The veteran rock-star Mick Jagger spoke for many when he said this: `Jesus Christ is fantastic, but I don’t like the church. The church does more harm than good.’
So is it possible to be a Christian, to be a follower of Jesus, and not go to church?’ And anyway, what does `going to church’ mean? What is church?
Before I was a Christian, I didn’t like the church. When I heard the word `church’, my heart sank. The first thing that I thought of when I heard the word `church’ was church services. I always found church services so dull, boring. As I told you before, at boarding school we were required to attend church 15 times a week – I had enough!
Before entering the ministry I was an economist: and there are a lot of jokes about them. My favourite was, “If you laid out all the economists in the world end to end,they would never reach a conclusion.”
Abraham Lincoln said a similar things about church. He said this: “If all the people who fell asleep in church on Sunday morning were laid out end to end, they would be a great deal more comfortable.”
I also used to think of “church” as something that you were born into. My mother, once filled out a form which said: Religion: and she put None—brackets—(Church of England).
Another idea was that the church was the buildings.
Now, all these things are the trappings, if you like, but they’re not the essence of what the church is about. It’s a bit like if you say, `Well, what is marriage?’ and you said, `Well, marriage is a ring. It’s a marriage certificate. It’s a wedding service. It’s the marriage laws.’ Now, marriage may involve all of those things, but that’s not the essence. At the heart of marriage is something far more profound. And at the heart of the church is something amazing, something wonderful, something beautiful.
And over the years since I’ve been a Christian, I’ve come not just to like the church; I love the church! And in the New Testament there are hundreds of images and metaphors which describe the church, and I want to pick just a few which explain why I love the church so much.
1. THE PEOPLE OF GOD
The first reason is because the church is people. It’s the people of God.
1 Peter 2:9
You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God…
The Christian faith involves, of course, first of all a vertical relationship—our relationship with God. But it also involves a horizontal relationship—with other people. And we’re part of a community which began with God’s call to Abraham. And the people of Israel prefigured the church. So the universal church consists of all those, right the way across the world, all the way back in time, who profess or have professed the name of Christ.
And we become a member of the church not by birth, but by new birth. Jesus spoke about being born of water and the Spirit. Jesus baptised and he commanded his disciples to baptise.
Becoming a Christian involves three things.
First of all, something we do: repentance and faith.
Secondly, something God does: he gives us the Holy Spirit.
And thirdly, something the church does: baptism.
Today we baptised Joshua Smith into Christ.
Baptism is a kind of visible mark of what it means to be a member of the church. It’s a visible sign of what it means to be a Christian. It signifies—the water signifies washing, cleansing from sin. Water also in the New Testament signifies the Holy Spirit—Jesus talked about `rivers of living water’ coming out from us. By this, John tells us, he meant the Holy Spirit. And it’s a picture of all the blessings God brings through his Spirit.
And it signifies dying and rising with Christ. So, St. Paul puts it like this in Romans 6, All of you have been baptised into Christ Jesus.
So, imagine this piece of paper is you and this Bible is Jesus. What Paul is saying in Romans 6, he says: All of you were baptised into Christ Jesus. When you became a Christian, in a kind of mystical way you became part of Christ. You are now `in Christ’ – en Christos, which is one of Paul’s favourite descriptions of what happens to us when we become followers of Jesus.
And therefore whatever happened to Jesus happened, in this kind of mystical way, to you.
So, Paul says, all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death… That means that when Jesus died on the cross, you died in him. We were buried with him through baptism. He says this symbol of going down into the water in baptism is a symbol of the fact that you were buried—when Jesus was buried, because you’re in him, you were buried with Christ: …in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead, we too may live a new life. So when Jesus rose from the dead, you rose in him. And coming up out of the water of baptism symbolises the Resurrection, starting a completely new life.
As Joshua was washed with the water of baptism, so his old life was washed away—that’s what the picture is. We are all born into sin – the original sin of Adam, but now that life has gone. And a completely new life has begun.
This people of God is vast. Do you know, there are two billion Christians in the world today, 2,000 million—about a third of the world’s population. And tens of thousands of people as baptised into Christ every single day.
Here in Australia, the church has been in decline for fifty, eighty years. And so it’s easy to think that in a few years’ time the church will have died out completely. But that’s a totally blinkered, narrow view of the world: because when you look globally it’s a totally different picture. The church is growing faster than ever.
In 1900 there were 10 million Christians in Africa. 100 years later there are 360 million Christians in Africa. Look at what’s happening in South America, in China, in the East—all over the world. In America, 50% of the population are in church each Sunday but in other developed countries it is much lower, around 7% in Europe and 8.8% in Australia, but in many parts of the world the church is growing rapidly.
In some parts of the church it’s persecuted. In fact, in more than 60 countries in the world, Christians are harassed, abused, arrested, tortured or executed specifically because of their faith. 200 million Christians throughout the world live in daily fear of secret police, vigilantes or state repression and discrimination. Yet the church in those parts of the world is very strong. Perhaps its our affluence that makes us think that we don’t need God.
The universal church has local expressions. This would be one local expression of the universal church. And Paul, wherever he went, he planted churches: churches we read about in the New Testament in Asia, churches in Galatia. And these local churches themselves break down into smaller gatherings. And for practical purposes you could say that there are three different sizes.
First size is a small group or Cell. Usually that’s a group of less than twelve people meeting informally. Jesus had a group of about twelve people he met with. One of the things that I find so amazing about the small groups is how quickly people begin to drop their barriers and people start to talk openly about things that are real. There’s this kind of authenticity—what’s really going on in their lives.
People talk about their issues, their doubts, their fears, their failures. And often in the world relationships can be quite superficial, but in a small group or Cell, even though we’ve only known each other for quite a short time, there’s a depth of friendship that develops. And we can ask one another to pray for each other, we can encourage each other, support each other in difficult times. There’s this confidentiality, there’s respect for one another; where we listen and learn, we eat together, we learn together, pray together. And while we only have a few small groups now – Wednesday Prayer, Elders, Ladies Guild, Young Adults and so on we plan to expand this in the new year. This is not the end; this is the beginning.
But we need more than just a small group. We need a slightly larger group, which we call a Congregation. This is the most common form of church. Here you can get to know a wider group of people. Here you can develop gifts.
Quite often we miss the opportunity offered by the Congregation- opportunity to allow people to develop—worship leaders, people who’ve never before led worship. As we are doing now in our services. People who’ve never given a talk before—the elders are doing that now and we will expand that as time goes on. And the friendships that developed are amazing.
And then there’s the bigger gathering: Celebration. This is where several Congregations can get together – as we do on the 5th Sundays in our Parish, and for events like the Mighty Men’s Conference and so on. Here you get a sense of worship, awe—hundreds of people worshipping God together.
Sometimes we may feel pretty alone as a Christian but when we come to a gathering we gain a sense of confidence, excitement, joy, to be with the people of God. That’s why I love the church: it’s people.
Bill Hybels, always says two things about the church: first, “the local church is the hope for the world”. And second, “There’s nothing like the local church when it’s working well.”
2. THE FAMILY OF GOD
The second reason I love the church is because it’s a family—it’s the family of God.
1 John 5:1
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well.
What St. John says is that when you come into a relationship with God, you come into a family. Because there are other people who are in that same relationship with God—they’re sons and daughters of God: that means they’re your brothers and sisters.
So, you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family. So take a look around you, because this is your family! Have a look. Have a look at your brothers and your sisters!
Brothers and sisters can squabble, they can fall out, they can not see each other, but they remain brothers and sisters. Nothing can end that relationship. And as you know, the history of the church has been a sad one because it’s been a story of disunity.
As you look back in the history of the church there’ve been four major sort of breaks. In the fourth and fifth century the lesser Eastern churches separated. In the eleventh century you had the break between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. At the time of the Reformation you had the split between Catholics and Protestants. In the nineteenth century you had the start of denominations—there were no denominations until the nineteenth century. But by 1900 there were 2,000 denominations; by 1980 there were 20,000 denominations; and by the year 2000 there were 34,000 denominations.
And the church has divided on just about every conceivable issue—in fact, on every inconceivable issue as well.
I once heard about a man who was standing in the middle of the Golden Gate Bridge, admiring the view, when another tourist walked up alongside him to do the same. And he said, as he took in the beauty of the view: ‘What an awesome God!’
The other man turned to him and said, `Oh, are you a Christian?’ He said, `Yes, I am a Christian.’
`So am I,’ and they shook hands.
The one asked, `Are you a liberal or a fundamental Christian?’
He said, `I’m a fundamental Christian.’
`So am I,’ and we smiled and nodded to each other.
He asked again, `Are you a covenant or dispensational fundamental Christian?’
He said, `I’m a dispensational fundamental Christian.’
`So am I,’ and they slapped one another on the back.
`Are you an early Acts, mid Acts, or late Acts dispensational fundamental Christian?’
He said, `I’m a mid Acts dispensational fundamental Christian.’ `So am I,’ and they agreed to exchange Christmas cards each year.
Then he said, `Are you an Acts 9 or 13 mid Acts dispensational fundamental Christian?’
`I’m an Acts 9 mid Acts dispensational fundamental Christian.’ `So am I,’ and we hugged one another right there on the bridge.
`Are you a pre-Trib or post-Trib Acts 9 mid Acts dispensational fundamental Christian?’
He said, `I’m a pre-Trib Acts 9 mid Acts dispensational fundamental Christian.’
`So am I,’ and we agreed to exchange our kids for the summer.
`Are you a twelve-in or twelve-out pre-Trib Acts 9 mid Acts dispensational fundamental Christian?’
He said, `I’m a twelve-in pre-Trib Acts 9 mid Acts dispensational fundamental Christian.’
`You heretic!’ said the other, pushing him off the bridge.
So that’s been the history of the church. But we live in a very exciting time, actually, when these kind of denominational barriers are coming down. And disunity is a scandal.
Outside the church, people look in and they say, `Look, if you guys can’t even agree amongst yourselves what you believe in, why should I be interested?’
But Jesus prayed—just before he died, that we should be one so that the world would believe.
And Paul says: Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit—of course, not at the expense of truth.
St. Augustine prayed that in the essential things, there would be unity. In the peripheral, freedom—but in everything, love.
What the New Testament talks about is koin?nia, which means `fellowship’. It’s a kind of intimate relationship that we’re meant to have with God and also with one another. And it cuts across race, colour, education, background—every other cultural barrier. And it leads to a level of friendship which I had never experienced outside the context of the church.
And we need each other. John Wesley said `the New Testament knows nothing of solitary religion’.
There are two things you can’t do alone: you can’t get married alone, and you can’t be a Christian alone! So the writer of Hebrews said: Let’s not give up the habit of meeting together, as some have done. Because if we don’t meet together—this is my experience of watching people who have professed faith in Jesus Christ: unless they meet with other Christians, they find it almost impossible to survive as a Christian.
I heard about one young man who was really struggling. He had come to faith in Christ, but he just found himself drifting away, drifting in doubts and difficulties and losing his faith. And he went to see a wise older man, who lived in a cottage, and there was a fire, a coal fire. And as they were discussing—this young man told this older man about what was going on in his life—the older man didn’t say anything. But he just went to the fire and he took a red-hot coal, with tongs, out of the fire, and he put it on the hearth. And as the young man talked, he just allowed that coal to go from red-hot to black, dark.
And then he got the tongs again and he put the coal back in the fire, and within a few minutes the coal was red-hot again. He didn’t need to say anything. The young man left knowing exactly why his faith had gone dull.
3. THE BODY OF CHRIST
That’s the second reason I love the church: it’s a family, it’s the family of God. Third reason I love the church is the church is the way in which people see Jesus today. It’s the body of Christ.
1 Corinthians 12:27
Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
As John Calvin, the great reformer, sixteenth century reformer, put it: `He calls the church “Christ”.’ Bishop Leslie Newbiggin said, `Jesus Christ never wrote a book; what he did was leave behind a community: the church.’
And what St. Paul is saying here is: `You are the church, and you are Christ to the world.’ So each of you represents Jesus wherever you go—in your family, in your place of work, in your neighbourhood, in your leisure activities.
Every time you feed the hungry, that’s the church doing it. Every time you visit the sick or visit someone in prison, that’s the church.
And Paul develops this analogy of the unity of the body of Christ, but also that unity does not involve uniformity. Look at this room—there’s huge diversity within this room. Each person here is unique and beautifully made. And you have a unique contribution to make to the body of Christ.
So my encouragement to you would be to get involved. Don’t just be a kind of consumer; be a contributor. Don’t just be an attender at church; be a member!
There’s also a kind of mutual dependence in the body. So Paul says: The eye can’t say to the hand, `Oh, well, I don’t need you!’ So what he’s saying is the church needs you. And you need everybody else—you need the church. And together, if everybody’s playing their part, then there’s something really beautiful, like an orchestra where everybody is performing.
That’s the third reason I love the church: it’s the body of Christ.
4. THE BRIDE OF CHRIST
The fourth reason I love the church is because Jesus loves the church! It’s his bride—the church is the bride of Christ!
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.
And then he goes on to talk about the marriage relationship. But then in verse 32 he says this: This is a profound mystery—but —he says, `It looked like I was talking about marriage; actually, he says—but I’m talking about Christ and the church.
And this really sums up everything we’ve been looking at on the Alpha course: because at the heart of Christianity is love. The New Testament tries to use analogies of the closest possible relationship: parent/child. Here it says actually that perhaps the best analogy for this is the love between a husband and a wife: that intimate love. And that is the love that Jesus has for you.
St. Augustine said that `God loves each one of us as if there was only one of us to love.’
And if you had been the only person in the world, Jesus would have died for you. That’s how much he loves you. He laid down his life for the church.
I don’t know about you, but I look at myself and I think I’m not as I really long to be. I want to be different. And Jesus died so that we could become the person that deep down we long to be. And the picture here is of being the bride of Christ.
I love my job! I love being a minister! It’s an amazing job. But one of the things I love most is taking weddings. I haven’t done too many weddings here in Australia – just three in 3 years but in South Africa I did more than 40 weddings each year.
As the service is about to begin, with the bride purposefully late the doors at the back are closed. And then I would go and stand out here. And the bride is at the back; the pages, bridesmaids are all around her. Her parents are there and we would share a prayer.
The bridegroom’s sitting at the front. The bride has spent all day making herself look absolutely beautiful! The bridegroom’s probably spent all day, but it doesn’t look so obvious! I’ve prayed with him and his parents beforehand in the vestry.
At the rehearsal I would say to the groom: `There are two options. You can, as the doors open, turn round and welcome your bride as she comes down the aisle. Or you can stand to attention and wait until she’s level with you at the front. What you mustn’t do is just kind of look over your shoulder, because that’s just shabby. They always choose to turn round rather than stand to attention until she’s level with them.
Then the moment happens, and the music starts, the doors open, and the bride walks down the aisle. And at that moment my glasses mist up—even if I’m taking the wedding, sometimes I start sobbing even! It’s such an amazing moment, because she walks down, a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.
I saw the Holy City—this is a picture of the church—the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.
So is it possible to be a Christian and not go to church? The answer is: we don’t go to church—you are the church.
Jackie Pullinger works in Hong Kong with heroin addicts and with prostitutes. And she told once about a 72-year-old woman called Alfreda. And Alfreda had been a heroin addict for 60 years, and she’d been a prostitute for 60 years.
But she was too old, obviously, to work, and she used to sit outside a brothel and just poke the sewers in this very run-down area with a stick to keep the drains running freely. And she’d inject her back three times a day with heroin, because her legs and her arms, had been overused. She had no identity card, and as far as the Hong Kong government was concerned she didn’t even exist.
A few years ago she gave her life to Christ, and she received forgiveness, and she began to change. And she went to live in one of Jackie’s houses. And to begin with she was quite difficult, but then God started to heal her, and she saw that there were people who were worse off than her, and she began to try and help them. And she changed.
And then she met a man called Little Wa, who was aged 75, and they got married. And Jackie described her wedding as `the wedding of the decade’: because this former prostitute, heroin addict, walked down the aisle, in white, cleansed, forgiven, transformed by the love of Jesus Christ.
And that to me is a picture of the church. There’s only one way into the church, and that’s to say: ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner.’ And the moment we say that, God in his love says: ‘You are part of my people. You’re my family. You’re my representative. You’re my body on earth. You’re a holy temple. My Spirit lives within you. You’re my bride.’