple our nation.