If I'm at all honest, I was less than excited for the gathering that was about to take place. I got the sense it was going to turn into more of a business meeting than anything else. Which is part of the reason I still hadn't committed to attend. To top it off, I had other important things to check off my to-do-list. The lawn needed to be mowed. My laundry had been sitting unfolded, in the dryer for the past three days. And I hadn't read the book sitting on my night-stand in almost a week. Now seemed like as good a time as any to knock those things out. But, there was the whole matter of dinner. I had to eat sometime and my fridge was full of condiments...just condiments. For that reason, the offer of a free meal was enough to rope me in to the meeting. So, I obliged. I drove myself to the restaurant, pulled into the parking lot, made my way to the door and let out a deep sigh.
Just inside the front door, I joined seven other guys waiting for our table. Eventually, we were ushered to a room separated from the rest of the diners by a barn-style door. Each of us took a seat around a large, round table. We placed our orders and the sound of chatter filled the room. It wasn't long before our meals were placed before us and the silence set in. Once we had cleaned our plates, the silence was broken with a "this is why I brought you all here" speech. Over the next twenty minutes, the discussion focused on some big decisions facing the church--decisions that could make or break it's momentum. The biggest decision being how to embrace the rapid numerical growth we had been experiencing, while staying community oriented.
But then it happened. Just as I thought, the discussion transitioned into more of a lecture on how the church was intended to function--like an organization. Permit me to vent for a minute, but this view of church doesn't sit well with me. It makes me defensive. It sets me on edge. This sort of discussion makes my stomach churn. And that is why I can empathize with those who have such disdain for "organized religion." When we talk about the church as an organization, I can see why so many people become disenchanted. It doesn't come as a surprise, then, that they get the idea church is all about numbers and money. Of course, when this is the picture we paint, they are lead to believe the church is just another business that needs to be lead and managed. Another entity solely governed by democratic procedures and committees bound by capitalist tendencies.
Without even stepping foot in the church we can see that some churches concern themselves, far too much, with self-promotion and growth. We see that they exist to compete with every other church--vying for a bigger share of the market. Their focus has shifted from people to programs, projects and budgets. Which, it seems to me, is why numerous churches have become content stealing sheep instead of finding the ones they have actually lost.
There are also the churches that seem to milk every dollar they can out of their constituents. Passing around the offering plate every time the doors are opened. Churches that charge to use their building--not God's. Churches that nickle and dime the people who's tithes and offerings have purchased each and every brick. Churches claiming that by donating a certain amount of money to purchase new blades for the aviation department's helicopter, will result in the outpouring of God's blessing in your life. While I wish I was exaggerating that example, I'm not! Churches that chain off the entrance to their parking lot because of events taking place nearby. A gesture made worse by the fact that they post sings informing event attenders that use of their parking lot will cost $5 a vehicle. Churches that would rather make a few extra bucks than graciously extend the use of their facilities because they are simply tools for ministry. Luther took offense to similar tactics used by the church--selling indulgences--because he saw it as exploitation of both church goers and the poor. All this money talk gets me wondering. If Jesus proposed the same challenge to churches today as he did to the rich young ruler--sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor--would they oblige, or would they too walk away downtrodden because of their great wealth?
While I don't want to come across as judgmental, these tactics don't belong in the church. With these kind of experiences in mind, it's easy to see why people view the church as just a big box store pedaling religion. And to be honest, I can't really blame them. The unfortunate thing is that this has resulted in droves of people turning their back on Jesus because they don't realize that's not the church he came to build--a church like the one we find in Acts.
In the stories of that early church I see a community united in love. A body that is vibrant and full of life. A gathering where the Gospel was unabashedly proclaimed--not easy to swallow self-help advice. A community where Jesus really was Lord--not a governing hierarchy. A people who gave the Holy Spirit room to move because they weren't constrained by traditions, set lists, transitions, and schedules. A church that, according to Scripture, was adding thousands daily (which in a culture that didn't count women, translated to many more). A church that collected money not to build their own kingdom, but to build the kingdom of God by meeting the needs of the community--understanding everything was a gift to be shared.
I get the feeling Jesus wouldn't care much for the "organized religion" of today--afterall, he didn't think too highly of it in his day. I'm certain his goal was never to establish a non-profit organization. I doubt he was concerned with building a well-oiled institution. And I don't think his focus was to create a smooth running ecclesiastical machine. Numbers didn't impress him. Money wasn't a motivating factor. Bricks and mortar didn't constrain him.
Jesus came to turn our understanding of church--and pretty much life in general--upside down. He came to establish a church that was to be a beacon of hope for the underprivileged, the abused, the burnt out, the lost, and the religiously bankrupt. A church that would be a catalyst to save us from ourselves. A church called to turn the world upside down. A church where the last were first and the first were last. A church that came not to be served, but to serve.
Perhaps the church isn't an organization. Maybe it isn't even an organism. I wonder if the church is just...the church. And maybe the church, like Jesus, defies any label we try to impose upon her. When functioning in all her beauty and grandeur, there has never been and will never be anything quite like the church. But that can't take place as long as we think Jesus came to establish some sort of organization.