From Follow Me
The room was packed full of people, and the preacher held the audience in the palm of his hand. I would like everyone to bow your heads and close your eyes, he said, and we all followed suit.
He then declared, Tonight, I want to call you to put your faith in God. Tonight, I am urging you to begin a personal relationship with Jesus for the first time in your life. Let me be clear, he said, I’m not inviting you to join the church. I’m just inviting you to come to Christ. As the preacher passionately pleaded for personal decisions, scores of people stood from their seats and walked down the aisles of the auditorium to make a commitment to Christ.
Yet there was a problem in all of this. These people had been deceived. They had been told that it is possible to make a commitment to Christ apart from a commitment to the church. The reality, however, is that it’s Biblically impossible to follow Christ apart from joining his church. In fact, anyone who claims to be a Christian yet is not an active member of a church may not actually be a follower of Christ at all.
To some, maybe many, this may sound heretical. Are you saying that joining a church makes someone a Christian? you might ask. Absolutely not. Joining a church most certainly does not make someone a Christian.
At the same time, to identify your life with the person of Christ is to join your life with the people of Christ. To surrender your life to his commands is to commit your life to his church. It is Biblically, spiritually, and practically impossible to be a disciple of Christ (and much less make disciples of Christ) apart from total devotion to a family of Christians.
But so many people think it is possible – and they try to live like it’s possible. It has even become a mark of spiritual maturity today for some professing Christians to not be active in a church. I’m in love with Jesus, people will say, but I just can’t stand the church.
Isn’t the church the bride of Christ? What if I said to you, Man, I love you, but have I ever told you how much I can’t stand your wife? Would you take that as a compliment?
Similarly, isn’t the church the body of Christ? What if my wife said to me, David, I love you, but I can’t stand your body? I can assure you that I wouldn’t take that as a compliment.
It’s impossible to follow Jesus fully without loving his bride selflessly, and it’s impossible to think that we can enjoy Christ apart from his body. Jesus goes so far as to identify the church with himself when he asks Saul on the road to Damascus, Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? Saul hadn’t persecuted Christ himself, but he had persecuted Christians, so in essence Jesus was saying, When you mess with them, you mess with me.
To come to Christ is to become part of his church. Followers of Jesus have the privilege of being identified with his family. As we die to ourselves, we live for others, and everything Christ does in us begins to affect everyone Christ puts around us. Recognizing this reality and experiencing the relationships that God has designed for his people specifically in the church are essential to being a disciple and making disciples of all nations.
WHAT IS THE CHURCH?
Unfortunately, as we have diluted what it means to be a Christian in our day, we have also skewed what it means to be a church. The majority of people in America associate a church with a physical building.
Where is your church? people may ask, or Where do you go to church? It is common today for a pastor to spend millions of dollars renovating and rebuilding his “church.” Construction teams of Christians travel overseas to impoverished countries to build “churches.” Planting a “church” in our day has become almost synonymous with finding or erecting a building.
We not only identify buildings as churches; we also classify churches according to the programs they offer. This church has a creative children’s program, that church has a cool student ministry, these churches have great resources for married couples, and those churches have helpful group meetings for people who are divorced. Churches often revolve around programs for every age and stage of life.
Association and identification of the church with buildings and programs reflects an overtly consumer-driven, customer-designed approach that we have devised for attracting people to the “church.” In order to have an effective, successful “church,” we need an accessible building with nice grounds and convenient parking. Once people get to the building, we need programs that are customized for people’s children, music that is attractive to people’s tastes, and sermons that are aimed at people’s needs. When taken to the extreme, this means that when people come to “church,” they need a nice parking space, a latte waiting for them when they walk through the door, a themed preschool ministry with a custom-built slide, a state-of-the-art program that provides entertainment for teenagers, a top-notch band that plays great music, and a feel-good presentation by an excellent preacher who wraps things up in a timely fashion at the end of the morning.
But is all of this what God had in mind when he set up his church? Better put, is any of this what God had in mind when he set up his church? Identification of churches with buildings may seem common to us, but it’s foreign to the New Testament, where we never once see the church described as a physical building. Similarly, the New Testament never once portrays the church as a conglomeration of customized programs. So much of what we associate with the church today is extrabiblical at best (it adds to what God’s Word says) and unbiblical at worst (it undercuts what God’s Word says).
When you turn through the pages of the New Testament, you see a very different picture of the church. Instead of a building, you see a body made up of members and a family made up of brothers and sisters who together have died to themselves and are living in Christ. Christians are joined together by Jesus’s death, his Spirit, his gospel, his sufferings, and his life. Biblically, a church does not consist of people who simply park and participate in programs alongside one another. Instead, the church is comprised by people who share the life of Christ with each other on a day-by-day, week-by-week basis.
This is the pattern that was set between Jesus and his disciples from the beginning. Jesus loved these twelve men, served them, taught them, encouraged them, corrected them, and journeys through life with them. He spent more time with these twelve disciples than he did with everyone else in his ministry put together. They walked together along lonely roads; they visited together in crowded cities; they sailed and fished together on the Sea of Galilee; they prayed together in the desert and on the mountains; and they worshiped together in the synagogues and at the Temple. During all of this time together, Jesus taught them how to live and showed them how to love as he shared his life with them.
In the same way, the New Testament envisions followers of Jesus living alongside one another for the sake of one another. The Bible portrays the church as a community of Christians who care for one another, love one another, host one another, receive one another, honor one another, serve one another, instruct one another, forgive one another, motivate one another, build up one another, encourage one another, comfort one another, pray for one another, confess sin to one another, esteem one another, edify one another, teach one another, show kindness to one another, give to one another, rejoice with one another, weep with one another, hurt with one another, and restore one another.
All of these “one anothers” combined together paint a picture not of people who come to a building filled with customized programs but of people who have decided to lay down their lives to love one another. On behalf of Silas, Timothy, and himself, Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica. We live, if you are standing fast in the Lord. Paul, Silas, and Timothy had given their lives to see these Christians stand firm in Christ. Similarly, he called the Philippian Christians “brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown.” The church is a community of Christians who love one another and long for each other to know and grow in Christ.