One of the catch phrases among believers in this season goes something like this: “It’s time for Christians to stop going to church and to instead start being the church.”
I get what’s being said in this and there’s some truth in it. I think it was sometime during my teenage years someone explained to me that the church isn’t a building, it’s the people, the community of believers. Church isn’t a place; it’s a people. It’s not somewhere we go; it’s something we are.
All of this is somewhat true. Kind of. A little bit.
The heart behind this line of thinking seems really good. It emphasizes people over buildings. It emphasizes being over doing. These are not bad things to emphasize.
But this line of thinking troubles me nevertheless, as it sets up a false dichotomy (a false choice, a false either/or) between being the church and gathering as the church. It assumes that we must choose between being the church or gathering as the church. Within this false set of options, being the church seems much more enlightened. But the assumptions that support this false dichotomy actually demonstrate a very thin and poor understanding of this thing called church.
Being the church and gathering as the church are not alternatives. Each actually gives expression to the other. Being the church in its very definition means gathering as the church. In establishing the Church, and in establishing churches, Jesus’ aim is not in a mere list of individuals who are now on their way to heaven. Nor is his aim a mere list of individuals who are doing kingdom things out in the culture. The purpose of our gathering cannot be reduced to accomplishing either of these things (though both are important).
His aim is for a singular Bride, a Body, one new Man. So he promises that whenever two or more gather in his name, he will be in the midst. It is in our gathering together that we in our oneness are gathered with him in some way that is different and more than would be individually experienced. The letters Paul wrote were to communities of believers who regularly gathered for worship, teaching, for communion and for community. His expectation was that the letters themselves would be read aloud in the gatherings and would help shape and grow the community of believers gathered.
Gathering as a community of believers locally is a prophetic enactment of the reality of oneness in the Church universal across time and space. To suggest that gathering and belonging are alternatives is to suggest that we prophetically enact a very different reality. To refuse to gather is to prophetically declare you don’t belong. To neglect gathering with the church is to avoid being the church.
“not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:25, ESV)
The instruction is that we shouldn’t neglect to meet together. This reference to gathering is quite interesting in the Greek. Episynagogen is the word in Greek. The only other time it appears in the New Testament is in Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians.
“Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we ask you, brothers,” (2 Thessalonians 2:1, ESV)
Our local regular gatherings are prophetic declarations of our current oneness with all believers and prophetic enactments of the future gathering together of all believers when Christ returns. To neglect gathering in this way is to declare and enact something very different, something that in no way could be defined as “being the church.”