I have been around a lot of churches in the last 20 years. I've been a pastor, a staff member, an interim pastor, a "revival" preacher, a "guest speaker", a church-health consultant, a 'professional' theologian-in-residence as well as an educated lay person. I've led youth groups, conducted choirs, led musical worship, preached and taught. I've watched and listened.
I've watched as churches have blossomed and faded; I've watched as churches have grown tremendously only to splinter just as quickly. I've watched as churches 'maintained' - neither really growing or outright dying - but just held its head above the water enough to pay a pastor, a small staff and keep itself busy with a program of 'churchy-ness'... and I have watched as some churches have taken a whole new path and grown exponentially where others can't even take root.
In all of this time I've sought to understand why and how the traditional North American / Western church is fading so quickly. The church as we knew it in the twentieth century is quickly diminishing and something not very familiar to us is taking its place. When I say, "the church as we knew it" - I'm talking about the 'traditional', denominationally-oriented, doctrinally-focused and geographically located congregation. The church that proliferated in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries that is quickly becoming anachronistic.
The answer that is slowly coming to my mind is this: since the time of Constantine and the public ascent of the church, the church has forgotten what it is. It is a movement.
The church is not a building, a weekly meeting or even a group of people that does "mission" together. It is the movement of God in and through people. The images of God's people in the Bible that portray this group as healthy and blessed are dynamic, kinetic and not tied to one specific place or time. Paul talks about the church in terms of the "body of Christ" or the "called out ones" - another name for the militia or army. He talks about 'walking together' or 'running the race'... The only way to describe this phenomenon is as a movement. The church isn't missional, the church is mission.
The Cappadocian fathers in the fourth century sought to describe the inner workings of God by using the term "perichoresis" or "round dance" - It is a dynamic, kinetic movement of love between Father and Son in the Spirit. The church is that movement of people who have embraced and embody that same perichoresis in their midst. This movement is filled with the Spirit, armed with love and prayer, guided by the Scriptures and informed by just enough doctrine to remind them of who they are, what their purpose is and how they are to function. The church is a special forces team that undermines strongholds in the world by the power of Christ. It undermines hate and builds relationships. It exposes sin and restores righteousness. It plants the cross, preaches the resurrection and then continues on...
If the church builds a building, it must serve as an outpost, a refitting station, an aid station, a place of training and sending; a place that is temporary. It is not an end in itself. If the building becomes an end in itself - then it becomes a death trap, a tomb for those who have forgotten who they are and what their function is.
Jesus commissions us in Matthew 28:19-20. As the president commissions officers in the army, so Jesus commissions those in His Kingdom. He begins the commission with a simple word: "Go!" - It is an imperative. Go, go now into the world and make disciples. He did not say, "stay", "stay and build comfortable, inviting fortresses that look like modern temples where you can be happy and self-satisfied. And if your fortress is nice enough, others who are of like mind can come join you behind those walls every Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday night - barring the imposition of another more important event."
This sounds harsh, I know. But aren't you tired of seeing the church as an ineffective and dying body? I know that I am. Aren't you concerned that the church no longer looks like the group described in the New Testament? I am. If you are, like me, then let's do what we must to see the church become a vibrant, living body once again.