Thursday, March 27, 2014

First Church of the Lord's Holy Temple

It's no secret that the church is not quite what it used to be. For weeks, maybe months, I've been watching these conversations on social media. There is just a dwindling emphasis, it seems, on the traditional church community in our society. There are reasons for that, of course. Individualism that says church is supposed to inspire you leads people searching for a congregation they enjoy and when they don't enjoy it anymore, they leave. Eventually, they find a flaw in every place and leave the church entirely. 

We live in an increasingly 7-day-a-week world. And all around us, parents and families are making the decision that we go to church on long as we don't have something else to do. Sporting activities, family outings, really anything that happens to be scheduled on a Sunday can trump a commitment to going to church. Then these kids grow up and don't have the same affinity for the community of God that maybe their grandparents did. So they can take church or leave it...and many of them leave it.

My pastor posted a link to an article and some statistics about the declining role of the church, at least in the eyes of believers, and a few of us kind of took it over to have some of this church debate. Then someone said it. Someone said what I believe is the greatest lie about church in this generation, and the very real reason that our churches are struggling to stay relevant:

I don't need a building on Sunday mornings. WE ARE the church, wherever we are. It doesn't have to be an actual church.

It kinda does. Look, I don't know where we got this idea. Ok, I sort of do, but this has been so twisted, so contrived, so contorted that the idea we have of this today is not anywhere near what the Scriptures intended it to be. And yet, there are loud voices among us who tout the benefits of just this - leaving the church to discover your own church in the world and make it your thing.

I don't even know where to start.... So let's try the beginning.

God has always worked in community. That's His M.O. He works through His people for His people, surrounded by His people. People have always gathered around Him in community - in the courtyard of the Tabernacle, in the festivals in the streets, in the teaching in the Temple, on the road to Cavalry. There have been occasions when God has dealt with a man or a woman alone, but always for the sake of community. Always so that man or woman can then take some part of the story back to the people. There is always a bigger story at work; it's never individual.

That's hard to swallow in a culture that constantly reminds us how God loves each and every one of us, individually. That God loves you and God loves me. You know? Now that I think about it, it's been a long time since I heard anyone say that God loves us and not meant the individual us, the separate each and every one within the us. That's sad. We have lost that sense of being God's chosen people.

And here's where I think we started missing it: when God said, "Don't you know that you are the Temple of the living God?" That's where we started to make our shift. We started to take on a personal ownership of God that I don't believe is inherent in that statement. Somehow, we've twisted and contorted this to say that God dwells inside of us. That He makes His home in us. And we've taken this to mean that He is our God, that He is in us for the sake of us. 

That's not the purpose of the Temple.

The Temple was God's dwelling place among His people. The Temple was the place where the people knew they could come and find the presence of God and someone who knew how to enter into it. (A priest. And, by the way, we are all priests.) God didn't put His presence in your Temple for your sake. He doesn't dwell within you to give you a holy place. He dwells within you to make you a holy place. You are the Temple of the Lord. The community around you, the place He's given you, the people...are looking to you for the presence of God and someone who knows how to enter it. God has come to dwell in your Temple, in the Temple of you, so that His people have a place to go where they know they can find God. 

That's the purpose of the Temple. Need more proof? Take a cursory look through the Bible and see what happens to the people of God who build an altar in their own house. Look what God says about, and does to, the people who take it upon themselves to literally build their own Temple, erect their own altar, offer their own sacrifices. They die. The presence of God was meant for the community, not for the man. The presence of God in you is meant for your community. 

And the presence of God in someone else is meant for the same. See, that's the thing about meeting together. We don't go to church so we can see our friends. So we can shake hands with Bill and Betty, with Joe and Jill, with Thomas and Tina and Mary and Mark. We go to church because there we encounter the Temples of the living God, the people with God in them. We encounter God in our world in a place we know where to find Him and among people who know how to enter His presence. Together, we come. Together, we worship. Through the community, we see the true image of God. 

Which means, yes. Church is not a building we walk into on Sunday mornings. That part, at least, we're getting right in our new way of thinking. The church doesn't have a physical address; we have simply, for convenience, built it a house. But we were never meant to consider that the church. The fine line, of course, is the one we draw here. Because there are many among us who say the church is not the building, that we are the church, that the church is out there - that it's whatever we're doing in the world. And this could not be further from the truth, either.

It is true that we are the church. All believers, under the umbrella of Christ, are the church. Not in a physical presence but in a spiritual one. That's only true, though, when we are living out our purpose as the Temple. When we are the place that people come to find the presence of God. If, however, as so many of the people who say this sort of thing are doing, we call it the "church" when we forsake a building, embrace our community, and quietly live a good life among people while drawing it back to God in our own hearts...that's not church. That's not even close to church.

I've talked to people who say WE ARE the church, who have turned their backs on buildings in favor of community. I've asked them how they're doing it. And the truth is that I haven't met anyone who is actually doing church outside of a building. They have communities they do good works in. They have people they hang out with regularly. But the essence of God is not there. Because the other members of their "church" have no idea they're supposed to be the church.

They're not coming together for the presence of God. They're not purposefully together to strengthen one another in the faith. They haven't come to worship. In fact, they forget to worship at all because they're so busy just doing things. Things that any normal person could do on any normal day. There is the complete absence of a mindfulness of God and that's not church. It may make a man feel good about himself. It may even make him feel good about his God. But if he's not putting God in the center of that, and if the community around him doesn't hold God in the middle of them, then it's not church.

If the people in your community don't know they're your church, then they're really just your project. They don't feed your faith; they feed your ego. 

Why does it matter? Why does it matter if it's church or not, if it is (no argument) something good? 

Because without the church, man quickly comes to worship only a figment of God. A creation of his own imagination about what God is, or what God should be. Without community, we lose the essence of God because God has always revealed Himself in community. Because without the church, pretty soon we have a God who looks different for every person, who has no common standard, who has no definable characteristics because each man defines this God for himself. We're already approaching that. We have so many versions of the same Christian God out there and we're fast losing track of who HE says He is. Because there are a lot of versions of God that are easier to live with, and if we only see God and know Him in ourselves, then over time, He will slowly begin to look more like us. Good, but no longer glorious. Good, but no longer God. 

That, I think, is why God said, "Never neglect meeting together." When we are together, we see God in the other Temple. We see Him in His holy place. Not only in our hearts, but in the hearts of our friends, families, neighbors, communities. We see God revealing Himself through more than our preferences, through more than our sensibilities. It's a checks and balances system to make sure we don't lose track of the One True God.

The bonus is that we get the community. We get people who stand beside us, who pray with us, who help when we call, who invite us over for lunch or to watch the game, who become our extended family and help us know our place in this world. We get people who encourage us, inspire us, and hold us to a higher standard. We get people who come along beside us to be the presence of the Lord in the world, to be the Temple, to be the place the world is looking because they know they can find God here.

And indeed they can. Because when two or more are gathered in His name, there He is. Right there in the church.

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