A New Restoration: Calling Out The Church! (Part 4)
I hate to be called out. Nor do I prefer to call out somebody else. Call upon me, fine. Call me late for supper, okay. Call me out, no. I got called out when I was in trouble, like when I led a 2 a.m. practical joke at my church camp. I thought it would be funny to turn every piece of furniture upside down in the chapel. To my surprise, the dean found no humor in my nocturnal shenanigans and called me out for latrine duty. Calling out can sometimes stink.
Occasionally a teacher has called me out for purposes of embarrassment. You know the type. They ate gravel for breakfast, hate the world and now sense it’s their divine mission on planet earth to ensure you are fully aware of your stupidity and the human tragedy you’re allowed to consume oxygen. Calling out can sometimes shame.
A calling out often means a fight. When you got “called out” by an angry peer it meant it was time for a clock cleaning. The code was to take your fisticuffs outside. Grown men still call out other grown men to beat the snot out of them. Calling out can sometimes hurt.
Two thousand years ago, Jesus called out some Galilean misfits. Some fished. Some taxed. Some didn’t do much of anything that we know. But these twelve disciples turned the world upside down in broad daylight. They weren’t the sharpest tools in the shed but they built upon the foundation for a Kingdom that is eternal. They were called out to battle Roman political powers and Jewish religious tradition. In the process, they were shamed and hurt, even to the point of martyrdom. They were average Joes who stood up to high priests, magistrates and even emperors.
They were the “church” and acted like it.
Some churches aren’t doing such a hot job today. In nearly every denomination, tribe or fellowship, there is stagnation and decline. A January 2013 cover story for The Lutheran lamented how the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America is fading fast. Nearly one in three now average less than fifty people and overall attendance plummeted 26% since 2003. In one decade, the ELCA has closed or merged churches at an average rate of 100 per year or two every Sunday.
In my tribe (independent Christian Churches) we boast over 126 emerging and megachurches, with the top eight drawing 100,000 people every Sunday! Impressive, but of the emerging and megachurches reporting for 2011, growth averaged between .8 to 4.4% over 2010 figures. Okay, maybe not so impressive. In fact, several reported outright declines. A closer look reveals even numbers can betray our largest megachurch: Southeast Christian in Louisville, KY. In 2011, this congregation’s weekly attendance is 20,786 (up from 19,534 in 2010) and they baptized 1,618 (up from 1,250 in 2010). Respectable numbers and growing, right? Actually no. In reality, Southeast grew less than 1% between 2010-2011 (adding 1,252 people). When you crunch numbers, you uncover a different story. Yes, they added 1,252 to attendance but baptized 1,618 and that constitutes an actual DECLINE in growth of 366 people! Additionally, it’s safe to assume hundreds of others also joined this fine congregation as baptized members. Consequently, Southeast’s fractional growth, though an increase, is actually a decline overall, and not retaining even what she baptizes.
In comparison, the first century church grew exponentially faster, by hundreds and thousands. The church of Jesus exploded around Jerusalem, spilling into Judea and Samaria and finally reaching distant locales like Antioch, Thessalonica and even Rome. After Acts 4:4 and a vague reference to “about five thousand men,” we have no attendance figures. We just knew they grew daily (Acts 5:14). Today’s churches like to count people. The first church made people count.
What’s the difference between the first-century “church” and the 21st century Church? In one word: walls. The first-century “church” wasn’t trapped in a facility and physical address. The “church” was a gathering of people not a building where you worshipped and studied the Bible. Somehow, in twenty centuries, the word Jesus used to charge His disciples has changed.
In the New Testament, the Greek word translated “church” is ekklesia or ekklesia. It’s where we get the word “ecclesiastical.”
Jesus only used ekklesia twice and solely by the Jewish tax-collector Matthew. In 16:18, Jesus told his disciples that Peter’s confession, that identified Him as the Messiah, is the “rock” upon which his ekklesia is built. Later in 18:17, Jesus outlines “church” discipline and again uses ekklesia. No other gospel writer uses ekklesia, including the Greek historian Luke (who does use it the most [23 times] in the book of Acts). Paul will employ ekklesia 21 times in I Corinthians and John will pen the word 19 times in Revelation (18 in the first three chapters alone!). But not one time is the word ever used to describe a facility or address. The “church” was an assembly of believers: a Body not a building, an Organism not an organization, a People not a place.
The word ekklesia originated in the Greco-political culture. It’s not even a religious word. An ekklesia described a “gathering of citizens called out from their homes into a public place for an assembly.” Literally, an ekklesia or “church” means “called out ones.” In the Roman world, ekklesias were common, especially when the emperor came to call. His highness would ride into town on his white steed with all the majesty and pomp, followed by his army. When the people gathered around him (a.k.a., ekklesia), they would shout to his deity and profess, “Caesar is lord! Caesar is lord!”
In Matthew 16, Jesus steals this secular metaphor and recasts it for his disciples. The Messiah, Jesus taught, is the Christ (with a nod to Peter for his confession) and He is the Lord of lords and King of kings. Jesus taught this lesson at Caesarea Philippi (vs. 13), a Judean political center for Rome. Ekklesias were routine in Caesarea Philippi, and it’s possible the disciples even experienced one just prior to this moment. Perhaps some potentate from Rome had just ridden into Caesarea Philippi and an ekklesia broke out. “Caesar is lord! Caesar is lord!” the people cried. Then Jesus pulls his disciples away from the ekklesia and inquires, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” After a few Sunday School answers (John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah), Peter professes essentially “Jesus is Lord!” Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God (vs. 16).
Bingo. Jesus then explains Peter’s confession is the massive foundation stone (Greek: petra) upon which He will “build [his] ekklesia.” Despite Roman Catholic teaching, Peter (Greek: Petros for “little stone”) isn’t the rock: Jesus is the Rock! Jesus then references how the “gates of Hades” (erroneously mistranslated by King James translators as “hell”) will not overcome this Ekklesia. Hades was the place of the dead. In other words, not even death would keep Jesus’ Ekklesia from growing. It’s no wonder the phrase “Jesus is Lord” became an early Christian idiom and an intentional cultural dig to those who practiced emperor worship. Caesar isn’t lord. Jesus IS Lord. He’s the Lord of all lords!
John will expand this idiom in his Revelation of Jesus. A work deeply soaked with the conflict between Roman religious and political powers that seek to destroy the Ekklesia of Jesus (church of Christ). In Revelation 13, two beasts emerge to battle the Ekklesia. The first is political and the second is religious. John writes to seven ekklesias located in Asia Minor and paints a picture of ekklesia in Revelation 19:
11 I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war. 12 His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. 13 He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. 14 The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. 15 Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. 16 On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written:
king of kings and lord of lords.
17 And I saw an angel standing in the sun, who cried in a loud voice to all the birds flying in midair, “Come, gather together for the great supper of God, 18 so that you may eat the flesh of kings, generals, and the mighty, of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all people, free and slave, great and small.”
For churches or ekklesias in the first century John employed highly intentional language. Just like earthly kings rode into towns and commanded worship, so does Jesus. Those who obeyed the “calling out” to meet the king would be part of his Ekklesia or “church.”
So where did we go wrong? Mostly, we allowed comfort and convenience, sprinkled with good intentions and slightly twisted Scriptures, to change the term. For in time, the Greek adjective kyriakos (meaning, “belonging to the Lord”) was incorporated by early Christians to also innocently describe their faith communities. Since they met in homes these became known as a kyriakos oikos or “house of the Lord.” Over the centuries, particularly after the Edict of Milan (A.D. 311) under Emperor Constantine, the word further morphed from a description of the people assembled to the place of assembly. The house of the Lord (kyriakos) became the common idiom for Christian gathering rather than a public assembly (ekklesia). As Christendom moved into Germany and Britain, the word kyriokos evolved further into kerke or churche and eventually just church. Nowadays, a church is a place of worship and people who attend are church “members.”
Today, most people talk about “going to church” on Sunday. Church is a building, a worship service or place defined by space and time. It’s religious jargon and it’s completely wrong. The Church—the assembly or gathering—isn’t a private “in house” event (walled by time and space). The Church is the Body of Christ gathered publicly to proclaim, “Jesus is Lord!” It’s beyond the walls; it’s in the streets, at the malls and among the culture.
The reason why the Church faces either its greatest days (or worst) depends solely on whether we restore the Original DNA of ekklesia. The idea of kyriokos (especially as a place) is a perversion the modern church has swallowed hook, line and stinker. If God wanted his people to build facilities, they could have done it. In fact, Rome probably would have preferred it. Rome was quite tolerant of religions and most of them built shrines that dotted the Empire (they had no issue with Jewish synagogues). But the early Ekklesia was fluid and fast. Like water it seeped into places that organized religion and facilities couldn’t go. Particularly, the first- and second-century Ekklesia operated stealth, underground (in places of persecution) and secretly. Early Christians were accused of cannibalism, among other wild rumors. Their fellowship was closed, it would seem, but in reality it was an open culture. Christians were everywhere, but you had to know one and follow one to become part of the Ekklesia. And thousands did.
That’s why I’m calling out the kyriokos (time and space church) to rediscover its Original DNA: ekklesia. We weren’t meant to sit and soak in buildings but move among the culture. Just know that it’s going to hurt…a lot!
Here’s a radical idea: sell your building and property (just like first-century Christians did) and give it to the poor in your community. Instead meet in homes and, when possible, in public squares. Perhaps Jesus’ words to the rich young ruler should be ours, for I suspect Jesus cringes when we build yet another facility “in His Name.” Churchianity builds buildings. Christianity changes lives. His Ekklesia was meant to be “out” not “in.” Like the rich young ruler, we’re proud that we “know the commandments” and practice them, but still Jesus says we “lack one thing”: absolute submission (Luke 18:19-22).
You want to restore biblical Christianity? Good. But let’s also restore biblical ecclesiology, too. Let’s restore Ekklesia (as called out ones who gather publicly) and honor Jesus’ G0 Mission (Matthew 28:18-20). Imagine what Christians could do if we no longer had facility mortgages. Imagine the funds available if we no longer spent them on “come to our building” programs. Imagine even a return to biblical staffing—volunteer only—and the end of “professional” ministry. I know, now I’m meddling, but full-time paid staff is a business idea, not a biblical one. Imagine no longer being able to count how big your church is, because people gather in homes rather than “houses of worship.” Imagine the community service you could do in neighborhood and city. Imagine the Ekklesia gathering publicly at ball games, concerts, malls, fairs, parks, festivals, service clubs and other social settings, not to lead worship and preach at people, but to serve as Salt and Light, inviting them into home fellowships and deeper community. Imagine the influence of an Ekklesia that seasons culture rather than assaults it with religiosity.
To quote John Lennon, I may be a dreamer but I doubt I’m the only one.
In a postmodern American culture, an Ekklesia community would be highly attractive. It already is. Ekklesias occur every day in coffee shops. Johns and Janes gather for a cup of joe with Joe and Jolene. And where two or more are gathered, in Christ’s name, there is Ekklesia. That my friends is the CHURCH Jesus imagined and the early Ekklesia practiced daily.
I don’t want to intentionally hurt or shame, but I’m calling out those stuck in churchianity to intentionally gather for True, biblical Christianity.
Restore the Original DNA. Reboot Ekklesia.
Just know it won’t happen as long as you’re bound to a building. The True Ekklesia is far bigger and better. Until you’re free of the facility, you’ll never experience or enjoy authentic Ekklesia.
I’m not calling out the church for a fight…but a Future!
Posted on February 19, 2013, in Acts, American church, Christianity, Church buildings, Church Decline and tagged Christianity, church, emerging church, restoration movement, Restoring Church. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.