West London Alliance Church

01/30/21 - Rob Bell

How I Learned to Love the Church

It was a Sunday. I don’t remember which one. Sometime in the last ten or so months since the pandemic started. (Does anybody remember dates or days of the week at this point? They all blend together.)

But I know this day was a Sunday, because we had just finished watching church as a family, and I was standing in the kitchen making a sandwich for lunch thinking “Did that even count as church? I mean, this sandwich seems more real to me than that did.” And so, I got thinking about what is the church? And how do I participate in it if this is what it looks like for the next while? Most importantly, I didn’t want to feel that numbness about church again, so I prayed and asked God to help me. And He answered and reminded me of the day I fell in love with the church.

What is the Church?

Well, if I remember the song from Sunday School as a child, then the church is not a building. The church is not a steeple. The church is not a resting place. The church is a people. I am the church. You are the church. We are the church together. All who follow Jesus, all around the world, yes we’re the church together.

As simple as it is, that song does have some nuggets of truth. Of course, now that I’m grown up, I can point to some better conceptions of the “marks” of the true church. Those things that make church, well, church. There have been many summaries of these marks written throughout the history of the church:

The Nicene Creed (381 AD) listed four marks of a church that dealt with false teachers and splits that were arising in the church. They were that the church is: one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.

The Belgic Confession (1559 AD) lists three marks of a church, dealing with the serious moral, spiritual and biblical decline in the Roman Catholic church throughout the middle ages. They listed the preaching of the gospel, the administration of the sacraments (baptism and communion) as Christ instituted them, and the practice of church discipline for correcting faults. For a summary, consider this article by Robert Godfrey.

The 9 Marks of a Healthy Church, by Mark Dever. Dever lists 9 factors that contribute to a healthy church: Preaching, Biblical Theology, The Gospel, Conversion, Evangelism, Membership, Discipline, Discipleship and Leadership.

If you want a short little article, consider this TGC blog post by Justin Taylor from 2018.

For me, though, I’ve been thinking of the church recently in terms of the Apostle’s Creed, since we are all busy memorizing it in our household. Specifically, this line: “We believe in…the holy catholic church.” I’m learning it in ancient Greek, so it looks like this: ἁγίαν καθολικὴν ἐκκλησίαν 

To break down the words:

ἁγίαν (“hag-EE-an”) – holy, sacred, other, different, set apart by God. A derived holiness, as we are made holy because Christ is holy. 

καθολικὴν (“ka-tho-li-KAYN”) – catholic with a small “c” (not Roman Catholic), general, universal. From kata = “according to” and olos = “the whole”.

ἐκκλησίαν (“ek-klay-SEE-an”) – church, set apart, called out. From ek = “out” and kaleo = “called”.

So, there is something different about the church. We’ve been set apart and called out from the world and our former ways of life to be made holy, and built together into one group, one whole. 

The Day I Started to Love the Church

So, as I stood there eating my sandwich all those weeks ago, pondering how “internet” church could fill the void for the next few months, God brought me back in time to a moment at church many years ago when a sentence changed my heart for the church in an instant. You see, I grew up in a church, in a Christian home. I came to Christ when I was 4 years old. We were part of a church plant, and I did all sorts of things to help make that church run – I helped unpack and repack all of our materials from the school storage areas that we rented every week. I carried Sunday School materials on a dolly around to all of the classrooms before classes started. I slid the lyrics up and down on the overhead projector during worship time. I eventually could set up and run and take down the sound system. We were always innovating. Always coming up with new ways to make things run smoother. And I am good at that. But what I hadn’t noticed was that I had also let myself slip from analysing the church to criticizing the church. All in the name of making it run better.

Oh, if you asked me, I would say that I “love” the church. But only in the same way that people “love” that neighbour down the street that they talk about behind their back. Or “love” those family members that they always nitpick. Or “love” that boss that they criticize to their colleagues. Oh yeah, I “loved” the church…if only they would listen to my opinion more, or fit things more to my style.

Which brings me to a day when I was sitting in my pastor’s office, asking him about becoming a pastor, and what it would take. We talked for hours, and he said a number of things to me that day, but at one point he started listing what you need to be a pastor, and he said this sentence: “You need to love the church.” That’s it. It wasn’t revolutionary. It wasn’t profound. It was actually kind of “matter of fact” and squeezed into a longer list of things pastors must do. 

But the Holy Spirit took those few words and hit me like a ton of bricks. I don’t know if you have experienced something like that before – an instantaneous, radical shift in perception. If you have, then you know how I felt. It was like someone snapped their fingers and my whole conception of the church changed. I had been wanting the church to serve my needs. I had been asking the church to be to me what only God can be to me – satisfying. I recognized that I had sinned in my thinking about the church and went home and repented that evening.

I had forgotten that all of us in church have been called out of this world and away from a life of sin by God. And yet, I am still the worst sinner I know. I am still in progress, still being made holy, like my Heavenly Father is holy. And what’s more, we sinners are not just called out, but called out together, to be with each other and bear each other’s burdens as we are sanctified (ἁγιασμός “hag-ee-as-MOS” = holy-fied) as we progress toward that holiness that we will only fully achieve in eternity. I had expected the church to be “already there” when we still have so far to go. I had put a burden on the church that it could never bear – I had expected the church to be already holy, to be perfect, to be God.

And so, eating that sandwich so many years later, God reminded me not to expect staring at a screen each week for church to “meet my needs”, but to ask my Heavenly Father to meet my needs every morning. For mercy and grace when I’m lonely or tired or overwhelmed or frustrated. To be satisfied in His Word, and in Jesus Christ the Word Incarnate. To be filled with the Holy Spirit to serve Him as I serve others. To remember that I love God’s church, His bride. 

And I long to be with you all again as one whole.

Soon, right? 

Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.” And this word is the good news that was preached to you.

1 Peter 1:22-25

Comment

On Sunday, January 31, 2021, Don and Helen Heinrichs said:

Thank you Rob for sharing your story. I needed that reminder of what the church really is, especially in this season. We are so thankful to still do church on line. I heard a new word that's come about during the pandemic when it is hard to remember what day it is...Blursday. Thanks..

 

On Saturday, January 30, 2021, Agnes M McCaffery said:

Thank you Rob. And thank you to all of the elders, pastors, servants of our great God. I am praying for all of you and all of us. Soon indeed!

 

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