Wednesday, June 1, 2016

what is the church?

i've often wondered what the apostle paul, for example, would have said if someone asked him
"where do you go to church."

my guess is he would have looked befuddled and responded,  "what do you mean?  i don't understand the question."

how about "what time does church start?".  or "what programs does your church offer?".  or even worse, "how's the music at your church?."

the fact that these questions would make absolutely no sense to anyone who actually started the church, clearly points to how far off we've strayed.


one of my dear friends is a bible scholar and a pure theologian.  he knows the bible better than anyone i have ever met or even heard of.  just for fun one day, i started throwing out books and chapters of the bible completely randomly to see if i could stump him.  anything in the 4 gospels was child's play, so i eventually said habakkuk 2.  he (humbly and hesitantly) started reciting by memory.  absolutely amazing.

for cesar garcia, the bible is his life source.  its the most clear example of john 6:35 that i've ever seen.  he didn't study at a bible college or go to seminary.  he doesn't read many books full of other people's thoughts on what the bible means.  he told me once that while he doesn't mind reading books about what others have to say about God, for him, when he reads the bible over and over, the holy spirit explains it better than anyone else can.

cesar has been defying the odds for more than 10 years.  he's a medical miracle.  numerous times,  doctors have told his family that it is certain he won't make it through the night.  some of the best doctor's in guatemala are dumfounded by his case.  as he fights the pain in his body day after day, the bible is his literally daily bread.


dozens if not hundreds of times, cesar has helped me put things in perspective.  last week, he went on an unsolicited exhortation about the church that left my heart stirred yet again.

we are starting one of our rhino graduates, wilmer, in classes to become a pastor.  twice a week he will study at cesar garcia bible college.  we believe God has given wilmer a special calling to lead people to Jesus, and cesar was excited to be able to spend some time discipling him.

in the context of that conversation, and completely unprovoked, cesar said one of the main things he'd like to talk with wilmer about is "the church".  for the next 10 minutes, i witnessed a man who is paralyzed from the neck down, preach like a healthy giant - full of strength and life.  his thoughts went something like this:

"the more i read about the church, the more i am saddened by what's going on today.  i remember my experiences in church, and i hear what people say.  everyone thinks that the building and the services are 'church'.  everyone thinks that the preacher is the leader of the church.  everyone chooses their church based on whether they like it or not.  this is unacceptable!  the church was never a place!  the church was never about our preferences.  the church is you and me as followers of Jesus.  we carry in our hearts and we live it out every day.  its loving our neighbor.  the church is people sharing the love of Jesus with everyone and discipling them so that they do the same.  listening to teaching and singing to God are just a couple of things that the church might do.  but sadly people actually think that's what church is."

as he spoke these words, i thought to myself about all the people who couldn't attend a church service even if they wanted to, much less choose the one they like best.  the billions of people who live in places where christian church buildings don't exist, and even gathering to worship is done underground and in secret.  i thought of the early church, how it powerfully grew without buildings and programs.  i even thought of cesar himself, who hasn't had the benefit of attending a church service for years.

he went on.

"if wilmer is going to be a pastor, he must know what the church is!  that its not even limited by human thought.  the church is your academy.  sharing Jesus with young people, discipling them and teaching them how to lead their parents, siblings, cousins, nieces, and nephews to Christ - that is the church.  God is using your church at BVSA more than any church that Buena Vista has ever seen before!  based on what i read in scripture, the church is about Jesus at work.  its not just about getting people to gather.  its about going to the people.  the 'fruit' of the work of the church is when we truly see Jesus in our midst.  its when we see communities transformed.  its when we see the followers of Jesus living with a passion and a mission. thats what is happening through your academy.  that's what is happening because Jesus is the center of your church."

at this point kerrie and i are practically in tears.  cesar didn't know it, but it was a big encouragement to us to hear this at this point in time.


cesar had no idea how many times people have told us we must "plant a church" in Buena Vista if we expect to see real change.  when that happens, i always respond that while we're not against the idea, we think we already have planted a church.  this either begins a good debate, or an awkward silence that implies disagreement.  those conversations rarely draw a conclusion.  if you don't agree on the definition of church, its tough to debate how to plant one.

we are not against supporting a traditional sunday-morning-style gathering in BV, where people come together to hear a message, worship, and share community.  our village could benefit from that if its done right.  but it could also handicap the village if it leads the people to think that coming to services means they are good-to-go because they've "gone to church".  we've been in this village 8 years now, and we know, based on the religious culture, that the latter is a real risk.

so... its been an item of prayer for kerrie and i for many of years - since we moved to Buena Vista actually!  "God we can't hastily throw up a building and start sunday services.  if you want us to start a traditional-model church, we want it to be of you, full of your spirit.  we need spirit-filled leaders who would teach the truth and be devoted to this community 24/7... living, loving, and discipling the people where they live, not just in the building.  we want to see this community on fire for you Jesus!  please show us what to do and we will do it."

we have prayed like that together with the leiva and schmidt families over the years.  for kerrie and i, for almost 8 years now, we always come away hearing the same thing.

"just keep doing what you're doing."

interestingly, the answer has been exactly the same for the leivas and schmidts.

its possible we could all be hearing God wrong, but i really don't think so.  all 6 of us - who God called to leave our much-more-comfortable lives and hunker down in the poor guatemalan mountains in an effort to win a community for Christ - have prayed for years about "planting a traditional church" here...  and all 6 of us have gotten the same answer from God: "just keep doing what you are doing."

it's a compelling case, albeit rather personal and maybe hard for anyone else to appreciate as much as us, that God doesn't always choose a traditional-model church plant as the way to win a community to himself.


the american "church planting movement" can be a bit dogmatic, if not flawed.  i went to an acts 29 church planting seminar (one of the biggest and more effective church planting organizations out there) being held here in guatemala a couple years ago, and i was absolutely stunned at what was going on.  maybe they were just having a bad day, but the strategies for planting churches in a poor, highly indigenous, 3rd world country were so misplaced i couldn't even believe it.  they urged hiring an effective marketing team, developing a killer logo, acquiring the right building, creating a warm first impression, and building a strong social media image using facebook, instagram, and hashtags.  i'm not kidding.  a group of village pastors sitting at our table were looking at the speaker as if he was speaking chinese.  they had no idea what he was talking about.  neither did i for that matter.

before i go on, let me say this.  i deeply love and appreciate many people who plant traditional churches.  church pastors, leaders, members, and planters are some of my best friends and our biggest supporters.  these people are serious about their faith, sharing Jesus, discipling, and heavily involved in missions.  for them, attending and leading services is just a small part of the deal.  they keep it in perspective, and live out there faith on mission every day.  i am utterly grateful for those unique souls.

the problem is, sadly, they are not the majority.  the majority of church leaders spend more time inward (budgets, staff, facilities, sermon prep, etc) than outward.  and the majority of church members simply slip in-and-out.  the majority choose the easy road.  the majority aren't giving their lives away to save themselves, but instead saving their lives and losing themselves.  and a bad "church model" can make it quite easy for them to do so.

for good reason, christians are passionate about the idea of planting churches.  the church is what the world needs!  but i believe a shift should be made in the way we go about it.  the world doesn't need more church models, programs, or buildings.  what the world needs is the real, actual, living church.

in parts of the world where christianity is openly accepted, there is a church building on every corner.  do we really need more?  if they were all on mission and outward focussed i might say yes - keep building!  but do we really need more programs, big operational budgets, staff meetings, committees, and comfy chairs?  or are we just creating more consumer-church competition?  unintentionally encouraging people to hop from one to the other based on which speaker, music, kids activities, or
programs they like better?

according to church growth and discipleship expert bill hull, "it takes 100 church attendees, a pastor, and $100,000 per year to win a convert.  this is an ugly fact that should grieve us all."

amazingly, as the number of those plants continue to increase, the number of missional christians - bible believing, passionate missional christians - continues to decrease.  (check out some barna research group statistics sometime!)  in most cases, the vast majority of "church consumers" who benefit from all these church programs are 10+ and 20+ year christians!  those statistics are heinous, but i'll save that for another blog...

and what about countries where christianity is closed, illegal, and/or persecuted - inside the 10/40 window for example?   obviously, in that setting, church buildings and/or programs are irrational if not totally impossible.

so instead of "planting churches" (by that i mean "planting church buildings and/or programs"), why don't we refocus and even re-word what we are really trying to do anyway.  why not just plant Jesus - and be ok with whatever model or shape that may take.

if we focus more on planting Jesus, and we do it well, the result will be that Jesus will build His church.  he promises that in scripture.  in matthew 16 we get an amazing glimpse into what real church planting is all about.  Jesus tells peter that "on this rock, i will build my church."  he will use peter to share the good news about Jesus, but Jesus himself will build His church.

the result will likely look much different than any "human model" that we can even wrap our minds around.

john piper says on the topic, "not you will build my church.. or missionaries or pastors will build my church, but I will build my church.  ... so maybe a missionary plants.  maybe another missionary or pastor waters.  but Christ gives the growth (1 cor 3:6).  Christ builds the church.  church planting or establishing is supernatural work, or it is not the church that gets built, but only another human organization."

a huge obstacle to planting church buildings and programs is that much of the "planting work" doesn't actually need or involve the supernatural help of Jesus.  we can do most of it without Him.  we build, plan, organize, hire, create, strategize, and market... and when all of that's done there's barely anything left in the tank to give to Jesus himself.  we're too tired to spend the evening with someone who needs help, or spend our saturday loving on the least of these.  we protect "our down time" because all of the other program-based and organizational stuff has worn us down.

for us at bvsa, this can happen if we consider the hours that the boys are at the academy our "church hours", and we overwork, over-plan, and over-emphasize that time.  while we do take those hours very seriously (much discipling goes on then), anyone who visits us knows that much of our time, heart, and energy is spent out in the village.  inside people's homes... caring for them, and sharing the love of Jesus with action, in their domain.

there is something uniquely powerful that happens when the holy spirit moves "outside the walls" and is brought to otherwise private territory.  for example, compare someone praying for you while at church or in a bible study, to someone praying for you while at work or in a public place.  the truth, depth, and sincerity of our faith is on great display when Jesus is glorified outside the comfort of the normal gathering place!

but in order for that to happen, the sunday morning gatherings (buildings, programs, budgets, etc) must be - dare i say - understated, and the efforts outside of those gatherings, overstated.  simply put, a bad model leaves us with too much organizing to do, and leads us to lose our first love.

i believe that when paul writes how he "planted" in 1 corinthians 3, what he means is that he planted Jesus, not an organization with a thousand moving parts.  in fact, in the same chapter, he scolds the church (the people) for placing too much importance on man (v4) and reminds them that they are the church, not the building (v9).


i'm not against church planting and i'm certainly not anti-church!  i've committed my life to planting Jesus and to discipling, and i hope to do so until my last breath.  i am honored to be a part of the church that Jesus promises the gates of hell will not prevail against!  desiring that the church of Jesus be alive and present in every corner of the earth is my deepest longing.

my concern is simply that we are forcing a definition of "church" that it's own Founder didn't even maintain.  it's not on purpose or with bad intentions, but it still is what it is.

i think of the 3 years of Jesus' life that we know about.  he was giving constantly - both to the lost, and to the disciples, knowing that they would go "plant Jesus" and ignite the church with the rest of their lives.  i'm sure the last thing He would have encouraged was any model that may lead people to be satisfied with gathering together - for 10, 20, or 50+ years.  Attending, sitting, listening, enjoying, and being continuously fed...  while billions around the world die not knowing Him.

the original disciples learned for 3 years and were then then told to "go to all the nations, share all that i have taught you, baptize and make disciples."

why isn't that our church planting model?


so, what is church?  i think its a much more broad definition than most i've ever heard.  to me, the church is the astounding presence of Jesus among his people, called out as one, in passionate pursuit of the mission to carry the good news, in love and in truth, to all the people on the earth.

countless models can work towards that, but it must be understood that the real commitment to mission and discipling has to happen outside of the walls.  it has simply gotten too easy to justify "doing church during church hours".  we must not allow a model that mislabels and misrepresents what church is.

for me personally, i will not settle for a sad and limited definition for what is the single most powerful instrument for accomplishing God's agenda in the world!


if wilmer ends up teaching on sundays, leading a community of believers in a more traditional setting, i will be thrilled with that!  because he will know that gathering on sunday mornings for teaching and worship is just the beginning.  he will know that the mission is to build Christ followers, not church members.  he will know that gathering a group of people who mostly believe the same thing to learn and worship, while a good thing, is not "doing church."  like my friends i mentioned above who work through more traditional models, wilmer won't be satisfied with that.

wilmer will know that by planting Jesus, a very powerful church will organically and powerfully emerge from the soil.  a church led by the Spirit - so powerful that it cannot be limited by any model or strategy.   an unstoppable church, not bound by any human definition at all.

lets go plant Jesus with all of our life, love, time, and energy...  and watch Him build his church.


Eric Horn said...

I love this! In the world of doing day to day "difficult" things, this really helped ground me and put things into perspective. Cesar is, has been, and always will be an inspiration to me and the very definition of Christlike. Now I want to sign up for his classes!

Unknown said...

Thank you for shedding new light on the church for me. This has brought a lot into perspective to me. We recently moved to Texas and have been looking for a new church home. But you post is so amazing true, I was far to concerned with programs and music. I need to be the church and spread the gospel. That is the most important part. Thank you again!

The Bunso Bunch said...

So much truth. Thank you for taking the time to share!