Friday, April 24, 2015

What is Church?



     In December, 2009 My wife and I made a life changing decision.  We moved from our apartment, friends, and several levels of defined “family”, which included our church family, to the other end of the world, culturally. New Port Richey Florida.
     Yes, they speak English in NPR – in fact, it more resembles the American English I was used to than the Pittsburghese I often needed to have translated in my former home of about five years. My wife had lived there far longer, so while she refused to adopt certain of the native idioms, she could at least translate them for me.  Our move was to become live-in care givers for her mother, who went home to be with the Lord on March 28th of this year, ten months to the day following my mother’s home going in Miami the previous May.
     It was a decision easily made and fearfully made for reasons not necessary to the telling of this tale. The easy part was because of my stroke and the evidentiary proof that has supported the premise because of my continuing physical deterioration, I simply could not have handled even one winter like the one Pittsburgh suffered in 2014-15, much less six of them. And then there’s the “Mom” factor.  It has been a delight for Linda to get to re-know her mother and for me to know my mother in law.
     Then, of course there’s that whole other issue of me leaving for Bible College in 1975 and telling God that I would, no how, no way, not ever move back to Florida in general, South Florida in particular. Uh-uh, no-sir – not gonna happen. Period. End of Discussion. As a character on a British sitcom we enjoy would put it, “And I am unanimous in that!”
(Insert favorite Scripture verse about fools arguing with God here)
What proved to be the most difficult aspect of our move was finding a church that wasn’t one full of children at a weekly rock and roll concert  that was so loud it was physically painful, not in my ears, but in the center of my chest from the pounding pulse of the drums and electric bass that rattled my body to the core; to legalists stuck in the 17th century, reading what they believe is a Godly inspired 1611 Bible  that in reality is a 1769 revision to the 1611 revision of the 1605 revision of the 1604 Bible which itself was copied 90% word for word from the 1560 Protestant Geneva Bible and the Catholic intertestamental Apocrypha translated from the Latin Vulgate, and authorized to be the “official Bible of the Church of England” by an English Monarch who created this brand new religion with himself, and seceding British Monarchs to serve as the head of this new religion, primarily so he could grant himself the divorce the Pope wouldn’t give him, and remarry.  Now there is a lot more detail to that story – at least 3 semesters of graduate level church history and Intro to Biblical Manuscripts, and I hope to finish this blog with fewer than 10,000 words.
The third option were the churches where both of us in our 50’s (Linda just a few years in and me about to graduate) and we were the youth group. It took us the best part of two years to find ‘home’ and when we did, it took only one service. And that service can be summed by a couple of verses of Scripture from a passage near the end of Acts Chapter 2, which gives in beautiful detail the beginning days of the first church. I’ll clarify which verses, because this is what we witnessed in action at what was then but is sadly no longer, Baypointe Church. I’ve italicized the three key verses that defined that church. (parenthetically, I believe every new Christian should have to study a course in church history based on the Book of Acts to see our roots, as it were, and to get a good foundational understanding that Christ followers are the church, not any building where they might assemble to worship as a group. Nice buildings are just that – nice buildings. WE who believe and are indwelt by the promised Holy Spirit – WE are the Church! Now on to the Scripture:
40 And with many other words he testified and exhorted them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation.” 41 Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them. 42 And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. 43 Then fear came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. 44 Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, 45 and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need.
46 So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.
Acts 2:40:47 (NKJV)
We met a young woman (when you’re 60, and by now I was, everyone is young) who in the process of conversation turned out to have been from back home. No, I mean way back home. No, even before then. I am not originally from this Florida to which I once vowed to never return. Before that, I was born in New Jersey in the same hospital as my mother. Her father helped found the volunteer fire department. Her mother, my spunky grandmother, helped found the associated women’s auxiliary. The aforementioned woman’s husband worked as a firefighter for the no longer volunteer fire company and knew from my description of the place exactly where my grandparents lived and raised eleven children. She invited us to her church.
Now I have to tell you that this church was a little out of the ordinary. They had two Sunday Services. That part isn’t so unusual in and of itself. How they did it is. The first service was contemporary with a typical worship and atypical worship leader in that not only did she understand that there was a difference between psalms, songs, hymns, spiritual songs and praise songs from a musicological perspective, and a Biblical perspective, and that they couldn’t all be lumped together and called worship, but she was able to communicate this understanding to the fellowship of believers – she could minister through song and teaching!
The second service was a more traditional Southern Baptist service with hymnbooks, piano and organ, the occasional southern gospel quartet.
Both services were generally filled.
The first contemporary service we attended was different from the get go. Immediately following the music the pastor walked over to a table on which set a laptop computer with a Skype session running, connected to another computer showing a young woman in a hospital in Tampa. The pastor told us her story and said we were going to pray for this young woman this morning, with her mother down in the hospital room in Tampa with her. Now there were about 130 of us in that room and I believe fewer than a dozen stayed seated when we were invited to come up to either reach out and touch the computer or someone closer to it than we were. I don’t know what he had planned, but we prayed for an hour and the pastor closed and gave an altar call. A lot of people who had just been praying for this young woman were back, tears in their eyes, rededicating their lives to the Lord, some asking to be baptized for the first time, some asking how do I get to know Jesus like you people do?
This was to be our church home for almost two years until it was taken over by a “seeker church” – an interesting oxymoron in light of Romans 3: 9-11 –
What then? Are we better than they? Not at all. For we have previously charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin. 10 As it is written: “There is none righteous, no, not one; 11 There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God.”
Imagine – an entire multi-campus kingdom building operation patterned after a false premise – that if you make a fancy, worldly enough program, the lost will come seeking you out – even though the Bible clearly says there are no seekers and no one comes but that the Holy Spirit of God beckons them! As a brief aside, within a 25 mile radius of our home there are half a dozen such “Seeker” (I call them Field of Dreams churches – if you build it – they will come) and about every 6-9 months there is a crop rotation where about a third of the congregation moves on to another church just like it, they get born again, again, and re-baptized. And we all call this church growth.
This was in February. We gave them until Resurrection Sunday, but when the entire morning came and went without any mention of the resurrection of our Lord in music or message, the offering music was a Phil Collins song that had the words “There’s something in the air tonight, Oh Lord, Oh Lord” in the refrain, and the BIG talk of the day was all the cool stuff you could win in the easter egg hunt! That was it for us. Well, that and having to sign a commitment paper to home life groups that said I agreed that studying books about the Bible or that had Bible references in them was the same as studying the Bible.
Well, the old church had one other group meeting pre-takeover. Wednesday night Prayer meeting and Bible Study that was not your typical Baptist prayer meeting which is just like every other service with maybe 5 extra minutes of prayer. This was a 90 minute meeting that had prayer time that started at 30 minutes and went from there. It was a prayer meeting which when we were told we could no longer use the unused room at church and switched to a two phased church plant ended up with a Sunday morning Service meeting with one pastor in the chapel of a funeral home, and our Wednesday night group meeting in the pastor/teacher’s dining room. In two years we outgrew the pastor’s home and have met for a month in the funeral home’s fellowship hall, and we’re already bursting at the seams there!
And because we take the praise and prayer part of our fellowship just as seriously as the Bible Study (it took us 17 months to complete John MacArthur’s 8-week study of Romans) last night prayer time lasted nearly an hour, but no one complained, nor did anyone want to be the one to stop so profound was the sense of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the prayers of his people last night. And it was a night where there was more intercession and praise in the praying – more broken hearts crying out for the spiritual and physical needs of others. It was in many ways family praying for each other, family crying out to God for revival!
The writer of Hebrews (I personally think it was Paul, but it could have been Joe the Plumber, for all I know. He chose not to reveal his name so the only thing we know for certain is it’s in the Bible therefore it meets the qualification of 2 Timothy 3:16.) said “And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works,  not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:24-25 NKJV) , well, he said several important things. Remember, he’s talking to Jewish converts to Christianity – they are his primary audience, but God’s Word is for ALL believers.
1.      be thinking about each other, and how you might encourage each other to good works
2.      don’t put off gathering together as a body, but come together often
3.      when you come together, again, be an encouragement to each other
4.      and all the more as you see the Day (of His returning) approaching.
Some argue that this is a command to go to church. I disagree. How do you go to a place you take with you everywhere you go because of who and Whose you are? As believers in Christ, Jesus promised He would send us the Holy Spirit to be with us in His place. Again, don’t confuse the delayed receiving of the Holy Spirit as detailed in Acts with what Jesus intended to be the normal order of things until His return. Acts is a History book that tells us how the first century church came about. Acts is not a Book of doctrine. The rest of the New Testament is where you find our Doctrine.
Assuming Paul wrote Hebrews, if there is anything Paul did NOT command us to do it was go to church! In part, because Paul knew the Holy Spirit indwells us from the moment we become Christ followers! Knowing this, Paul wrote to the church at Corinth the reminder that THEY are the temple of the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 6:19). Second, Paul’s experience as a missionary and church planter was that where ever he went that he didn’t establish a new church but instead found an already established fellowship, they were an active, eager fellowship, meeting regularly! They needed no ‘command’ to gather!
Shortly after the self-driven church plant began to take firm root on Wednesday nights in our Pastor’s dining room, one of the regular attendees said something I believe we were all thinking, but no one had actually verbalized. “You know,” he said, “In a lot of ways this here’s like being with family”.
 The same man brought that up last night. And he’s absolutely right! We are family! We gather together every week, we’re growing, we love each other, we provide for each other when there is a need if we can, we pray for each other, we laugh together, we cry together, we sometimes disagree. And one or two of us might even be a little, you know, touched in the head (not mentioning any names, but my wife is giving me one of ‘those’ looks, and heavens no, she’s not one of the crazy ones. But the bottom line is we function as the body of Christ; the Family of God, much the same as we function with the gang of loonies with whom we share DNA!
I guess that’s what I’m trying to say. Church – BIBLICAL church isn’t about denominations. It isn’t about doctrinal statements of faith. It isn’t about labels. And it sure isn’t about buildings.
Read the Pauline Epistles. Paul spent much of his time NOT telling people to go to church, but how to behave when they were gathered together as church. Now why do you think that is? Let me offer an hypothesis. It took less than fifty years for the church to forget how they behaved at the end of Acts chapter 2, and if that is an accurate reflection of the depravity of even the Redeemed of the first century, how much worse the church of the 21st Century, that has chosen to rewrite complete, in some cases redacting culturally offensive passages of God’s Holy and inspired Word?
I am blessed to be part of a fellowship of believers whose Pastors believe 2 Timothy 3:16. That God’s Word in its original form – the manuscripts – were theopneustos – God Breathed. That Scripture in context proves Scripture in context. When we come together on Wednesday nights, we read from different translations by personal choice, but can do so because we believe God intended that His Word be translated – evolve, if you will, to reflect the linguistic idiom of the day without being altered to reflect the culturally accepted norms of the times. We are blessed with two men of God who believe 2 Timothy isn’t just a vacation Bible School memory verse, but practice it every day as they prepare to bring God’s message to His people. Blessed to be led by two men who are not so prideful of their own oratory, homiletical and exegetical skills, that they won’t toss them aside in a heartbeat if they sense the Holy Spirit is leading someplace else on a given day. And blessed with a family who run the gamut from dropout to scholar, check their ego and credentials at the door and come hungry to serve and learn, from a humble teacher anointed of God who is gifted to reach every one of them.
One other thing about last night. I saw four new faces in our group.
 So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.
Acts 2:46-47
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