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Decoding the Bible

Does Christianity need churches?

By Orville James

For a lot of people, the answer to this question is a no-brainer — but a polarized no-brainer. Some say yes; some no.

There are many who would declare unequivocally: “No. We don’t need churches; they’re irrelevant and a waste of resources.” Many of those voices are militant atheists who want to crush organized religion into the dust of history.

However, some who hope for the extinction of churches are actually Christ followers. They are so passionate in their discipleship and so frustrated and disillusioned with their experience of church that they want to trash the past and start again. They are appalled by the property and wealth accumulated by Christendom over the centuries; they are frustrated with the cumbersome organizations and elaborate traditions that have developed. They want to go back to when Christianity was fresh, new and unencumbered by the weight of buildings and bureaucracy. They want to live out intimate friendships with Jesus, and prophetic action for the justice and fairness of the reign of God. Are they right?

Let’s briefly acknowledge that Christianity doesn’t need buildings. They have their place and can be a tool, but the Christian faith can easily survive without them. Witness the house churches all over China and Latin America, or the open-air gatherings in African villages where God’s people worship and celebrate together. Church buildings can have some value; they can be a wonderful asset for worship, education, service and ministry when well-used by a vibrant community. But buildings are not essential.

Christianity had no buildings in the first century. Yet, from very early in the game, Christ’s followers called their gatherings “church.” “I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). Leaving aside any debate about the origins of that declaration (Jesus? Matthew? the early Christian community?), church was not a building, but a movement of people who were deliberately different from the society around them. The biblical word for church is ecclesia, which implies “called out” or “separated from.” Jesus’ followers, almost from day one, became a distinct and different society within that ancient Roman Empire.

And what a difference they made. They altered the trajectory of humanity. There are few pieces of Christian literature more exciting to read than the book of Acts. We see a fledgling movement, empowered by the supernatural presence of the Holy Spirit, living out the grace and love of Jesus. With hope, compassion, generosity and an unshakable faith, they became the church. “All the believers were one in heart and mind . . . they shared everything they had. With great power, the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all” (Acts 4:32-33).

We know that this cluster of Christ followers, starting from Jerusalem, began to ripple out through the nations and cultures around them, so that within a few centuries the understanding of God had changed, unjust patterns in human relationships were being altered and the lives of millions were improved.

Does Christianity need churches? I say yes. At its best, the church is the exciting frontier of the reign of God. I echo American mega-church pastor Bill Hybels, who declares, “There’s nothing like the local church, when the local church is working right.” In the context of community, it comforts the grieving and heals the broken. It builds bridges to the spiritually wandering and offers truth to the confused. It provides resources for those in need and opens its arms to the forgotten, the downtrodden and the disillusioned. It breaks the chains of addictions, frees the oppressed and offers belonging to the marginalized. Whatever the capacity for human suffering, the church has a greater capacity for healing and wholeness. No other organization on Earth is like the church. Nothing even comes close.

Our challenge is to renew our churches so that they are centres of life transformation and indispensable to the society around them.

Sandy Millar, an Anglican priest in England, says, “Sometime, in some place, there has to be a body of people who are committed to living out the life of Christ in sincere and pure devotion to him, reaching out to the people of the world in his name to offer them not criticism, but a better way of life and an unconditional love through an incomparable Saviour. They have traditionally been called the church. In this generation why shouldn’t they be us?”

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The author is baptized at Central United in Calgary. (Photo courtesy of Al Coe)

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