The purpose of the church has always been misunderstood by man.
Perhaps because Jesus ministered to us, individually and generally, we have assumed that the church takes his place and is the means for God to minister to us.
We can go there to receive the sacraments, if they are available.
We can go there for fellowship.
We can go there to polish our self-esteem.
We go there.
Because the church is ours. It belongs to us.
It exists for us.
When has anyone ever stepped over his church’s threshold, gotten down on his knees, and asked, What can I do for you, Father?
You see, we are supposed to be the answer to God’s prayers.
It’s fine if, when we are at church, we pray for something for ourselves.
But that’s not why we are there.
We are there to answer God’s prayers.
In a number of areas of our life that is intertwined with God, there is hidden within them the concept of “The Bill.”
If you are seriously praying for something, and have shown that you are fully aligned with the prayer, sooner or later you will receive a bill from God. It always comes in the form of the last thing you are willing to do for someone else.
The person could be your mother-in-law. Or it could be your former boss who fired you unjustly. Or it could just be the homeless on the sidewalks where you walk.
Someone for whom you feel no empathy, no pity, no compassion: that is the person that God will assign you to help.
And it will be up to you to do this work. Clean a house. Provide needed transportation. Even provide a place to live for a bit.
The thought of it will make you snarl inside. Make bile come up into your throat. Just at the thought of doing it.
It is better if you are aware of the nature of the assignment. Because then, when it arrives on your doorstep you can pat yourself on the back for getting this far in your prayer, and feel the relief that the end of your waiting for your prayer to be answered is in sight.
Just this one, last hurtle.
But these are very specific God-bills. This one time for this one person.
This will be a very specific path that you walk on, following it to the end.
Because the process of paying these bills do have ends. God’s bills do not go on for an infinite amount of time.
It’s there. You surrender to it and perform the task requested. And it’s over.
This is what the church was meant for: to answer God’s prayers.
To give help to those who have no one else to give them help. People that people turn away from because of who they are. How they behave.
How they smell.
God wants every single person on this Earth cared for.
And that is why he created us.
That is why he gave us Jesus. To show us the way. To show us the need and the danger of taking on this kind of work.
Evil does not want the suffering to receive solace. The screams of the tormented is music to its ears.
It’s funny how churches have become places where we actually seal ourselves away from the sounds of suffering. Where we can sit, smugly. Comfortably.
Proud of the ease of our life.
We very much need to reframe how we define the church.
Imagine that in a vast African country, our church is a large tent. What it really is is the place where we store our supplies. Those things that we have brought to Africa to help the people there.
With learning how to plant gardens. And with remedies for illnesses.
With teaching people how to read and write.
And leading them in song.
All sorts of things that will restore the minds, hearts, bodies, and souls of the people there.
That is our church.
No matter where it is located.
It is a supply tent, full of the gifts of God.
That we not only reject giving to those “not like us,” but don’t even give to the members of the church most of the time.
In reality, and for almost its entire history, the church has worked from the motivation of greed.
And forgot entirely that the church is an expression of generosity.
We only want to bring people into the church so there is more money in the plate.
We only want more money in the plate so we can fancify the building or the surrounding gardens.
Or send the minister on a nice vacation.
It’s all for us.
But, in truth, not one bit of it is for us.
We are secondary.
We are emissaries of God whose only purpose is to help others.
We are the living answers to God’s prayers.
As you consider this, think of how small the differences between churches would become.
If we are working side-by-side, shoulder-to-shoulder with others, would we really care about the length of candles? Or on which day Easter is celebrated?
Would we have the energy to bicker and stew and insist on how we are right?
Exhaustion is a very healthy thing for the soul.
While hiking up a mountain, thoughts of self-pity and blame tend to melt away. It’s a very cleansing act.
Shared effort for the sake of others breaks down the barriers that we have spent centuries building up.
Here is another approach:
We all work to provide education to every child, even the disabled. We want them to be exposed to how words work, and how we can measure things, and when Columbus landed on our shores.
We want this because we believe that a person’s life benefits from having knowledge.
Of ordinary things.
But we don’t give a whit about making sure that we are doing what it takes to provide the knowledge of God to everyone that we can reach.
The knowledge of God
is secondary to us.
So why do what it takes to show it to others?
By feeding the hungry.
Clothing the naked.
Visiting those in prison.
Bringing care to the sick.
That is the only knowledge of God people need to know.
That is the meat and potatoes.
Everything else is just dessert.
To sweeten the soul.
Imagine if what the world saw of Christianity was its absolute commitment to service.
To putting Jesus’s works of mercy into action.
Not just a tidbit here and a display how good we are there.
From now on when you come to church, find time to ask God what he wants you to do for him this week.
And the next.
And the next.
You might be surprised by the assignments.
It’s a new kind of exercise.
A spiritual form of discipline.
A real form of discipline this time.
One that could change the world.
For real and in fact.