“Where do you go to church?”

Inevitably I get asked this question whenever running into people who are likely Christian but don’t know me well. For some time now, I’ve been conducting a kind of experiment with my response, which goes something like “Not really going to church; just focusing on being the church.” After the wrinkled foreheads straighten and the dazed looks clear, most have no clue what I just said. In all fairness, however, I did answer a different kind of question.

Naturally, those interlocutors (or should I say “interrogators?”) merely want to find a category in which to put me. They want to know what kind of Christian I am. Given that Christianity has been so fragmented over the centuries (charismatic, non-charismatic, Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox, Catholic, etc.), not to mention our pluralistic society lending itself to every conceivable religious flavor these days (just look at Eckhart Tolle and Oprah!), people likely want to know what box I fit into when finding that I’m Christian. After all, “mere Christianity” after the manner in which C. S. Lewis intended has been eclipsed by relativism and historical ignorance and it no longer gives folks enough of a handle.

But I have to ask: “What is the Church?” On the one hand, it seems we have become so reductionistic that church is simply an aggregate of bodies, bucks, and buildings; an organization that is institutionalized by paid professionals with a tax-exempt status. On the other, we narrowly define church by our specified experiences of it within a localized, privitized, customized, denominationized weekly gathering.

As I read the New Testament, “church” refers to “the people of God,” whether locally or globally expressed. Metaphors referring to the Church include the “body” (Colossians 1:18), “temple” (Ephesians 2:20-21), “virgin” (2 Corinthians 11:2), “bride” (Revelation 21:9), “people” (Titus 2:14), “flock” (1 Peter 5:2-4), “household” (Ephesians 2:19), “one new man” (Ephesians 2:15), “chosen people, holy nation, royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9), “Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16), etc.

Given this data, I doubt anyone in the first century would even ask another “Where do you go to church?” Neither would anyone ask this question today of believers in China or Afghanistan. This is because the term “church” was and is an identity to hold; not a place to go.

Rather than ask “Where do you go to church?” why hasn’t anyone ever asked “How are you focusing on being the Church?”

12 thoughts on ““Where do you go to church?””

  1. Paul,
    As I see it, the first century church did not neglect the practice of meeting together for prayer and teaching. The writer of Hebrews encourages us to not give up meeting together. That’s why the local church exists today; that’s what the local church is for most of us. That’s where they received mutual encouragement amidst their persecutions, where they received sound teaching, and where they encouraged each other in worship and praise.

    You may receive that in non-church groups you get together with, but
    most of us don’t. The local church, being the only community of believers that most of us are associated with, is critical to our Christian walks. You mention Chinese believers — if the local church isn’t important to them, why are they risking it all to be part of house churches? Whenever believers around the world can meet together, they do. And wherever they meet, they call it a church.

    So be careful telling people that they can “be the church” without being part of a community of believers where they can be taught, worship, and utilize their Spirit-given gifts. If they are not receiving instruction and encouragement, they will wither. If they are not worshipping God, they will lose the perspective of who God is compared to themselves. If they are not utilizing their gifts for the edification of the Body of Christ, they are outside of God’s will. I know people who don’t go to church and have no fellowship with other believers, and they are, for all practical purposes, spiritually dead.

    The local church is an outgrowth of the first century gathering of
    believers. Yes, the church in America has grown into an administrative behemoth and has theological (and other) issues. But it still is a huge part of God’s plan for humanity, so don’t fight too hard against it. If you are receiving your spiritual nourishment from others outside of the church, thank God for that grace and provision. But please don’t assume that all of us can take that path and stay firm in our faith — most of us can’t.

  2. Thanks, bradcolosprgs. Sincerely appreciate the sense of balance your response brings. I can hardly disagree on any part. I do, however, wish to clarify a few points that I made in my initial post and offer some response to your points.

    First, that most don’t get mutual encouragement, sound teaching, etc. outside of non-church groups is more a reflection of those groups missing the mark, not necessarily on church-related activities always getting it right in these areas. Ironically, one can be regularly in church and miss these elements as well.

    Second, granted that the local church is critical to our walk in faith; indeed it should be. But when the local church has actually hurt our walk, then it’s time to reassess. This is not to say we should throw the baby out with the bathwater and walk away from local churches altogether. But we musn’t tie our walk so closely to activity/attendance in a local church that we lose sight of our individual responsibilities to be disciples of Christ. Let me explain further.

    I’ve known too many who live and breathe for their church’s mission/vision/values; so much so that they have no idea how to be ministers of the Gospel on their own. Like sheep without a Shepherd, they are aimlessly wandering through life unless they have some connection to/through/under/with a local church. Consequently, the local church has become for them a one-stop-shop for all things spiritual and they’ve no idea how to integrate their faith into their daily lives. Sad state of affairs. In some respects these are merely products of a local church whose mis-guided focus seems to be a “all things to all people” ministry at the expense of being “nothing to anyone who isn’t regularly attending all church-sponsored activities.” A primary task of every local church is to teach its people how to live out their faith in the world, rather than socialize them in the church. A prime example of this is evangelicals having their own lingua franca such that biblical concepts cannot be effectively communicated to the unchurched.

    Third, you’re spot on when you say that one cannot “be the church” without being a part of a biblical community. As you mention earlier, the first century church met together regularly and it is essential to our walk to do so (Heb. 10:45). Whether or not that biblical community looks and feels like a traditional, local church as we’ve come to know it, however, is questionable. Regardless, the activities you mention in your “if they are not…” propositions are a direct hit and I could never disagree. Ironically, one can go to a local church and never engage in those activities too. If so, then a local, traditional church may be sufficient but not necessary unto those ends.

    Fourth, that the local church is an outgrowth of the first century gathering is equally true and is part of God’s plan for humanity. No arguments here. And so, I could never assume most should/could take the path of finding biblical community and nourishment outside the local church. It would, at least, be legalistic of me to do so.

    At present, this path has been the one that I am on and it’s given me time to reflect on all things “church,” and given me time to write posts about it. Whether I remain on this path or get back into the mainstream of things remains to be seen … and prayed about. I never intend to be a maverick believer slamming others whose (biblically faithful) practices are “other” than my own. Shame on me if I do.

  3. Okay.

    I think all would agree it’s crucial to having a ‘home’ church one goes to weekly, involving a community of flesh and blood believers of whom we are ‘relational’ with. After all, pursuit of a genuine ‘relationship’ with Christ is done through ‘relationships’ with others sharing a desire to be more like Christ.

    (catching the key word?)

    But I also think we must be… oh… organic in our approach and perception of what form this may take. Organized or organic, the impact can be the same. Reason being: God’s present when we meet and worship together for His glory (Matt 18:20). Now, I do feel it’s crucial to be culturally relevant as we walk with the Lord, in our pursuit of others… and with others… for His glory.

    BIBLICAL COMMUNITY

    I’m one who’s currently frustrated with America’s traditional church mentality. Being… if you don’t go to A church, then you’re not really a ‘Christian’… or the like. But, where my frustration actually lies is in the individuals maturity… and often judgment of others. And I’m no acception. So, with that said, it’s not the fact that the same Gospel being shared in the church building across the street from the other. It’s the immaturity, stubbornness and pride that’s driven brothers and sisters in Christ to divide over the little things. Like where to meet, how to worship, etc.

    We simply need to align with the word of God in our pursuit of a healthy, biblically grounded palatable church. There are plenty of options out there! Ha!!

    Seriously though. Focusing on what church building we meet in, or don’t, is beside the point. It’s not only, “How are you focusing on being the Church?”, but it’s “Who are you focusing on being the church with?”

    Let’s be the body, and not various isolated cells trying to get the rest of the body to abide to a certain template of community… we’re drawn to. There are plenty of believers to walk with who feel the same way I do concerning frustrations with the ‘organized church’ of today. But, there should never be division in this. We need to be allies in Christ regardless on where we meet, or how many. After all, ’tis a battle we’re in here, and our forces must be united.

    ISOLATION

    Intellectual growth can be accomplished in isolation, but one can’t be sharpened alone (even as a believer). I’m seriously crippling myself if I’m going with what my brain produces 95% of the time. If all we hear is our voice, then we’re severely limiting our perception of what God’s wanting us to learn from his word, thru Christ… and in tandem with the experiential growth found by way of community.

    That’s all I have. Many avenues to go down, would rather be more thorough, but best stop there. Thanks all, and I’m loving your blog Paul! Good input Brad.

  4. Interesting discussion. . .BTW I work alongside Brad from CO Springs – he encouraged I visit here.

    Through the years we have attended both local churches and military chapels and currently attend a military chapel on Ft. Carson in the Springs. We have always felt that church/chapel attendance was important. At some point in time (I cannot remember when exactly) there was a change in ‘choosing’ the specific fellowship. When we moved to a new location the question became “Where would you have us serve You in this place?” instead of looking for a place that primarily met our growth needs (or perceived needs).

    We have grown spiritually in both the local church/chapel context and in small groups/fellowship outside the local intsittution. Which context provided the most significant spiritual growth has shifted back and forth understandably.

    Just thought I would toss that in……it’s been a nice visit!

  5. Justin:
    Thanks for your post. Without question, Christianity is “relational” at and to the core. Indeed, that is what makes it stand over and above all other world religions and displays Christ to the world (John 17). That said, we desperately need a community of others surrounding us with biblical truth, encouragement, accountability, etc.

    You mention an interesting dichotomy “organized or organic.” Why not both? Is it possible the “church” can be both organic (non-traditional, spontaneously meeting together, encouraging one another, as the Spirit moves) and organized (intentionally meeting together and ordered by precepts of Scripture)?
    [I see no real contradiction between “spontaniety” and “intentionality”. We can be intentionally spontaneous.]

    I agree that intellectual growth can be accomplished in isolation, but this will not produce the mature believer God intends. VERY good point here! Sadly, I know too many who are not connected to others in community (see my post The Blessing of Giving: A New Kind of [Christian] Egoism).

  6. Welcome born4battle and thanks for your note!

    The point re: praying for God to direct how to server rather than merely finding a church that meets your needs is an important one. If fact, I would suggest that a church where we serve with our gifts is the church that meets our needs. After all, we’re intelligently and spiritually designed to serve the Body (1 Cor. 12:7, Eph. 4:7 and 1 Pt. 4:10 come to mind). And, there’s a kind of beautiful reciprocity involved when we serve others for Christ. As Proverbs 11:25 has it:

    A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed.

    Speaking of serving and ministry, it was quite the ministry sitting next to Brad for years (wink), but a joyful one! He’s a dear brother.

  7. Hello Paul,

    I have a little time to post here at your kind invitation. The topic under discussion is huge and can be addressed from many angles. I’ll start with perhaps one of those many angles and will no doubt leave many areas unaddressed and holes that need to be filled. I hope to toss out some further thoughts concerning different angles in future responses, time permitting.

    Okay, it seems that there are two main questions that are being discussed:

    1. What is the church?

    2. What does it mean to “be the church”?

    The two questions to me are related in that you can’t answer one without answering the other. I don’t see how one can be the church without knowing what it is that identifies and distinguishes people in this group called the church from others who are not.

    I often encounter that when people begin the discussion about what the church (ekklesia) is, NT passages such as Matt. Matt. 16:18, 18:15-20, Acts 2:47, or many other passages which refer to God’s ekklesia (congregation, assembly,gathering)are ordinarily the starting point, without at least some consideration of the OT background and Hebrew thinking that these NT passages are soaked in. I’ve done that many times myself.

    In Acts 7:38, where Stpehen makes his speech before the Jewish council, he refers to God’s old covenant people of Israel in the wilderness as the ekkelsia/congreagation/assembly/church, who were given oracles from God through Moses.

    A search in the Septuagint in a good computer progarm of various forms of the word ekklesia will show that such an idea of God’s church/congregation/assmebly is well-attested to thoughut the OT (Dt. 9:10, 18:16, 23:2-4, among dozens of others in the LXX). I only bring this point up so that when discussions about what the church in the new covenant actually is, that such background passges are brought to bear to better fill out the discussion in arriving at well-informed conclusions. Also, It tells me that I need to recognize that the NT writers who were soaked in the OT scriptures were bringing this background to the table in their discussions/writings concerning the new covenant/new testament church

    Paul, in your May 19 blog you said:

    [As I read the New Testament, “church” refers to “the people of God,” whether locally or globally expressed. Metaphors referring to the Church include the “body” (Colossians 1:18), “temple” (Ephesians 2:20-21), “virgin” (2 Corinthians 11:2), “bride” (Revelation 21:9), “people” (Titus 2:14), “flock” (1 Peter 5:2-4), “household” (Ephesians 2:19), “one new man” (Ephesians 2:15), “chosen people, holy nation, royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9), “Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16), etc.]

    I love it, because you are pointing to NT scriptures that use OT Hebrew/Israel terms to describe the new covenant church. In saying this, I fully acknowledge that the NT writers are using such terms and redefining them to refer to a new ekklesia/Israel/assmebly made in Christ, the new and better Israel (see Matt. 2:15 quoting Hos. 11:1).

    Just a side note. Awile back I attempted to translate 1 Kings 6 from Hebrew to English concerning the construction of Solomon’s temple. It was intersting that many of the Hebrew words referred and or alluded to various body part such as shoulder, rib, mouth, eyes, speaking, etc. that modern English translations don’t render as such, losing much beauty and imagery in the process of relating the temple to a human body, which represented the larger body/assembly of God’s people, the true temple (1 Cor. 6:19). I lean towards the idea that the human body pictured in 1 Kings 6 is female, as the Lord’s covenant bride, but that is merely my speculation.

    When Jesus refers to church discipline in Matt. 18:15-20, He is not speaking of anything completely unheard of by his original hearers. At a minimum, he at least has the background of established assmebly discipline and restoration of the synagogue congregation,where Jesus often expounded the scriptures. Perhpas Jesus himself, as a recognized teacher in the synagogue, at some level had a hand in such cases in his congregations. The idea of the OT Jews worshipping on the Sabbath (and perhaps other appointed times) in such smaller gatherings that were taught by and overseen originally by Levites seems to have some OT support (Lev. 23:3, Dt. 27:14, Neh. 8:7-9), though not all the details in scripture are totally clear.

    So, what does this mean in regards to begin to answer these two questions?

    Well, maybe to begin, the NT ekklesia is a particular, distinguishable, and identifiable assembly of people that is in covenant with the Triune God and has covenantal obligations to love, worship, and obey Him as well as to love and serve the world at large as His new priests to bless/disciple/batpize the nations (Gen 12:3, Matt. 28:19-20).

    God’s NT ekklesia has it’s infant covenantal roots going back to Abraham (Gal. 3:9) and I would argue all the way back to first family in the Land of Eden (Gen, 4:3-4)and originally in the Garden prior to the fall, as the Garden was a place where man could eat a meal in God’s presence and hear Him speak wisdom to him (Gen. 2:16-25.

    While what I have said thus far can and should be unpacked in more detail later, I would suggest that it would serve Christians well to ponder the wisdom of the covenantal, liturgical, celebratory, and Israel language from the OT that the NT writers used and reworked to apply to the new covenant church made in Christ, as well as the richness of such symbolism (2 Tim. 3:16 likely originally referred to the OT scriptures in it’s original context from Paul’s perspective)in applying it to the time which we live in today.

    More to follow, time permitting. Many matters and implications I left unaddressed and hanging loose.

  8. Outstanding, Ken. Excellent analysis and insights re: defining God’s church. Particularly..
    “…the NT ekklesia is a particular, distinguishable, and identifiable assembly of people that is in covenant with the Triune God and has covenantal obligations to love, worship, and obey Him as well as to love and serve the world at large as His new priests to bless/disciple/batpize the nations (Gen 12:3, Matt. 28:19-20).”

    This is rich and has the makings of a thesis statement. Of course, you recognize this in your closing remarks. What I particularly appreciate in the quote above is your call to connect with the world outside of the Church. Would to God that we capture this vision!

    Without question, we (the Church in North America at least) appear to be historically illiterate and biblically uninformed on the OT background that gives the footing necessary to understanding what it means to be the Church. And, as you say in the beginning, we cannot be what we do not understand. It’s like saying “I’m a Parisian” but hating French food and wine!

  9. Hey Paul!I do appreciate your point, but the evidence from the NT indicates that people would have readily understood the question, “To which church do you belong?” Romans 16 Paul names three distinct house churches in Rome, in v. 3, v. 14 and v. 16. Same in Philemon 2.

  10. Ah…I see, Gary. Thanks so much for mentioning. While the principle remains, the details could use some fine tuning for sure. I really should adjust and perhaps even expand this post into a series on “going to church” or something. Someday. Sometime. Some….

    Sincerely appreciate you taking the time to read, my friend.
    Pura Vida!

  11. There is part of me that wishes going to church genuinely reflected the concept of one person sharpening another. The very act conjures a picture of sparks flying and unneeded shards lying on the floor. A worthy picture of what is supposed to happen during times of believers meeting. A good teacher of mine once reflected that “church” is supposed to be all about really just two things: edification and evangelism. In both instances, IF it’s just an extended Kum ba yah session, it’s not very useful. In other words (in my opinion) a church (home church, non denominational, large, small, charismatic, non-charismatic, Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox…) that has become an echo-chamber of ideas that are never in conflict is not only boring, but fundamentally flawed for both edification and evangelism.

    Best Bible study I have ever experienced is a group of men who get together weekly at a local private club downtown (like the clubhouse of a golf course or something, just without the golf course) and talk scripture while sipping whiskey and smoking cigars. There’s a young Catholic dude, an old Episcopal priest, a Presbyterian deacon, a retired Philly cop, an Army vet, a unitarian lawyer, a computer programmer from Compassion International, an atheist who comes around sometimes, a brand new believer who can’t spell the word theology, and a host of other sin marred souls. Bottom line… the lack of homogenous thought is a tremendous benefit (and the whiskey doesn’t hurt either).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *