Doing Church without God

What comes to your mind when you think of the church? Are there any images or analogies that you tend to gravitate toward?

In his book A Light to the Nations, Michael Goheen suggests a few ways that the average Christian might think of the church in our current cultural climate. Perhaps you can relate to some of these:

  • Church as mall or food court: A variety of programs and services are offered to meet the diverse wants and needs of the congregation.
  • Church as community center: A social context is created where people who share the same beliefs or personal interests can be drawn together.
  • Church as corporation: An emphasis on efficiency and growth drives the congregation to create a brand and market itself for the sake of “profit.”
  • Church as theater: A venue is provided for congregants in which they can sit back and passively enjoy a worship experience built around entertainment.
  • Church as classroom: A comprehensive education in both doctrine and practical living is provided as congregants take on the role of students.
  • Church as hospital or spa: A healing and rejuvenating retreat is offered to those who are wounded or weary from the troubles of the world.
  • Church as motivational seminar: A self-help program is offered to those looking for a weekly pep talk or practical tool kit to navigate the challenges of life.
  • Church as social-service office: A sense of compassion and justice manifests itself in social programs and physical assistance for those in need.
  • Church as campaign headquarters: A political cause is advanced by those who seek to influence the direction of society and push for a more Christianized culture.

Goheen points out, “Clearly there are many valid activities represented in these images of the church. The church should be teaching, caring for the poor, providing social connections, and so on” (p. 16). But there are a number of problems with these images, as well—among which is the fact that each of them describes the church in such a way that its objectives can be achieved through mere human effort.

By comparing the church to other man-made institutions, we implicitly suggest that our churchly responsibilities can be perfected and mastered through our own skill and ingenuity. We can create programs and add them to our menu of offerings. We can create marketing strategies and generate growth. We can put on a good show and keep people entertained.

But although it may bring a certain level of comfort to define the church in a way that lets us be in control, any such view of the church is woefully deficient. The church is a wild sort of thing. It can’t be domesticated and led around by a leash. The more we try to do so, the more we miss the point of the church altogether.

The church is God’s people on God’s mission, seeking God’s glory and strengthened by God’s power. To reduce the church to a mere social club or theater or food court is to strip it of its very identity. Take God out of the church, and what’s left isn’t a church at all.

Consider the images we discover in Scripture to describe the church. Many of them clearly point to the fact that we can’t do this on our own. The body of Christ (Rom. 12:5Col. 1:18) can’t survive without its head. The temple of the living God (1 Cor. 3:16Eph. 2:21) is nothing more than a hollow shell without God’s presence. The new creation (2 Cor. 5:17Eph. 2:15) has no existence apart from the Creator.

However we envision the church, we need to be careful to do so in a way that prioritizes the indispensable role of our triune God. Corporations and classrooms and community centers are wonderful things. But they can’t come close to capturing the deep sense of dependence that we should feel as members of God’s new covenant community.

Has your perception of the church pushed God to the margins? If so, let me encourage you to enlarge your vision. Don’t settle for one of the images in the list above. Let your view of the church be so impressively gigantic that you’re left with nothing to say but, “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.”

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