Why do organizations and institutions that at one time dominated their area of focus seem to, eventually, fall aside? I serve a denomination that at one time in the history of the United States boasted that one in every five citizens were Methodist of some fashion. Those days are long past. Ironically The Book of Discipline, the prevailing guidelines for Methodists was a scant 100 very small pages. Now the rules have tripled, The Discipline has exploded and the churches haveshrunk along with most churches in the U.S. What happened?
What comes to your mind when you hear the word “church?” I believe in the church because it is God’s plan to save the world placed into human hands. But most of the time when I hear the word “church” it relates to a solemn structure on the corner of intersection that is largely ignored. This is not how the church started.
The church started as a movement. Movements move.
Matthew 28:18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
John 20:21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”
Acts 1:7 He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
In these texts we are reminded that we are called to move, to “go,” to be sent, not to be sitting in stained glass mortuaries waiting on others to come to us. The church is called to “make disciples,” “be my witnesses,” and journey to the ends of the earth, not sit and soak on Sunday morning. The church started as a movement, but became a monument.
The church became a monument.
How did it happen? How did a dynamic movement of Spirit empowered believers settle for becoming a monument? I think it is in our nature to try to organize, systematize, and memorialize what God is doing.
From the Old Testament we (people) have struggled with understanding God who is “trans-local” or who cannot be contained in a single location or place. We like our gods located. The people of Israel had the Ark of the Covenant; then the tabernacle; and then they built the Temple. They sought to put God in a trunk, then a tent, and then in a temple. Every time we try to “locate” God it allows us to ignore him everywhere else. God becomes separated from our daily lives and we practice a kind of visitation of the holy. We sequester him from our homes, businesses, and relationships. Christians carried on the tradition of locating God in a place.
For three hundred years the “church” exploded. With almost not physical structures, worship was held in small “oikos” communities, usually gathered in homes. There were deacons, bishops, and overseers to insure accountability and a measure of orthodoxy, but without the constraints of “locating God” these organic expressions of spiritual family grew and thrived. By the time Constantine took over as emporer more that half of the know world was Christian, then things got messy.
Constantine sought to organize, systematize, memorialize, and institutionalize the church. He did this by formally establishing a system of government that mirrored the Roman Empire. Romans were a building people, they understood buildings (so well many still remain today). So, they built chapels and cathedrals. Bones of saints were buried beneath the altars of the most holy places and, before long, the movement erected monuments and God was located in a box again.
Even the word “church” is not really a Christian concept. It comes from the pagan tribes that once inhabited what is now Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden. “Kirk.” “kirkja” or “kirch”: The lord’s house—German term for a place or ritualized ceremonies. Pagan cultures built buildings to hold their gods where they could go when then needed to to get what they wanted? Consumerist religion isn’t anything new.
Early on English translations adopted this term rather than the understanding of “gathering” or “ekklesia.” Before long the church was located was in a building. This was easy to understand in a culture dominated with Kings and Lords who owned all the land, the landowner had power and provided for the welfare of the people. The church bought into this idea. So whoever controlled the building controlled the souls of the people and the interpretation of the scripture. This simple linguistic change from “gathering” to “gathering place” laid the groundwork of stopping the movement of the church and causing us to see the church as a monument. “Here’s the church, here’s the steeple, control it and control the people.”
How do we reclaim the movement? That’s for another time.