What Most Christians Don’t Know About “Church” and How It’s Hurting Us Right Now – Part I – “What the ‘Church’ Is”

Throughout my education to become a pastor, I got to listen to quite a few different people share their opinions on what Christianity is supposed to be, what the Christian Church is supposed to be, what Christian worship is supposed to be, and so on.  The problem with these opinions is that they all have bias attached to them.  It’s as though with every experience that we go through in life – success or failure, happy or sad – there are a pair of prescription glasses we’re wearing that are being continuously altered to change the way we look at things.  We all have bias.  I certainly do too.  However, when we let these biases become Christian doctrine, we set ourselves up to look as foolish as Pharisees standing before Christ. 

Over the course of the next month or so, I want to take some time to clear up some confusion (i.e. the predisposed bias) about what the “Church” really is and what it is not and explain the damaging effects that misunderstandings are having on Christianity at large, the health of Christian churches, and the satisfaction of individual Christians today. 

This week, we’ll begin by taking a look at “What the Church Really Is.”   Now let me also say here that the “Holy Christian Church” and the “Communion of Saints”  that we confess in the Apostles’ Creed are ways of saying “all believers past and present who are recognized children of God through faith in their Savior Jesus.”  That’s not exactly what we’re going to be talking about here.  We’ll be discussing the Christian Church on earth, what the New Testament said it is, what it was designed to be, and how getting off track has led to a lot of problems for the Christian Church.  I promise that you’ll probably think about “church” a little differently when all is said and done in the next several weeks.

Let’s start here: The word “church” today is so intricately connected with the idea of a building that you can hear in the way people talk that they have no idea what the New Testament is referring to in the concept of “church.”  “Our church looks really nice all decorated for Christmas.”  “Our church is freezing today.  Someone needs to adjust the thermostat.”  “We go to church weekly.”  Even we pastors like to get in on the “I don’ t know what ‘church’ really is game” too.  Ever heard a pastor say something to the effect of “It’s great to be in the House of God today!” ?  Or, have you heard parents reasoning with their kids, “We need to behave because we’re in God’s House now.”?  Honestly, none of this really has anything to do with New Testament Christianity or the New Testament Church.  And it’s not just benign talk either.  The reality is that it reflects more the mentality of Judaism and paganism, which ultimately has some damaging consequences. 

Old Testament Judaism revolved around 3 basic elements – the Temple (where God’s local presence dwelled), the system of priests as mediators between God and man, and the system of sacrifices to atone for sin and make believers right with God.  In short, when Jesus came, he brought an end to each by fulfilling the purpose of each. 

In the Roman Empire, paganism had similar elements – temples (specific buildings for worshipping gods), priests (specific individuals you had to go through to worship gods), and sacrifices (specific things you had to do to please the gods).  New Testament Christianity didn’t know these things. 

In not one place in the New Testament do we find the term church (ekklesia), temple, or house of God used to refer to a building.  In fact, the first recorded use of the word “church” to refer to a specific meeting place comes from the church father Clement of Alexandria in 190 AD.  He was also the first person credited with using the phrase “go to church.” 

Okay, so if church is not a building, what exactly is it you ask?  Of the 114 times the Greek word ekklesia appears in the New Testament, it always refers to an assembly of people.  In fact, until Emperor Constantine, Christian history and archaeology knows of no Christian buildings except the homes in which the early Christians met for worship. 

Jesus is obviously responsible for what Christianity is today.  Perhaps more than any other human, however, Constantine is responsible for the way Christianity looks today.  What’s so scary about that is that even today scholars debate whether or not Constantine was actually a genuine Christian. 

If you’re not familiar with who Emperor Constantine was, here’s the abbreviated version: In 312 AD, Constantine defeated Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge to become caesar of the Western Empire.  On the eve of that battle, Constantine claimed he saw a cross in the heavens and became a Christian (if that sounds a little fishy, yeah, that’s not typically how Christians are formed).  He promised God at that moment that if he won the battle, he’d Christianize the empire.  He did…and he did.  Christianity went from becoming first officially recognized as a religion in Rome in 311AD under Galerius to becoming the official religion of the state only a few short years later.  In 324 AD, Constantine became caesar of the entire Roman Empire.  And then the building began. 

Truth be told, Christianity had gained enormous momentum over the prior several hundred years.  It had grown from thousands in the early church to an approximated 7 million or so by 300 AD (over 10% of the population at the time).  So, when Constantine made Christianity the official religion of Rome, it wasn’t exactly a “no one to everyone” kind of affair, but it did create massive problems for Christianity, because 1) receiving that many former pagans into the church so rapidly ended up watering down the catechumenate process (i.e. the time of Christian instruction for new members) considerably, and 2) Constantine, the man at the forefront of all this spiritual turnover had an unquestionably pagan approach to worship himself. 

Constantine (and his mother Helena, who was a strong influence in his worship life) felt that if Christians had their own sacred buildings for worship – as did the pagans (temples) and the Jews (synagogues) – that would help legitimize the Christian faith in the minds of the citizens of the Empire.  So, Constantine proceeded to erect “holy” buildings (which he named after saints, following the pattern of pagans naming their temples after certain gods – so if you’re wondering why you grew up at “St. Paul’s” or “St. John’s” or “St. Matthew’s”, there you go).  He built these “holy” buildings on “holy” spaces – St. Peter’s on the Vatican Hill, St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, for example, were all considered holy locations by means of who died there or was born there.  And he filled these “holy” buildings with “holy” relics, such as bits of wood supposedly from Christ’s cross, which Constantine believed possessed magical powers – clearly the product of a superstitious pagan mind.  This man was the first real church builder. 

Only really knowing paganism to this point in life, Constantine built churches that looked like pagan temples, including even pagan artwork.  As to the structure of the buildings, Constantine had them patterned after basilicas (Roman government buildings) that were designed to seat large, passive crowds who were there to watch a show or hear a presentation (more on the effects of this later when we discuss worship).  When those who were giving the show came in, Constantine felt it necessary to present a grand spectacle so that everyone would know something special was happening.  Taking his lead from politics, where Roman emperors were always preceded by lights, Constantine deemed that when clergy enter into the worship area, they be preceded by lit candles and incense, in a fantastic procession.  And when it came time for deciding what the clergy would wear, he naturally leaned toward the imperial garments of the Roman officials, and thus, the ornate robes that you see for clergy today.  In the first 300 years of Christianity, no one in house churches put on special clothes for worship.  They couldn’t afford special “Sunday best” worship clothes.  And since the temple curtain was torn at Jesus’ crucifixion, and God was now accessible for every believer through Christ, highlighting a specific church leader with ostentatious clothing would have been considered counterproductive to the Christian message.  Worship at this time in Christianity, in general, had shifted to becoming much more professional, ceremonial, and dramatic. 

Before I paint Constantine with a red cape, pitchfork, and two horns, it’s only fair to mention some good for Christianity that occurred in his rise to power.  Christians had faced merciless persecution in the first several hundred years of Christianity.  What you’ve heard about the crucifixions and being tossed to the lions in the Colosseum is true.  That ended at the time of Constantine.  Having just gone through the “Great Persecution” (the last and most severe of Christian persecutions in the Roman Empire) which started in 303AD, this was obviously a huge relief and blessing to Christianity.  That said, Christian worship before Constantine was decidedly private and yet social for those there, intimate and participatory.  By the fourth century, Christianity was profoundly shaped by Greek paganism and Roman imperialism. 

Over the next several hundred years, church architecture took several interesting turns from the basilica phase to the Byzantine phase to the Romanesque phase to the Gothic phase.  However, the design, almost unwaveringly, seemed to continuously point more and more to the transcendence and awe-inspiring nature of God, rather than to God found in the gathering together of his body, the real “church.”  And thus God also seemed to go from accessible to inaccessible.

In the relative recent history of church buildings in America,  there are two basic architectural styles: 1) the divided chancel form, seen in liturgical churches, and 2) the concert stage form, used in evangelical churches.  By this point, maybe you’re already starting to piece together some potential problems here. (again, more on that later)  The basic point however, is to keep in mind how far removed today the church building is from what the early Christians knew.  Now, that doesn’t HAVE to be wrong.  But, it’s worth it for us today to ask this question – If the God who brought about that New Testament church at that time in history, and brought it about in the way that he did, was there maybe something inherently within that model that was conducive to a healthy congregation? 

I’m not fully promoting a return to “house churches” today, a concept that has gained tremendous popularity in the past 30 years in our country.  What house church leaders don’t seem to fully grasp is that if early New Testament church leaders had the legal freedom to worship as we do, the early church might very well have done things differently.  But the point, nonetheless, remains that perhaps God (even by means of working through the oppression of the Roman Empire) was establishing the type of environment that best leads to the healthy assembly of Christians.  And that’s worth paying attention to. 

So hopefully you’ve learned something so far.  The next part is more my personal assessment – how I believe many Christians’ current misunderstandings of “What Church Is” are hurting us today:

1) “Going to Church” is Optional – I grew up in a family where Sunday worship was set in stone.  I’m thankful for that.  I can count on one hand the number of times we “missed” worship in my youth.  The rare occasion when we did miss worship, for me, was spent feeling dirty and dodging the lightning bolt from heaven that was presumably going to hit any minute.  And regardless of my immature understanding of “how God operated in the 1980s,” it was good for me to develop the pattern of “this is normal” for weekly worship.

I realize that not everyone was blessed with the same environment growing up.  But in all of my studying to be a pastor, I never thought one of the most discouraging things in ministry I’d do would be trying to convince Christians of the importance of regular worship.  I falsely assumed it was a given.  The modern false concept of “church” hasn’t helped with this at all. 

If worship merely constitutes “going to a church building”, well then that seems pretty hollow and unedifying (although I hate puns, it’s intended here).  I’m smart enough, and you are too, to realize nothing magical is going to happen when I walk through the doors of a church building.  I haven’t passed through some Narnia-bound wardrobe to be greeted by a delightful goat-boy.  If I merely passively sit through a worship service in a church building, chances are, nothing much is happening for me spiritually.  So, “if nothing magical happens when I go to church, why not just stay home?  I have a Bible there too.”  This is simply a misunderstanding of what “church” is. 

Church is an experience where my faith is strengthened by connection with God’s inspired Word.  Other believers (typically pastors & Bible teachers) explain God’s Word to me.  I’m inspired with that Word (often through musical means).  Other believers support me in my struggles (typically through social fellowship – which I think is perhaps the biggest failure of the modern church vs. early church).  And finally, church gives me an opportunity, not to watch, but to serve my fellow believers, who also serve me, as we have all been served by Christ.  And we raise a common voice to tell of what our Savior Jesus has done for us, which we call “praising Him.”  Plain and simple, I can’t get all that by myself at home.  The early Christian church understood that.  Ephesians 2:19-22 says, “Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.”

2) Loss of Intimacy Amongst Christian Worshippers – part of the appeal to small churches is that “everybody knows everybody.”  Novel concept – actually having some idea of who the people who you’re standing next to and confessing to be brothers and sisters in Christ are.  When small churches reach the 50-75 worshipper mark, this intimacy evaporates.  You simply can’t know everybody that well.  It’s impossible.  Well, there’s nothing in the New Testament that says you’d necessarily have to know everybody whom you worship with.  However, that truth has transitioned for many into not knowing hardly anyone that they worship with.  That’s a problem.  Statistics show quite clearly that if new worshippers in a church don’t develop meaningful relationships with anyone in the church (i.e. get “assimilated”) within 3-4 months, they’re gone.  Doctrinally they fully were on board.  However, they did not know the love of Christ in that church as expressed through a fellow Christian, so they wanted out.  That shouldn’t surprise us, unless we believe that church is exclusively a way to help someone foster a relationship with God through correct doctrine.  Many people are under that assumption.  But that’s not what the New Testament “assembly of believers” really is. 

Many larger churches, correctly sensing a perceived lack of “connectedness” among members, have instituted “small groups” to function as churches within a church.  This has been a key element in how some large churches have survived and grown – the Christians get connected with 12-15 other people, typically in a study of God’s Word.  There’s an intimacy that can be achieved there that cannot be done in an 80 person Sunday Bible Study or certainly in a worship service of hundreds.  My guess is that many churches will either fully embrace this concept or die slow deaths. 

3) Church is Primarily Designed to be an Awe-Inspiring Experience – If being overwhelmed by seeing something impressive, hearing something impressive, or being in an impressive setting is what “church” is, then I can generate just as good of “church” by looking through a microscope or a telescope, or standing at the foot of the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls.  Yes, God’s creation is impressive.  But fundamentally, it’s not the same as church.   And if church really is about an awe-inspiring experience, and I’m not feeling overwhelmed with wonderment, the natural thought would be, “maybe church isn’t working for me.”  Again, not what the church is designed to be. 

Today, institutional churches in the United States own over $230 billion worth of land.  Almost 20% of the $50-60 billion dollars given in yearly Christian offerings in the U.S. go towards church building mortgages and maintenance.  It’s not wrong for Christians to have big (or nice) buildings.  In fact, what’s occasionally more disconcerting is when Christians have buildings that they let go into disrepair in such a way that they’d never let their own personal homes go.  But the point is, God’s creation does a wonderful job of impressing the world.  We probably don’t need to spend billions to try to impress the world (or ourselves) on God’s behalf through our buildings.  Dollars spent towards communicating the gospel of Christ to the world and dollars spent serving those in need seem to line up much more clearly with New Testament Christianity. 

Alright, so if you think I’m suggesting everybody else has got it wrong and I’ve got it right, guess again.  Pastors are not immune to any of this.  Weekly, I catch myself greeting the congregation at the opening of worship by saying “Welcome to worship at Resurrection!”  Clearly, these are the words of a man who has a history of possessing a flawed concept of church – that it’s a building.  From now on, you’ll be hearing, “Good morning, Resurrection!” – because the gathered people are the church.

I hope you’ll continue to learn and grow with me in our understanding of “Church” over the next several weeks.  Should be fun.

SIDE NOTE: Here’s one of those “proud to be a Lutheran” moments – Martin Luther, perhaps more than any famous name in Christian church history, recognized the difference between “church” as the ekklesia and the misconception of “church” as a building.  He fought adamantly against the mistake.  He called “church” a very ambiguous term and in his German translation of the Bible, he translated ekklesia consistently as “congregation” (i.e. believers gathering together).

Since this is not a formal paper, journal, or book, but a blog post, I spared myself the formality of footnotes.  If you’d like to check my sources though or are just interested in more information on the early Christian church, I’d encourage you to check out one or more of the following…….Ante Pacem (Graydon Snyder), The Rise of Christianity (Rodney Stark), Story of Christianity (Justo Gonzalez), The Age of Faith (Will Durant), Caesar and Christ (Will Durant), History of Christianity (Paul Johnson), Early Liturgy (Josef Jungmann),  Christian Liturgy (Frank Senn).

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3 thoughts on “What Most Christians Don’t Know About “Church” and How It’s Hurting Us Right Now – Part I – “What the ‘Church’ Is”

  1. Nick says:

    I was volunteering out at Monkey Junction a couple of weeks ago and talked with a woman that frequently came there with her kids and attended worship at Life once. I asked her what she thought of the service and her reply was “I don’t really get into hymns. I feel closer to Jesus when I’m praising him, so I like the more up-beat music”. I wasn’t really sure how to respond. I don’t think its wrong to like energetic music (I usually make it to the Koine concerts when they are in town), but it did seem like she was missing the point. I have been to services that were basically just a concert with a small message about how God can make your life here on earth better. Frankly, I left feeling like there was something missing. I didn’t hear anything that encouraged my faith to grow.

  2. Brian Schuessler says:

    Thank you for this educational and inspiring look at what church is. I continue to be edified by your work. Blessings on your work with the church!

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