So, what’s my take? To be honest, I don’t think Reveal is saying anything new to many folks out there. I’m only one of many (some of whom you’ll discover if you hop through my sidebar links) who’s been ruminating over how the way we do church today isn’t working all that well. The bottom line is that, as a whole, lives aren’t transforming and the Kingdom-living Jesus and the New Testament writers describe and lived isn’t the norm among us. (For more on my journey and how I arrived here, go here.)
That said, it’s encouraging to me to hear one of the most influential megachurches in the evangelical world come out with data that supports some of that. And I truly believe Hybels and Hawkins have a heart for Jesus and for those who don’t yet know him. That they are willing to even take on a survey like this—and its results—is commendable. And personally, I owe Willow Creek. Some of the material that’s come out of that church over the years proved very helpful to me in my walk with God. And it was through their web site that I found the church we attended in Alabama where I met and got to know some wonderful brother and sisters. And there’s the fact that the likes of John Ortberg and Scot McKnight—two voices I’ve really come to enjoy—are or have been affiliated with them.
But as I watched the videos, I caught myself thinking, They’re not asking the right questions. When I chewed on why I felt that way, I realized it stemmed from the language they were using to describe church: a place to help people become better discipless of Christ, a place to teach people, a place to help people become self-feeders, a place to help people learn to love God and people more. These are all (very) laudable activities and goals, but I can't help but ask, Is that what church is? A place you go to learn how to do these things? An organization or institution that teaches these things? And that’s when I realized why I thought the questions they were asking weren’t the right ones. I don’t think they go deep enough.
If we’re talking about fundamentally rethinking how we “do” church today, why not start with a much more basic question: What is church?
This is a question I’ve been chewing on for over a year. And, while I don’t even pretend to have a firm grasp on it, I have learned at least one thing: In our current church culture, our understanding of “church” is too narrow. It is too often limited in our minds and conversations to a place or an organization, but “church” is much bigger than a building, program, system, institution, structure, organization, set of doctrines or even a way of life: The church is the people of God. We don’t "go" to church; we don’t “do” church; we are the church, the “called out ones.” (I love how Wayne Jacobsen says he can no more go to or leave church than he could go to or leave “Wayne.”)
If I’m reading the Bible right, we people of God are intended to live together in such a way that his Kingdom is naturally manifested here-and-now. It breaks through and becomes visible wherever we go. Church then is the physical and local expression of the Kingdom of God, something that’s always existed to which Jesus gave us entrance (as Dallas Willard puts it). It is the physical and local expression of those wide open spaces of God’s rule of Life, Love and Rule that puts on skins and sheds them as the Kingdom grows. It’s expressed as we live together out of the life that comes as we live in and with Jesus, bearing characteristics such as fellowship, revolutionary mission (towards healing, right-ness, justice, life and reconciliation), always inviting others, deep community—but most of all love. As Jacobsen recently put it, “The best expressions of church life rise out of friends and friends of friends that Jesus connects together. In other words the church is not something we build by our efforts, but rises naturally out of people learning to live in his love and sharing that love with others around them.”
So, church is not a place to go but something we are—something that I'm coming to think of as more like family, combustible reactions and even "slugging" (a form of organic car-pooling here in the D.C. area) than a building or organization. How do we facilitate that kind of living-together and missional living? Now that’s a very, very good question—one I’ve been pondering for some time, and one that I think should be on that clean, white sheet of paper.
I’d add other questions to that paper, too, like: What is the Kingdom? How did Jesus describe it? The early church? What did it look like in the lives of those who’ve lived before us? Where do we see it now? And I’d look again at the purpose of spiritual disciples and spiritual formation—not as programs but ways to help us learn to live our relationship with Jesus. As Dallas Willard puts it, there’s always a danger "that spiritual formation will simply become a new label for old activities--for what we are already doing: worship, hearing the word, community, quiet time, plus a new twist or two such as spiritual direction and so on. Now all of these things are very important. But if spiritual formation merely becomes a new label for things we are already doing, it will leave us right where we are. And the issues of deep inner transformation will remain untouched. And I say with trepidation that there is a real danger of spirituality becoming a field of mere 'expertise,' of academic competence, focused upon 'religious activities.'"
What would happen, I wonder, if we let our concept of "church" develop out of questions like these, out of a serious (re)reading of Scripture, and hearts seeking God and what he is doing in the world here-and-now? Wow. I think it would be beyond our wildest dreams and imagination—just like everything else that has to do with God.