Chad Hall authored a provocative perspective on “church” in 2004 (see below) that I think provides a helpful perspective for those of us seeking change in how we “do church” in North America. What Chad’s perspective opens up for us is the ability to separate in our thinking the institution from the church. This distinction may at first appear as a distinction without a difference but once you think it through it is very significant.
One of my initial thoughts is to move toward a more accurate use of terms – perhaps we should begin calling our local church institutions “catalyst” rather than “church?” No doubt at first this would be awkward… First Baptist Catalyst, Redeemer Catalyst, etc. but it may help us refocus our effort and passion and appreciate the proper role and limitation of the institution. Furthermore, this refocusing is especially important during this time of liminality. We are quickly leaving modernity and the institutionalism of that period to a time that will likely see the church carried without strong association with institutional structures.
Why Church Isn’t Really a Church
“Anyone familiar with Bill Hybels has heard it: “The hope of the world is the local church.” On dozens of occasions, I heard the phrase and nodded in agreement. The phrase led me to commit or recommit myself to serving the local church. The phrase caused me to weep. The phrase gave orientation to my life and to my work.
But lately when I hear it, my response is different. No commitment. No tears. No direction. Just a one-word question filled with doubt: “Really?”
I’m starting to believe the hope of the world cannot possibly rest with the 501(c)3 not-for-profit religious organizations dotting our landscape and holding themselves out to be “churches.” It just can’t be true.
It’s not that I doubt God or the unique and saving nature of Jesus; I truly believe Jesus is the hope of the world. I do not doubt that God’s plan is to empower and inspire ordinary people to carry the life-giving message of salvation. I do not even doubt that communities of believers are the God-ordained means for carrying out this grand plan. What I doubt is that what passes for “church” these days is the manifestation of Jesus in our world. I even doubt that my own church is a church.
Jesus died for this?
Why all the doubt? Like other congregations, the one I serve strives to be an authentic church, but we get in our own way. Simply put, our chief aim is not to connect people to God, each other, and the world, but to build an organization that does so. The distinction is subtle but significant.
Building an organization isn’t an inherently evil thing to do, nor is it necessarily counterproductive to spiritual aims. Indeed, modernity gifted humans to become more efficient and effective in building organizations. Businesses, governments, and charities give us meaningful and productive work when they are better organized. There’s nothing wrong with that. But building an organization is not the same as being a church, even if the aim of the organization is to do the work of Jesus.
Building an organization is an intoxicating substitute for being a church, because it allows us to work toward being a church without really being a church.
The pain of all this strikes church leaders especially hard. Deep down, not one of us believes the organization we serve is a true expression of authentic Christian community. Each of us thinks, “THIS is what Jesus gave his life for? No way!”
We are right to be suspicious. But we are also knee-deep in this pursuit of church and we find it easy to ignore the obvious sense of dis-ease that bugs us. After all, we attend seminars and conferences, we read books and go to school, we pray and fast, we develop our leadership and preaching skills-all to the aim of organizing the church so that it can express and grow the Kingdom of God. But we never get there. The organization gets tweaked, and sometimes overhauled. We try an array of programs, processes, personalities and powerfully alliterated points. But a real live church is still beyond our experience. We just cannot organize well enough to accomplish the goal of building a church. The best we will do is to build an organization that is well-structured, well-balanced, and well-aimed at being a church. But the organization will never be a church.
Whatever your definition of authentic church is, you know the congregation you serve is not there. Nor will it ever get there.
If not church, what is it?
So what are these organizations we call “churches?” I have come to believe that there are three possible answers.
(1) Barriers. These organizations are barriers to church. The Bible is clear that all humans are created for the purpose being in communion with their Creator and fellow creatures. So when some hapless creature goes looking for communion in the most obvious of places (a church) and finds a group of people committed to building their religious organization on the backs and souls of spiritual seekers, the hapless creature goes away disappointed and disillusioned. Or worse, the creature assimilates and adopts the values and vision of the organization being built. Either way, the organization stands in the place and in the way of church.
(2) Non-players. These organizations are non-players, having little to do (positively or negatively) with church. Jesus is doing His work in and through people all around, and these so-called churches are not uniquely related to this work any more than are the public library, Little League, or Sears. The fact that some organization members are also participants in true church is merely coincidental.
(3) Catalysts. These organizations are catalysts for church. However, let us not mistake the catalyst for the community. At best, an organization can create communities of faith in which people live out Jesus-like lives and extend the reign of God. Organizations can equip these communities, can gather potential communicants together, and can facilitate the formation of authentic Christian community. But the organization is not the thing it is trying to form. It is a means, not the end.
The organization many of us have joined and even led is not really a church, but the organization might lead to “church.”
How can we respond?
What does all of this mean? I do not know if this means anything for you, or even if it should. This is my story, so all I can do is tell you four things it means for me.
First, I feel a great sense of relief. I can finally quit trying to make a tree into an apple, so to speak. The 501(c)3 not-for-profit religious organizations will not and do not have to become authentic Christian communities. Thank God! This shift in understanding means I don’t have to get bent out of shape when a given congregation is filled with systems, values, behaviors, and people who are anything but the body of Jesus. I think many pastors might feel the same relief as they give up on making their congregation into a church-a task akin to climbing to the moon.
I am also relieved that Jesus is at work through channels other than local congregations. His Spirit is at work birthing churches in factories, neighborhoods, homes, support groups, chat rooms, and hospitals. These churches do not need to legitimize themselves by getting attached to a brick-and-mortar organization.
Third, I am not giving up on the local organization. I am now free to help these organizations produce churches rather than become churches. Any congregation is at once a mixture of all three possibilities: barrier, non-player, and catalyst. Some are such barriers, that there is little hope. Others are non-players to the extent that a new vision is needed. And some are catalysts that can ratchet up their church-producing efforts by modifying their organization and getting out of their own way. I can best serve congregations by working to diminish the barrier qualities, reveal the non-player qualities, and grow the catalyst qualities.
I think this is worthwhile work.
But more important than anything I do related to helping churches (again, a seductive replacement for being church) is the issue of who I am and who I am becoming. I desperately want to be part of an authentic Christian community more so than giving my energy to building a church. I am a young guy, but when I add up all of the hours, energy, books, prayers, and anxiety I have directed toward figuring out how to build a church, it is enormous, and it towers in comparison to the attention I have given to exploring and living out true Christian community.
Mine is a slow conversion.
For decades I have honored the local church as the hope of the world. Now, I have to learn how I and the community to which I belong can be this hope. As long as I shove that responsibility onto an organization, I will find the hope dimmed. The worship will never be engaging enough; the programs will never run smoothly enough; the small groups will always need some missing ingredient; too few, too many, or not the right kind of people will join the organization. And the organization will need me to fix it-and that’s where my treasure will be.
Living out “church”
So how can I start living out church? This seems to be an especially difficult task for a pastor. But I am going to give it a try. I’m starting by finding other Jesus followers who are interested in being church more than building church. I’m asking, “Who are the folks around me who might allow me to travel with them on their spiritual journey, and whom might we invite to travel with us?”
I am also attempting to be sensitive to where my loyalties are whenever I attempt to get someone to be a part of the congregation I serve. Do I have their best interest in mind, or do I simply want to build my organization? Do I hold out hope that they will experience and become part of a church, or are my aims less noble. These are tough questions, but leadership is a tough endeavor so I should expect no less.
Finally, I am looking beyond the congregation I serve to find, develop, and celebrate church where I see it. This means that my church might not be a part of the congregation I serve. And this also means that I must refuse to treat everyone in my congregation the same. Hopefully, some congregants will be a part of my church, but most won’t. I’m going to deal with that fact and not refuse to experience church with some simply because I will never experience it with all.”