A Case of Mistaken Identity

My family and I were out camping last weekend. At a remote beach, we met another couple and talked with them for some time. In the course of our conversation I mentioned to the man that I’m a pastor, to which he responded, “I’m a Christian, but I don’t go to church.”

I’ve personally heard that claim many times over. “I’m a Christian, but I don’t go to church.” Based on the rest of our conversation, this particular individual expressed a need to justify his actions in the presence of a pastor!

Others who say, “I’m a Christian, but I don’t go to church,” communicate a sense of liberty—that they’ve been freed from the burden of church-going. Some people have been so wounded by a church that they swear they’ll never go back. Many simply hold the belief that church-going is unimportant to God and therefore isn’t important to them.

Many Christians who choose not to identify themselves with a church say things like: “I can worship God better in the woods.” “I pray and read the Bible, though admittedly not as much as I should.” “I try to spread the good news.” “I live as best as I can.” “The Bible doesn’t say we have to go to church.”

George Barna is a researcher who tries to keep his finger on the pulse of the Christian community and trends in America. Commenting on the results of a 2006 survey, George Barna writes, “People do not have an accurate view of themselves when it comes to spirituality. American Christians are not as devoted to their faith as they like to believe. They have positive feelings about the importance of faith, but their faith is rarely the focal point of their life or a critical factor in their decision-making. The fact that few people take the time to evaluate their spiritual journey, or to develop benchmarks or indicators of their spiritual health, facilitates a distorted view of the prominence and purity of faith in their life.” (See http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/12-faithspirituality/141-barna-lists-the-12-most-significant-religious-findings-?q=church+attendance.)

Then, two years later, a 2008 survey revealed new behavioral patterns that prompted Barna to establish a new set of measures or classifications of people. One of those groups he calls the Unattached. These are “people who had attended neither a conventional church nor an organic faith community (e.g., house church, simple church, intentional community) during the past year. Some of these people use religious media, but they have had no personal interaction with a regularly-convened faith community.”

The Unattached represent nearly one fourth of adults in America (23%). About one-third of this group have never attended a church in their life. But nearly sixty percent of this group consider themselves Christians. And seventeen percent of this group call themselves born-again Christians. (See http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/18-congregations/45-new-statistics-on-church-attendance-and-avoidance?q=church+attendance.)

But what does God think? Is church relatively unimportant to Him? Can Christians do without the church after all? What does God reveal about the church in His Word, the Bible? Let’s get one thing straight. Whether we are talking about the label Christian or the subject of the church, if we genuinely seek to please God, then it doesn’t matter what we think, we need to understand and follow through with what He thinks!

For this reason, over the next few posts, I’d like to explore God’s Word on the subject of the church. A helpful place to begin would be to look at the term church in the New Testament. The word for church (Grk: ecclesia) occurs over 100 times in the New Testament. The term was not a freshly invented one used to describe this new phenomenon of Jesus’ disciples. Instead, ecclesia was a common term that was used, for instance, to describe the unruly mob in Ephesus (Acts 19:32) and the congregation or assembly of Israelites in their desert wanderings (Acts 7:38).

But the New Testament employs ecclesia primarily to denote a local gathering or assembly of Christ-followers. In English, the word church has evolved to describe more of an institution or building than a community of Christ-followers. This mindset is highly unfortunate because it pulls us away from how Christ sees His church.

The German language actually distinguishes between the two concepts. The word Kirche refers to the institution and building of a church and is translated church. While the word Gemeinde denotes the community of believers. The one understanding of church is cold and lifeless, while the other is highly relational and full of life. The New Testament’s description of church represents this relational, vital community of Christ-followers. The New Testament’s sense of church is the one I would like to discuss in the next several posts. And as we look at the community of Christ-followers in the New Testament, I think we’ll find that our present-day inclination to move away from the church is chiefly a case of mistaken identity–meaning, we’ve forgotten who we are in Christ!

©2010 Rob Fischer