While on vacation in the Sierras a couple of weeks ago we connected with old friends we used to camp with in that area. The wife shared with us some pictures (one of which you can see above, and another further below) that she had taken on a trail we used to hike together. In fact, it was this trail over Potter’s Pass east of Huntington Lake that inspired the theme illustration I use in Finding Church.
What if the church of Jesus Christ is more like wildflowers strewn across an alpine meadow than a walled garden with manicured hedges? Wouldn’t that change everything?
Maybe that’s why people get so frustrated trying to find his church, but they are looking at institutions, or home groups of like-minded people instead of simply loving the people God is bringing into their lives. The church Jesus is building is everywhere! She is not a place or an institution; she is a real, living creation, and if we look for the people who express his reality around us, we’ll find his fingerprints at work. The following is an adaptation from Finding Church.
I realize such a seemingly amorphous view of the church will make many nervous, especially those who think it their God-given duty to manage a group of people on his behalf. The church takes her expression in relationships we have with others who are also following him—local friendships as well as international connections that he knits together.
We’ll first see it reflected in conversations where Jesus makes himself known. Some of those conversations will grow into more enduring friendships that become part of the fabric of our lives as we serve, encourage, and grow together. These friendships will lead to others, and out of that network of friends and friends of friends, God will have all the resources he needs to invite us to agreement in prayer and collaborative actions to fulfill his purposes around us.
Can it really be that simple? This is perhaps the greatest stumbling block to people seeing the church for who she really is. It’s too simple, they think, or too easy. So, they put their trust in the vast array of discordant institutions instead of the present work of Jesus. As we’ll see, finding those connections is difficult only because it is far easier than we dare to believe. In fact, you probably have those growing connections with people, even in the congregation you attend or have attended. I’m only suggesting that your interaction with them expresses more freely the life of the church than sitting in a pew watching the staged activity up front.
Admittedly this discussion about church is not easy to have. Most people want simple, clear answers to heavily nuanced realities. It would be easier to say that all religious institutions are bad, and smaller, more informal groups are good, except that it isn’t true. If we just had an organization that represented the one, true church led by the right people then we would know who is in and who is out, except that every group who has ever tried it has ended up arrogant and abusive in trying to keep it pure.
So, we are going to have to make a distinction in our minds between the church that humanity has attempted to build for two thousand years, and the community of the new creation that Jesus is building. They are not the same, though they can gloriously overlap on occasion. It’s just that our conformity-based structures cannot produce the internal transformation necessary for his church to take shape among us.
And as much as we have to see how our congregational doctrines, rituals, and structures can fail us, I’m not saying they are evil. This isn’t a matter of whether these are good or bad, but how we use them. If they enhance our growing relationship with God, great! It’s when they become a substitute for the relationship we lack that they are problematic.
I agree with the theology of the historic creeds and reading them inspires me. It is not our mental assent that’s important, however, but living inside the truth they espouse. Likewise, ritual can open our hearts into a wider world and help us reflect on him, or it can become meaningless repetition that only makes us feel more distant from the Living God. I’m not against structure, which is incredibly valuable whenever it gives shape to what Jesus is doing among a group of people. Everything I do has structure, from the books I publish, to the travel I arrange, to our work in Africa with orphans and widows. Structure is essential to coordinate people to accomplish specific tasks, but history shows us that no group structure can successfully reflect the life of Jesus’ church for very long. It happens subtly but, over time, people end up serving the structure. They become dependent on it, instead of following him.
In the end, however, no creed, ritual, or structure can contain the church Jesus is building. And strangely enough, neither do any of those things exclude the possibility of his church taking shape among them. Because the church finds expression wherever people are learning to live alongside Jesus in the new creation, it can appear almost anywhere at any moment.
The church isn’t something we can plant or build; we can only recognize it and make room in our hearts when she appears.
This book contains everything I believe about the church Jesus is building. I hope it is helping people get their eyes off the failed attempts of humanity’s doing, and see how Jesus is marvelously putting his church together through the interconnected friendships of people who are growing to know him. Whether or not that ever coalesces into a weekly meeting isn’t what’s important. It’s learning to be loved and to love others the same way. He has everything he needs to bring that family into fullness and life. It’s always been his job, not ours. And, I don’t have to participate in anything that is morally broken, condemning, or bound to obligation just because others call it “a church.”
I love being able to celebrate her reality wherever she takes shape around me, and I find her more breathtaking than any wildflower vista, whether it be in a conversation, a growing friendship, or a weekly gathering of people wanting to follow him. Our task is only to recognize her when she’s there, and cooperate with his working however he may ask us to do so. There we will find community enough, mission enough, and discipleship enough!
You can get Finding Church in print, e-book or audio. For those who want the printed version for yourself or to give away to others, we are selling them from now through the month of September at a 25% discount ($7.99 per book, plus shipping). For international destinations, please email our office for a price quote, since the online calculator is often wrong.
This weekend I get to wander in his meadow in western Canada (Calgary, AB and Kelowna, BC) to see how his church is taking shape among people there. I’m looking forward to it.