In this series, Defining Church, I have argued that the single most foundational and important aspect of defining church, aside from Jesus himself, is God’s people gathered in God’s presence on a consistent basis. This leads to the two major questions that I presented at the end of Defining Church (part 5): 1) Why don’t we sense, see, or feel the presence of God when we gather in our churches today? 2) Aren’t there a bunch of other important factors in defining church? I believe that the answer to these two questions are inextricably linked.
Question #1 is largely based on the experiences of people. Many have gathered together with believers in the context of church (maybe hundreds of times), but have rarely experienced the presence of God, if at all. How can this be true if God’s presence is so closely linked to the gathering of people and so fundamental to what church is? I believe there are two answers this question.
First, I believe God’s presence can be seen in subtle ways, some of which go unnoticed by most church attenders. An easy example of this can be seen in a response that I got to a sermon I recently preached. After church I was having lunch with an individual in our congregation and they said with a smile, “You stole my line!” I kind of chuckled, having no clue what they were talking about. “Huh,” I said. “You stole my line. You said, “_____ _____ _____ (I’m leaving blank the three word phrase because I have not asked permission to share the story).”” At that I knew what the person was talking about. Months earlier I had a conversation with them about a very difficult thing in their life. They had told me that God had placed upon their hearts three words, “_____ _____ _____.” There are two crazy thing about me saying those three words that show me God’s power was behind it. First, it is not a phrase that I would EVER use. I am not sure if I have actually used the phrase in a sentence besides when discussing this story. Second, apparently I said the phrase so deliberately and clearly that the person thought I had intentionally included it in my sermon to encourage them. I had not. In a similar way, in his book The Gift of Church, Jim Samra records a conversation with a person who thanked him for some profound words that he had spoken during a sermon. The man had written the words in his notes and been greatly impacted by them. Samra though, had not said the words – he verified this by listening to the audio recording of the sermon. After our gathering had concluded several weeks ago I found a woman in our church in the back talking with a first time visitor who was ready to give her life to Jesus. There was no altar call or hard sell on becoming a Christian, just God moving in a person’s heart. These examples may not be as easy to see as the fire on Mount Sinai, but they are subtle ways in which we see God’s presence when in the midst of his assembled people.
“These examples may not be as easy to see as the fire on Mount Sinai, but they are subtle ways in which we see God’s presence when in the midst of his assembled people.”
Despite these examples, it oftentimes seems like something is missing in our churches today (specifically American churches). Sure, I can see subtle ways that God is manifesting himself, but in the Bible I see not so subtle manifestations of His presence. He shows up in fire at Mount Sinai and the people are genuinely scared (Exodus 20:18-19). His presence in the Tabernacle is so thick that it makes Moses face glow (Exodus 34:33-35). At the dedication of the temple God’s presence filled it so fully in the form of a cloud that the priests could not perform their duties (1 Kings 8:10-11). In the New Testament we read that the response of non-Christians in the midst of a proper church gathering can be that “they will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you”” (1 Corinthians 14:25) This is not subtle. So, despite the subtle ways God’s presence can be seen in churches, the question still persists: Why do so many people who go to church rarely experience, if at all? To word the question differently, why the discrepancy between what we see in the Bible (and even in other countries of the world) and the modern American church? The answer to this lies within the confines of the answer to question #2: Aren’t there a bunch of other important factors in defining church?
The answer to this is a resounding “Yes.” If we define church as only a group of Christians who gather together consistently than we forsake much of New Testament’s teaching on what church is and leave ourselves vulnerable to a misunderstanding of what is required to be a church. In Defining Church (part 1) I mentioned a definition of church provided by Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breashears in their book, Vintage Church. While this definition, at points, crosses from what church is to what church does, I think it is important to quote here because it offers important truths needed to fully define church. “The local church is a community of confessing believers in Jesus Christ who obey Scripture by organizing under qualified leadership, gather regularly for preaching and worship, and scatter to evangelize and care for people everywhere. They observe the Biblical sacraments of baptism and communion, and are unified by the Spirit for mission in the world, and are disciplined to live out the Great Commandment and the Great Commission to the glory of God.”
This definition provides several conditions that must be present for a church to be a church. This is where the link to question #1 and #2 is so clear. Modern churches have continued to meet together with the goal of filling seats, hoping that God’s presence will be with them, but forsaking other important aspects of church. Thus, when they gather, they do not experience the presence of God. In just looking at the definition above we can begin to see this. Instead of biblically “qualified leadership,” churches look for pastors who have dynamic personalities that can, with their charisma, fill the building with people. Oftentimes churches don’t even consider if the dynamic pastor meets the pastoral qualifications as defined in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Modern churches continue to “gather regularly,” but fail to focus on the need to “scatter to evangelize and care for people.” The good news is that the Missional Church movement has helped many churches refocus on this task, but far too many churches are still only focused only on getting people to attend their service. Yes, most churches continue to observe the “sacraments of preaching and worship,” but most churches also place little emphasis on their people being “unified by the Spirit.” The Bible commands many things of churches not seen in this definition that are being blatantly disobeyed (think “church discipline”). It seems to me that many (most?) modern American churches have decided that they can pick and choose what parts of church they want to live out and ignore others while still expecting God to be in their midst when they assemble
Here is what I believe, God’s presence is not manifest as powerfully or vividly as we desire because the modern American church has been disobedient to the will and commands of God for the church. I believe that God, as he did to the Israelites in the Old Testament, has decided to remove himself from our midst in response to our disobedience.
“God’s presence is not manifest as powerfully or vividly as we desire because the modern American church has been disobedient to the will and commands of God for the church.”
When defining church we must start with God’s people in God’s presence, but we must not stop there. We must examine the Bible to see what God has said about what church is and what church must do. We must stop focusing on the latest and greatest church model and start focusing on God’s will. When we do this, I believe God will return to our gatherings and the results will be incredible. No longer will we have to look for the subtle manifestations of God, but instead we will see his presence as clearly as a mountain on fire.
With this I will conclude this series. Perhaps some readers will claim I have not sufficiently defined church, but this blog is about church and I will, in many posts, hash out and attempt to apply the necessary components of church and the commands to church in the Bible. It is my heart and passion that the church returns to obedience so that we can, once again, see more powerfully God’s presence fully and wonderfully manifest. Therefore, my closing encouragement to all who read this post is that you would carefully examine the New Testament’s teaching on church, prayerfully consider with what needs to change in your church, and do your best to be obedient.
“…carefully examine the New Testament’s teaching on church, prayerfully consider with what needs to change in your church, and do your best to be obedient.”