My slowly emerging vision and ever-morphing vision as of Saturday, August 26, 2017
Posted by Dr. Larry Taylor
Ever since Constantine issued the Edict of Toleration ending the persecution of Christians (circa 313 AD), leading up to Theodosis I (circa 379 to 395) declaring of Christianity as the official state religion of the still united Roman Empire, the entire focus of Christianity shifted from the concept that the church (Greek: ἐκκλησία; transliterated ekklesia) is an assembly of people sent by God to bless people, to an edifice affiliated with a corporation that needs to attract people to stay in business.
Both Jewish and Greco-Roman society used the word ἐκκλησία. For the Jews, it referred to a people called out, separated from the other nations, and blessed by YHWH for the purpose of being a blessing to those other nations. (Historically, they did not do a good job of doing so, but that was the intension via Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.) For the Greco-Romans, ἐκκλησία was similar to a New England town meeting. It was a gathering of citizens who met to discuss and decide on local issues for the benefit of all.
Jesus combines the Jewish and Roman meanings. In his teaching, the ἐκκλησία is groups of people of all sizes and shapes and nationalities and ethnicities, divinely equipped to bless the rest of the world and influence society for the good of all. As in the Jewish understanding, ἐκκλησία is a people chosen to bless. As in the Greco-Roman understanding, that group of people is to positively influence society for the good of everyone (not just the in-crowd). Jesus said, “I will build my ἐκκλησία and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” In the original, the personal pronouns are emphatic – I will build MY ἐκκλησία. It is his work, not ours. He directs it. We are the instruments through whom he works. The purpose of the ἐκκλησία is to free those who are captive to the forces of darkness. The figurative picture is of a satanic fortress imprisoning masses, whose walls are torn down by the consistent prayers, love and service of Jesus’ followers, in order to free those held captive to hatred, prejudice, drugs, sorrow, poverty, illness, etcetera. In other words, biblically, those seeking to follow the teachings of Jesus for the purpose of being a blessing to the world are the ἐκκλησία. We don’t go to church; we are the church.
But, for some 17 centuries, we have been conditioned to think of ἐκκλησία as a building to which we need to attract people. Hence, an ever expanding multitude of programs, many of which do good things. Since the industrial revolution, the occidental organizations we call “churches” and “denominations” have increasingly seen themselves as deliverers of services, which leads to competition for market share. So, the programs expand and compete.
Depending on which metro area you are talking about in North America, the percentage of people who have no connection whatsoever to any organized religious group (these are people who have never been in a “church” building for any purpose in their lives, except for maybe a secular concert or a wedding) ranges from 60% to 91%. Only about 9% (in places like Quebec City) to 40% (in places like Chattanooga) of the population attends religious services. And that percentage is shrinking. In America, it is not uncommon to run into families where four generations have never been in a faith community meeting. Moreover, those who were raised in evangelical churches and left (usually during their college years) often feel a need to return to a “church” when they begin having children. They, generally speaking, are turned off by the archaic customs and in-fighting of the churches in which they grew up, so they take their families to giant “seeker” mega-churches that offer a huge menu of services to meet every felt need. Those mega-churches continue to grow in the Midwest and Bible belt, but only because an ever decreasing population of people who want “church” are going there instead of to dozens of smaller congregations. Almost all “church growth” is church people switching memberships.
This is broad generalization with many individual exceptions, but millennials, generally speaking, not only do not attend religious services, they despise organizational religion as it is practiced in North America and Western Europe. They see the seeker mega-churches as phony shows. They see Roman Catholicism and Evangelical Protestantism as judgmental, homophobic, sexist (if not misogynist), and xenophobic. They see mainline Protestantism as irrelevant. They know that Franklin Graham makes $880,000 plus tons of benefits each year. They know that Joel Osteen lives in a $10.5 million mansion, and that Kenneth Copeland Ministries operates on a 1,500-acre campus near Fort Worth, TX, equipped with a church, a private airstrip, and a hangar for the ministry’s $17.5 million jet and other aircraft. They know that Copeland resides with his wife Gloria in a $6 million church-owned lakefront mansion. They know Pat Robertson’s estimated net worth exceeds $100 million. And they know that these people support Donald Trump.
Yet, we keep trying to come up with a program to attract them to the buildings we built, when what will attract them is genuine, authentic, heart-felt, loving service to people in need.
The whole concept of church is upside down. Jesus never intended for us to build buildings and put on attractional programs to persuade people to come to us. In saying that, I don’t mean to disparage the sacrifices, motives, dedication, and genuine devotion (not to mention the architectural beauty) of those who built the edifices. Nor do I believe we should simply junk all the buildings. I do think they should be repurposed, however. The true church, the ἐκκλησία, is a group of people who go into neighborhoods to bless people. Blessing others is their only agenda. They don’t bless others in order to gain members or change beliefs. They bless others because God is blessing them and they want to share the love. As the old children’s ditty goes, “A song isn’t a song until you sing it/ and a bell isn’t a bell until you ring it/ so the love in your heart wasn’t put there to stay/ because live isn’t love until you give it away.”
I see signs of hope. I pastor a group of about 25 people who have adopted a school in the neighborhood and is helping supply needy children with school supplies and uniforms. Friends of mine moved into the poorest area of their city and planted a community garden to give neighbors fresh vegetables. My son’s faith community is actively engaged in listening and learning how they can improve Chicago. Little intergenerational, interracial groups are springing up all over. They do life together, pray and worship together, and love others together.
So, my vision is to join with a few people who share the desire to be the ἐκκλησία and together, go bless people. Exactly where or whom or what is something we will need to discern together.