I believe that there is a correlation to how we follow Jesus and the idea that the local church plays a huge role in that process. I believe that small groups indeed, as an ideal, certainly are seen as modeling the intimacy that Jesus had with his twelve. But, what about our weekend crowds? Jesus spent a lot of time with crowds, too. Our corporate worship in the church certainly is a crowd. The activity of the small group and of the crowd can be done uniquely in a local church like no other institution. I call the crowd our “corporate worship” for the sake of argument. In the crowd you have both the committed disciples of Jesus and the uninitiated. This looks a lot like many of our churches, especially the church I serve.
God is seeking worshippers and followers of Jesus. Can a local church institution really move us forward in that process, or are we simply facilitating human endeavors that do not disciple people? The reason this is so hard to answer is that being a follower of Jesus, or a worshipper of Jesus, looks fuzzy because of diverse theology, culture and experience today and in history. It seems that the early church in scriptures had a structure, a gathering and mission. However, much of what we see as “church” today may or may not be the church as it should be. In fact, a lot of it is not here in America.
What I think makes a consensus hard on the local church’s exact role and purpose has more to do with our doctrine of sanctification than anything else. How we live as followers of Christ and how we become more like Christ is in question. Some would say that becoming more like Christ is modeling our life after the social-action Jesus exhibited. Some would claim it models Jesus to warn others about hell and the second coming. Still, others would claim it is about healing people or another group would say that we need to go alone like Jesus did and become monastic. Groups have said that in studying the text of scripture we can get attain Christ-likeness. All of these actually may be entirely true at the same time. Obviously, different groups emphasize one or more of these while minimizing others.
It is clear that successful and noble Christian institutions have been built–from hospitals, orphanages, relief organizations and seminaries. The one thing that the local church has transcended in each of these cases is that they have always been called “houses of worship.” The shapes of the building were designed to offer something of the character of God. Jesus is the creator, so perhaps it is being like Jesus to build a beautiful building in his name. Perhaps. Perhaps the one thing that para-church institutions cannot do is gather the people of God for this beautiful activity–worship. If they did, then we would call them churches! What is worship anyway? Well, that is a huge questions, but I need to humbly tackle it for a moment.
Is not becoming more like Jesus our act of worship? Indeed. Well, you might say that everything we do is an act of worship. Right? Wrong. Worship, if it is an act of faith, requires intent as well as expression. Just like faith requires works. In other words, if I am a fan who worships my football team I need to show that I am not just wearing the jersey but am getting upset when someone disrespects my team. My heart has to be for my team, not merely the wearing of an outfit. And when I go to my version of church–on my couch at home in front of the big screen–I act in a sort of exuberant, crazy sort of way. Perhaps I have a room even designed for this purpose–kind of like church. Now, what makes me a worshipper of my team is not just that I become like my team in thought and heart, but that I express those things. And, since I do not play on the field, I have to live out the values of my team in the reality that is mine to live. I do not lose my personality, will or mind, I simply follow the team and express that in how I live. But, it is the visible expression that reminds me of the commitment I have made to my team. So, wearing that jersey and having that party at my house in front of that big screen TV is important. It then is the action of worship that builds from the inside out and from the outside reminds me of what I aspire to have on the inside.
Here is some logic about what we call worship today. And, yes, it is not music. If worship is everything, than worship is nothing. I diminish the activity of worship when I make all of it common and none of it holy or separate from the mundane or routines of my life. Worship is not a lifestyle to be worn like that jersey, it is costly. Following Jesus means all my possessions are his. It means my family and life are second. I am not a fan, but a fanatic, in other words. A fanatic or worshipper goes farther than any of us are comfortable going. Acts of worship are like that. They are separate. Some things need to be reserved and set apart simply to identify my life with Christ just like being married is not just wearing a band on a certain finger. I reserve the bedroom as the place where my union with my wife is like with no other person. Yet, I am always a married man even when I am out alone sipping a cup of coffee or waiting in traffic. I am always a follower of Christ, too. Our corporate worship is part of that process where a special, separate place and time is made to identify with Christ. This kind of worship is not sipping coffee or saying a quick prayer between appointments. It costs me something–or, at least it should.
When I attain to the fullness of Christ and when in heaven I have a glorified body, what will be my worship? Maybe I will perform some act of extravagance akin to building cathedrals–perhaps on Jupiter or some amazing locale. Maybe, I will oversee a huge orchestra (AKA rock band) and flatten mountains with sound. However, I will have a purpose still from the time I am created to eternity. That purpose is to worship. Following Jesus is worshipping him. The idea of making more disciples is the idea of making more worshippers of Jesus. It is loving him. It is modeling my life after him and it is making a big deal, even in ritual, that he is the one I follow. Only the local church can help me do this–by being that time and place and people who gather for that purpose. The other Christian institutions are indeed modeling a certain attribute of Christ and a part of my acts of worship then, but that does not make them a church. A church actually does all those things and more. The “more” is the important distinctive here–corporate worship. It is this special place in time with the people of God together identifying our lives with him.
This brings us back to the thought of being like Jesus. That is our goal. Our institution, the local church, should be a place that can move us forward in the process. But, the context of that process requires the extravagance of worshipping God in an extravagant way. The personal holiness or sanctification I work towards is to be done in this context, in community with others who follow or who desire to follow Jesus. So, there should be people there who were like those in the crowds who gathered with Jesus. They were not followers yet, but many were on there way. Some came just to see what this Jesus was all about.
A church is a place where I can find Jesus and make a growing level of commitment to follow him no matter where I am at on my journey as a worshipper/follower of Christ. It is both the crowd where Jesus taught his parables and the small groups where the deeper meanings are explained. It is both the joy of having a party with Matthew’s lost friends with Jesus and being in the boat with a small group during the storm. It is both seeing a woman anoint the feet of Jesus with tears and seeing Jesus heal a woman who simply touched his hem. It is both the celebration at the wedding in Cana and the casting out of demons. Five thousand were fed and a rich young ruler walks away. The crowd and the personal were both there.
In a church, we can get both the crowd and the personal–the worship service and the small group. We can personally be challenged and see Jesus work in amazing ways–big and small. If we are to be Jesus, then we need to be about his ministry. What is his ministry? (A whole another article is needed to even bring up that topic). And, does the local church as an institution really do what Jesus did? I say it surely does, even if imperfectly. We are imperfect creatures this side of heaven, so our institutions will only be as perfect as we can be. I am not ready to give up on the local church. There are so many reasons not to, corporate worship being just one. The fact is, the church is God’s institution just like marriage is God’s institutions. And, just because we see bad marriages around us does not make for a good excuse to give up on marriage. Don’t give up on the church, but don’t settle for bad either.