When Is a Church Not a Church?

churchI remember hearing this old joke when I was a kid “When is a door not a door?  When it’s a jar!”  This joke, despite how many times it was told, never seemed to grow old #endlesshoursofamusement.  However, today, considering the Easter season I am tempted to ask myself a similar question “When is a church not a church?”  My answer is slightly less funny, and altogether important: when it fails to PREACH the Gospel, when it fails to LIVE the Gospel, and when it fails to SHARE the Gospel.

A Church that Doesn’t PREACH the Gospel, Is Really No Church at All

By its very definition, the church is a body of Christians believers who regularly gather together for teaching, encouragement, and edification.  In the book of Acts we see that the purpose of a church is 4-fold.  Acts 2:42 reads, “They devoted themselves to the Apostle’s Teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers” and we read in the next verse, that because of their faithfulness to this rhythm God increased their numbers DAILY.  Let’s stop and think about that for a moment.  The Early Church was the greatest evangelical explosion in history, and why?  Because the church was committed to God and to one another.  Fast forward to today when many churches are now closing down because of lack of congregants and where faith has become passe.  I believe a large reason for this is because individualism has even crept into the church itself and because we live and act as if we don’t truly need one another.

Using this model of church – one of the very first accounts we have of the order and structure of what happens when likeminded believers get together, we see 4 distinctly important roles the church plays.

Firstly, we attend church to learn and receive instruction.  A church that is not built on the solid foundation of Christian teaching and principles is a church that likely will not withstand the storms and pressures of this life.

Many more “liberal” Christians today find the Gospel narrow-minded and even “offensive.”  In the West, we have very much bought into this idea that truth is relative and that we should simply do what feels good and right.  People are more concerned with positivity and everyone being validated for their beliefs than what Scripture itself actually teaches.  Those who stand by what the Bible says can then be put down and ridiculed, even considered “arrogant”, “close-minded” and “snobby.”

I understand this to a degree.  I used to be a “liberal” Christian myself until I started studying the Scriptures more.  Now, I have no issue if you consider yourself a Unitarian and want to believe that all paths lead to God.  However, if you are calling yourself a CHRISTIAN and saying you attend a CHRISTIAN church it is imperative to know exactly what that means.  The very term “Christian” implies that you are a devoted follower of the Christ, Jesus.  Christian, was actually a derogatory name used to insult early Christians who believing differently than society.  Therefore, if you are going to take up this name than I think it’s important to realize that by donning this title, you are implying that you are willing to live with a different set of moral and spiritual priorities than what others agree with.

Now being a follower of Christ, means that you are a devoted disciple of His teachings in the same way that a Buddhist follows Buddha’s teachings, a Muslim follows Allah’s teachings, and a Confucian follows Confucius’s teachings.  In fact, even ardent atheists will follow a master’s teachings (Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Peter Singer).

Jesus definitely said a lot of things in line with liberal theology – including loving those who were on the margins (we’ll get more into this in the last section), however, He also said some pretty straightforward “narrow-minded” things.  For example, He said that He was the only way to His Father (John 14:6) and that the way to heaven was a narrow gate (Matthew 7:13).  He even said that while many will profess Him as Lord, unless they believe in their heats that He truly is the Messiah, they are not His true followers (Matthew 7:21).  There definitely are areas of contention and debate within the Christian tradition.  There are several grey areas in Scripture and places where different interpretations are welcomed and will not destroy the very bedrock of our faith.  However, areas such as sin, salvation, and eternity cannot be debated too much because they are laid out in quite clear terms by the very founder of our religion.  Many “liberal” Christians today say that they will always place the words of Jesus at a higher level than any other sections in Scripture.  They may discount Paul’s words because they feel he is a chauvinistic gay-basher, but they maintain that whatever Jesus says goes.  However, if those same Christians are arguing that truth is a broad term and can be approached from many different angles, I ask myself where their allegiance truly lies.  This is not a question of judgementalism.  It is not my place to act as a “gate-keeper” determining who is in and who is out.  Rather, it is a matter of concern that even though many Christians are dying for their faith every day in closed access countries, we, in the West, feel we do not have to be responsible for Christ’s teaching and all because we are choosing to buy into popular psychology.

A Church is Not a Church When it Fails to LIVE the Gospel

The last three descriptions of what church is in the book of Acts all hinge on community.  The church gathered together for fellow, breaking the bread, and prayers.

The purpose of attending a church is to be energized and revitalized not only by the message that is shared, but by the people who share in the message.  There are several Scripture verses that back up the importance of being together with believers.  In our culture, many people make excuses for not attending a live service.  They may suggest that they listen to a sermon on Podcast or read the Bible on their own time, and thus may question what is so important about actually leaving the house.  It is true that Podcasts and online sermons are a great benefit to many people, however, they are meant to enhance not to replace the actual meeting.

Hebrews 10:25 reads “do not give up meeting together as some are in the habit of doing.” It can be tempting to skip small group when you’re busy and stressed, but it is through fellowship that we become encouraged.  One of the best descriptions of someone longing to attend church came from a Catholic colleague.  This young man, attended mass daily.  When I asked him about his eagerness to not let anything detract him from worship he simply stated, “I am nourished by the Body of Christ.  I NEED it to get through my day.  I cannot survive without it.”  Although I am not Catholic, I was deeply touched by his devotion and believe many Protestants can likewise learn from his willingness to place fellowship as a priority.

Although meeting together is definitely a necessity for believers, there are also instructions for HOW to go about doing this.  We are told that as much as it depends on us, we are to live at peace with one another (Romans 12:18).  We are also told to do good to all people, but especially those who belong to the household of faith (Galatians 6:10).  And we are told to not “bite and devour” one another by engaging in futile arguments that ultimately don’t matter (Galatians 5:15).

All too often we see churches split over the most inconsequential of matters.  Sometimes these churches are able to recover their formerly good reputation and numbers, however, more often than not, it ends up turning people away from the faith.  Christians must always be aware that their words, attitude, and actions are being scrutinized by those outside the faith.  Therefore, it is of utmost importance to “live a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called.” (Ephesians 4:1).  Living in a worthy manner includes not just preaching to the choir, but inviting others to join in, especially people who never knew they could sing.  This brings us to our last point.

A Church is Not a Church When It Fails to SHARE the Gospel

In our culture today, evangelism can often be seen as a big turn-off.  People don’t like the image of a preacher standing on a soap box in the middle of a busy street.  People view religion as a “private” matter and often say that if it works for you, great, but please don’t impose it on them.  To a degree, I can understand this notion.  No one wants to be pressured into a faith they aren’t sure they want to have.  Also, the old tactics of scaring someone into conversion, have long been proven to do more psychological harm than good.  However, just because we aren’t aggressive with the Gospel, doesn’t mean we should avoid sharing it at all costs.  In fact, the very last thing Jesus said before He left this earth is “go into all the world, preaching the Gospel, making disciples, and baptizing in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 28:16-20).  Remember the very first point I made – being a Christian means being a follower of Jesus.  Jesus was pretty clear that we weren’t meant to keep our faith to ourselves and in fact, to do so, would be going contrary to His wishes.  What He wants us to do is share our faith with others.

There are many ways to share one’s faith.  For example, I am not the most out-spoken evangelist out there.  I still get a bit tongue-tied and awkward when I am asked to share my faith or even pray in public.  However, God is using platforms such as my Facebook page for His glory.  I unashamedly post Scripture verses and thoughts about Jesus and to my surprise, often receive “likes” and even personal messages from non-Christian friends.  Even though my friends may not share the same God I do, they often relay that they were encouraged by something and at least one has referred to it as a “ministry.”  To me, this is what sharing the Gospel is all about.  It’s not dragging someone to my church who doesn’t want to be there, it’s about being light and life.  It’s about setting an example that draws others and makes them curious to learn more.

However, the buck can’t just stop with evangelism.  Oftentimes churches are all about “soul winning” (as if the soul was really ours to win and we should get a prize for doing so), but more often than not, the real work of sharing our faith is much messier.  We share our faith when we break down systems of oppression, when we welcome in the stranger and the foreigner, when we break bread with the outcast and the lost.  We share our faith by becoming a safe haven, a beacon of light amidst a dark and turbulent ocean.  Oftentimes, it is through these acts that people are willing to enter into our midst and share life with us.  Oftentimes these moments of real and authentic community take place not in the cathedral but in the courtroom.  Not in the baptistery but in the bar.  Christians must not be ashamed to touch the social “lepers” of our day.  They must not be afraid to be “contaminated.”  If anything, they must be the ones to sit by the bedside of a dying person, offering hope and reassurance, serving as an intermediary between places of war and peace, and choosing love over hatred every time.

I started this article off by asking “when is a church not a church” and suggesting that when we fail to preach, live, and share the Gospel we are failing to be the true Body of Christ.  However, I’d like to end on a positive note.  When is the church truly the church?  The church is the church when we offer a cup of cold water to a thirsty and weary traveller, when we visit the wrongfully imprisoned, when we put our own selves on the line for someone we’ve barely met.  The church is the church when it craves real and authentic fellowship over fake individualism.  The church is the church when it boldly and fiercely fights against oppression.  The church is the church when it breaks down dividing walls of hostility, fear, and unbelief.  And the church is the church where two or more are gathered and where Christ is in the midst of them.


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