I’m currently studying the book of Philemon, in preparation to preach it over the next 3 weeks at LifePoint. It’s a funny little book, the shortest authored by the Apostle Paul in the Bible. It’s also a great book to study if you want to get a little snapshot into the DNA and culture of the early church.
It has me thinking about this question:
How do you recognize or describe the identity of a local church?
Think of a church you have attended, or perhaps currently attend.
How do you describe it?
What is the reputation of that church among church people and non-church people?
What would you say defines the identity of that church?
Here are some common ways I hear people identify specific churches:
1) Facilities: Where the church meets.
This seems to be the most common way people in culture (particularly those who don’t attend church) identify local churches. A church is recognized by the physical mailing address. People say “that church over by Costco with the nice auditorium” or “that church with the big cross on it that you can see from the highway,” or “that church with the baseball fields behind it,” or “that church that meets in the old K-Mart building,” etc.
2) Programs: What the church does.
While most ‘outsiders’ may identify a church as its building, most ‘insiders’ recognize a church by ministry programs it offers. People say, “that church with the big homeless outreach,” or “that church with the daycare and preschool,” or “that church that runs the huge missions conference,” or “that church with the massive youth program,” or “that church that hosts the big concerts.”
3) Product: When/how the church gathers.
If the “program” category is one that insiders recognize, the “product” category is one observed closely by uber-insiders. Church people who know the landscape of the local Christian scene tend to identify their church as well as other local churches by three key factors related to the Sunday morning “product.” I’m sorry to use the word “product” to classify this category, but in a consumer-driven Christian culture, right or wrong (wrong, in my opinion), this tends to be how people think. The three major things people identify are (in random order) the preaching, the music, and the kids programs. These three things are in high gear when the church gathers week to week, and they tend to be how most people identify the DNA and culture of a local church. This is why some Christians hop from church to church within the same town when a new preacher arrives or a new music leader emerges or a new kid’s program launches.
As we look at the church in the New Testament, I think identity goes deeper than any of these three categories. All of these things were present: the church gathered in certain places, the church did things we could call “ministry,” and the church certainly had biblical preaching and sang songs together and cared for children.
But what was the church?
It was (and still is) a community of people following Jesus, learning the gospel, living it out, and leading others to it. The church was (and still is) a people of God, not a facility, not a program, and not a product…a people.
My goal here is not to lay out a holistic ecclesiology in a single blog. There are certainly parameters that must be met for a church to be defined as a biblical church (biblical preaching, discipline, baptism, communion, etc.). My purpose here is to remind Christians that although we often think of a local church (or our local church) in the terms above, in reality it is the people who make up the church (you and me) who will define and exemplify the church culture.
It isn’t your church facility that defines your culture. It isn’t the programs you offer. It isn’t your pastor’s personality, and it isn’t the style of your music. Church culture is defined by church people. This means there is a responsibility here that each Christian must recognize. People are going to learn the gospel, live the gospel, and lead others to the gospel in the context (and under major influence) of the actual community of people who make up a local church.
Every Christian must take responsibility for this reality.
Once you get past the outer shell of a church, what really defines the culture is the people who make it up. You and I define the local church of which we are a part. This means if you and I are petty, we’ll have a petty church. If we are shallow, we’ll have a shallow church. If we are selfish, we’ll have a selfish church.
Conversely, if we are quick to forgive, we’ll have a forgiving church. If we are faithful to the Bible, we’ll have a faithful church. If we are selfless, we’ll have a selfless church. If we are loving, we’ll have a loving church. If we are are passionate about engaging the mission of the gospel, we’ll have a church on mission.
We (in the church world) tend to spend a lot of time trying to get people to identity WITH our church (meaning attend and give), but a church that is making disciples should be marked by more and more people identifying AS the church (local and global), not simply WITH the church.
I think when individual Christians begin to recognize these things and start taking personal responsibility, a local church moves forward. A facility, a program, or a product won’t reach our community with the gospel of Jesus. It takes a people.