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Where do many people's ideas about the Church come from?

by André Schwartz last modified Jun 03, 2014 11:17 AM
Back to Biblical Basics (BBB)

If you ask a dozen people “What is a church?” you’d probably get as many answers.  Most of them will unfortunately not come from the Bible.  People get their ideas about the church from a great variety of places and inputs.  We will look at just a few:

1. Past encounters with the church, coloured by popular views and the news

Not many growing up these days come from church backgrounds, but they still may have some experience about church, even if these are just from special occasions such as carol services or funerals.  These occasional connections with the church may shape their understanding of a church positively or negatively.  They may experience the church as a solemn and peaceful place or feel that the church is just bunch of hypocrites.  You see the emphasis in on experience.

These experiences are further enhanced by the influence of television shows and views in the popular literature.  Just think of shows like The Simpsons (with hypocritical pastor Lovejoy) or stand-up comedians.  Oftentimes the church is represented as negative, having a bad influence on progress, just a group of ignorant and less informed people, or even extremists.

Similarly, what people get from the news isn’t all that positive either.  Seldom do the media report the good things that churches do.  Rather, church scandals tend to make headlines for obvious reasons.

2. Personal needs and preferences shape views of the church

Oftentimes people have a need and they believe the church is the sort of place that should meet their need.  Their need and preference may be even noble.  It could be things like the need to stand up against abortion or homosexual marriage, or even just the need for friendship and relationships.  A church may even be seen as an outlet for political views.  We all tend to project our views onto the church.

Obviously a church does meet many needs.  But the church must first and foremost give people an opportunity to fulfil their need for God.

3. Similar institutions affect people’s views of the church

There are many institutions that seem to look very similar to a church.  Some people see the church as a concert, where they come to be entertained and leave uplifted and on an emotional high.

Some people see the church as a lecture hall; as a place where they are given new knowledge.  Preachers do hope that people will learn from their preaching and be “spiritually” educated, but the church is not a school.

Others think of a church as a social club.  People have meetings, there’s a process of joining and other clublike rules apply.

These days, unfortunately, many people (and even church leaders) see the church as a store.  You go there to get something.  The church is “selling” products and churches compete for a place in the “market place.”  So if a church is not “selling” something you want, you go to a different “store.”

It’s not uncommon that the church is seen as a hospital.  You go to church for your spiritual disease.  Pastors are seen as spiritual doctors.  Certainly the caring aspect of both doctor and pastor is shared.

What do we make of these analogies?

It is not necessarily completely wrong to see the church as any of these.  The Bible also uses the analogies of a body or a marriage for the church.  So it does make sense to a point.  The problem comes when we see the church exclusively as any of the above.  If we do that, we usually miss some crucial facet of a church.  In the above examples:

• A church is like a concert but with a big difference: God or the pastor is not the performer, but the congregation members as worshippers are the “performers” – we must give praise and honour to God, and He is the audience of our worship.

• As pointed out, there is obviously teaching and transfer of knowledge happening in a sermon.  In this respect a church is like a lecture hall.  But it is much more: it’s about the transformation of hearts and lives, not just the education of minds.

• Although a church does have club characteristics, it is very different from ordinary clubs: membership isn’t a privilege, but a gift, and non-members may participate in most of “club” life.  A church exists for member and non-members.  If you see the church just as a club, you will tend to exclude non-members and expect the church to meet only your needs.

• A church is like a store, in the sense that we certainly have something on offer.  But if we see church-goers as “consumers” we miss the point.  Church members must move past consumer loyalty, otherwise they will never get involved in the life-giving, world-changing fellowship of the church.

• Just as a hospital offers healing to the sick, a church must offer healing to the spiritually sick.  But again the analogy breaks down, since, unlike a hospital, a church does not only want the “sick” to get well, but also to train them for the caring team. When you go to a church, you must not just expect to be cared for, but you must be ready to join the care-giving team.

As pointed out, Scripture itself uses analogies to reveal the essence of the church.  It must be understood that all analogies are just that – analogies, and that even the analogies in Scripture will break down at some point.  For example, when the Scriptures see the church as a human body, does it also mean that it will grow old and eventually die? Certainly not!

We will look at some Biblical analogies as we go BBB next time!