Church vs church

Author’s Note: I realize this is a rather inauspicious re-engagement of my blogging, but one must start somewhere. I read an article (see the link) and it provoked a few thoughts rumbling around in my brain for some time that I wanted to now share with you. Thank you for reading and forgiving any hiatus. I also hope my Muslim readers and friends don’t take this as an attack on your faith. It’s not at all. I love you and respect your piety—I hope we can talk soon about our faiths and thoughts on Jesus.

I read recently an interesting story on Religious News Service about the spate of churches becoming museums, becoming mosques in Turkey—and now they want to convert the Hagia Sophia, one of if not the, oldest church building constructed in the world. Some of you may be reacting with vitriol, some with disdain or a mixture of the two. On one hand it can seem a travesty, but I strangely did not care, I was simply smh, to use the colloquial. I should share why.

We all tacitly acknowledge that the ‘church’ is universal and spiritual, it is comprised of the worldwide body of believers, known only to God, children of the Father, led by Jesus, united in the Spirit. Yet our speech, prayers and actions reflect a different set of beliefs:

  • When we pray for the Church we typically pray for the ‘church building’ we attend;
  • We ‘go to church’, as if it were actually a place we can go to;
  • We invite people to our church building and call it evangelism (it’s not);
  • We wrongly conflate the expansion of the kingdom of God with the building of new churches;

The Church (big C) is not the same thing as church (little c). The latter is a church building around the corner, a place for the contingent of God’s Church (big C, universal, spiritual) to congregate, celebrate God, be discipled and operate as a launching pad for social justice (see the civil rights movement).

The conflation of the Church with the Kingdom of God is particularly troublesome. We see churches being built and people coming, and think the kingdom is advancing. We see churches dilapidated and empty and think its advance is halting.

Jesus said the kingdom of God does not come with our seeing. One cannot say ‘Look! There it is!’ Rather it works its way into everything like yeast in dough, unseen but active and changing the very composition of all it touches. It grows like the mustard seed, small at first then, in an instant, it is everywhere. Moreover, the gates of hell cannot prevail against it.

If the Hagia Sophia becomes a mosque it doesn’t mean the Kingdom is defeated in Turkey, any more so than it is in your community if a mosque goes up next door. God’s light lives in his Kingdom, is unseen and does not depend on a building.

It does depend, however, on the prayers and work of his people. I’m no baker but I do know someone has to work the yeast into the dough. I’m no farmer but I know someone has to plant the mustard seed, water and care for it.

How do we do this? Firstly, we put away all malicious talk, anger, a desire to be vindicated, to be first. When we are offended that Christianity is pushed out of the public square, it originates from these feelings, which are inappropriate for a Christian. We then aggressively love people: we serve the poorest, least liked, marginalized people in our communities. We love and pray for our enemies. We gossip about Jesus. We pray for the sick so they can be healed, we give generously… essentially we live the Sermon on the Mount. If we are distant, (say, the distance from the US to Turkey) we pray for our brothers and sisters there do these very things.

This is kneading the dough; it changes hearts without people knowing it, disciples them without their knowledge, and leads people to Jesus. We care for the expanding mustard seed by our discipleship of their hearts, loving and caring for them, bearing their burdens… doing all the things for them after conversion as we did before, but going above and beyond.

I want to live this way. Honestly I don’t do it enough, sometimes at all. I hamper myself too often with the trappings of modern life, and sometimes, I use the church as a crutch:

  • The church can disciple, I don’t have to do it;
  • Why evangelize? Just invite them to church;
  • Need healing? Come to our prayer and worship night, maybe the elders there can pray for you;

I submit to you that we must discard the crutch of the church building and return to the fundamentals of what Jesus called us to do as the Church, big C. Who cares if the church building is converted, torn down, abandoned or what have you, whether it is as vaunted as the Hagia Sophia or the Reformed Church of St. Francis of the Little Flowers United for Jesus Holy Tabernacle of the Faithful in Portlandia? The Church will live on.

The real question is not ‘how is the church doing?’, rather ‘is the Kingdom alive and well?’ Is the Church kneading the dough? Is the Church planting mustard seeds wherever it goes? Is the Church loving one another? If the land is crowded with church buildings but the Church is infighting, no one cares for the poor and vulnerable, and the gospel isn’t being preached, what good will another church building do us?

May the Church of God flourish and His Kingdom come, no matter what the opposition, and may we see things clearly, as Christ would have us.

 

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