When is the church "the church"? That may sound like a silly, nonsensical question, but work with me here. There are some who like to talk about "The Church" by which they mean the some total of any and all Christians anywhere in the world. I get the concept, and it's a biblical concept, but it can have the unfortunate consequence of allowing some Christians to think that they don't have to be a part of "a church" because they are a part of "The Church." But "The Church" only does something when "a church" does something.
It is typical to think of the church being the church whenever Christians gather, typically for worship, Bible study, and/or prayer. "For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them" (Matthew 18:20) says that the church gathered has the Lord's blessing and presence, and the writer of Hebrews encourages us to "consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching." (Hebrews 10:24-25, emphasis mine.)
Those verses are pretty interesting, because it appears that there were some Christians who were content to "love and do good deeds" but didn't feel it necessary to "meet together." Now, to be fair, Hebrews was written to a church in persecution where it was dangerous to meet together, much like the Christian church in China today. So meeting together--or not--was an issue of survival. The safe thing to do was to be the church as individuals, doing the mission of the church without meeting together as the church, but the writer of Hebrews makes it clear that meeting together was so important it was worth dying for. He probably knew that individuals don't tend to be provoked to love and good works without the regular encouragement and accountability that comes from gathering together. The church on mission needs to be gathering together.
But I wonder if we have allowed the pendulum to swing too far the other way, such that we define being the church primarily as the church gathered? And then the church being on mission as something the church should be doing, but even when it's not, the church gathered is still the church being the church. Or we define the church on mission as being the church trying to bring more people to our gathering.
There is a growing movement of pastors/theologians who are saying that the church is only being the church when it is on mission out in the world, ministering to the poor, the suffering, the hurting of the world. The church gathers in support of that mission, but if it only gathers and does not minister out in the world, it is not being the church. The church, in this view, is not defined as a group of people with a common set of beliefs, a common practice of worship, or a common commitment to care for one another, but as a group of people with a common mission out in the world.
I keep emphasizing "out in the world" because they are not talking in any way about the church's mission being to gather in the church building--or even in our homes; but neither are they talking about the church "scattered" as each individual Christian seeks to fulfill their own unique--and solitary--calling from God. They are talking about the church gathered out in the world ministering together out in the world to hurting people out in the world.
Personally I don't believe that there is a dichotomy between the church being the church gathered in our buildings and homes and it being the church gathered out in the world on mission; I do believe, however, that given one or the other, the Lord would have us be gathered out in the world, ministering among the lost and hurting of our world and bearing witness to the good news that they are not alone in their suffering, that the one who suffered on the cross is for them and not against them, as the world seems to be. In the opening chapter of Isaiah, the Lord tell Israel that he is tired of all of their gathering for worship because it is not coupled with justice:
"...bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation-- I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow." (Isaiah 1:13-17)
Or, James 1:27 puts it, "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained
by the world."
This is the church being the church.
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