Stone walls stand below high, wooden ceilings, with rough-hewn timbers stretching like branches overhead. Particles of dust sit suspended between old wooden pews, seemingly held in place by the same light cast through stained glass which warms the prayerful parishioners as they look toward the altar, waiting for the service to start.
As the people raise their voices for the final verse of their closing hymn, ready for the preacher to bless them and their week, not a soul can deny fantasizing about the delicious feast waiting in the fellowship hall. This Sunday, like many before, they would have their fellowship lunch, complete with the best chicken and pie that’s ever been known in Texas. The closing notes and the preacher’s words were an invitation to this meal, and all present were excited to eat together once again.
A low murmur drifts over the crowd as the guitarists on stage have their turn at tuning their instruments. It was warm under the lights, but the musicians found their strength and courage in God. As they stepped forward to begin worship, the keyboardist played a soft tune, and the singer began to pray.
We have almost as many different ideas about what church should look like and what it should be about as their are people who call themselves Christians. When we come together, we each bring our own lives and experiences into communion with the millions of other worshipers, even in those times when we disagree and argue. There has been conflict and disagreement from the earliest days of the church, and at no point between Paul and ourselves has anyone managed to establish a fully unified church.
11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision.
Galatians 2: 11-12
And yet, even with our well-established denominational lines and our individualized understandings of Christianity, there is a current that flows through every church, a spirit that between buildings and doctrines, which binds together what we can call “the Church” (notice the capitalized C, to differentiate the universal Church from local churches).
With so much conflict between and within our churches, we have to ask what that current is. What spirit brings us together?
The Church is unified in Christ by the roles it fulfills, not just for its members but for the world around it, for the communities in which it resides. It’s easy to think that the Church only exists on Sundays, but that view ignores a huge portion of the service it provides and of the assignments with which it has been tasked. We can divide it into three roles: evangelism, service, and community. Each of these roles is special, and each is something that only the church can accomplish, either because of the action itself or the motivation behind it.
Evangelism is the most obvious role to most people, and for good reason! When Christ came to the apostles, he showed them a truth that could only be found in Him. “No one comes to the Father except through me,” He said boldly, with words that cut to the core of humanity. It is our very nature to seek meaning and purpose, to reject the irrelevance of our individual lives as we stand at the gate of eternity. We try to see past the veil of our immediate lives in order to glimpse something bigger; Christ walking among mankind is the only example of something bigger stepping through the veil so that we could understand.
If the unifying aspect of the Church is that knowledge and understanding, it makes sense that one of the purposes of the Church is to spread that beautiful word. The Church is a place where the lost, lonely, and hurt can go to find reprieve, to be assured that there is something so much greater than this temporary pain.
Service is another important role of the Church as established by Jesus.
40 The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’
Matthew 25: 40
If we are to have a place in the Kingdom of Heaven, Christ tells us we have to care for the lowest of the low, and that command carries into the Church. The role of the Church in this task, then, is to equip the people who make up its congregations to do just that, to serve their neighbors and the needy. There is no ambiguity in the gospels about this matter: true servants of Christ are not ashamed or afraid to serve others.
Finally, and of equal importance to the other two roles, the Church is to provide a safe place for the people who seek refuge within its walls. Whether a regular attendee or a hungry child in need of food, the Church is supposed to provide support. Meeting for worship, the congregants can find it to be a place of holy reverence, set apart from the rest of the world, while during a potluck lunch those same people can find it to be a place of fellowship, where Christians can edify and assure each other in their faith. It’s a place where all are welcome and all can find rest. It’s a place of community.
What, then, is the point of the Church? The point of the Church is to make it possible for us to bring the world closer to God.
Questions, thoughts, concerns? Comment please! I’d absolutely love to hear from you, and I promise I’ll take the time to read whatever you have to say.