I have been reflecting on the church a lot recently. I thought about the church quite a bit before, but for the past eight months, I have really thought deeply about the theological underpinnings of the church and its purpose in Christian life. It has framed the Scripture that I’ve read, and it has occupied my vacant hours. I cannot stop thinking about it: the church.
Church Isn’t Perfect
Many people have bad experiences with the church. I don’t want to discredit those. Sadly, churches as institutions can become prone to institutionalizing sin with drastic, painful, and sometimes truly evil consequences. Other people do not have such extremely negative experiences of church; in fact, they have no “extreme” experiences of church whether good or bad. They have neutral or apathetic feelings about the church. They would rather go to a place where people are just a little friendlier or nicer, where the music is just a little bit better, and the preaching is a little more polished. Or they would rather sit at home avoiding the mediocrity of their local church.
Despite some bad experiences and some apathy-enducing experiences, I remain quite hopeful—some might even say unrealistically optimistic. I rest in God’s gracious decision to give us the church and his desire that we should be a part of it. So what’s the church?
What Is Church?
Without getting too deep into any explanation of how I understand church, I’ll just say that the Greek ecclesia is better translated “gathering” or “assembly” than “church”. Because the term assembly makes me think of grade school assemblies, I opt for the former definition/translation. Simply put, I see the church as the occurrence of Jesus-people being gathered together for any of a number of Christian practices (even practices as simple as fellowship). Again, I don’t want to get into debates about the “true church”. I’ll say simply that I think my idea of church is at least partly, if not wholly, consistent with Calvin’s idea of the true church.
Therefore, the church is Jesus-people gathered. This brings me to the title of this blog, “a place to be loved.” Perhaps a better title for my intention is “a people to be loved by.” Jesus commands his followers to love each other like he loved them, and he said that everyone will know them as his followers by the love they have for each other (John 13:34-35). This theme is apparent in John’s first letter, and it is a major theme in Paul’s letters. The whole New Testament (really the whole Bible) is enamored with the claim that God is love and that we are to be people filled with love and practicing love to everyone! Thus I think the church is a people to be loved by, and when your church meets in a specific building or house or park, that space becomes a sacred place to be loved.
What Is Love?
I would be remiss if I did not take a moment to say what I think about love. I won’t be as bold to say that there is a definition of love in Scripture, but there are plenty of examples.
Love is not just a feeling. Love is active; you might even say love is an activity. In describing love, Paul writes:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)
That may be one of the most beautiful paragraphs ever written. It is written in the context of the church. It is written to bring unity to the Corinthian gathering and focus them on the love that should exist at the foundation of their church. Paul does not tell them how love makes them feel gushy or happy or joyful, but he describes it in terms of actions. Love is completely and utterly active; hence, when Jesus tells us to love God, we are to do it by four different acts only one of which could be construed as the act of having an emotion. He also tells us to love our neighbor as we want to be loved. I think very, very few people want to be loved by people who have a passive emotion that is never related to them. They want to be loved by people who make it apparent with the action of love!
A Place to be Loved; or, A People to be Loved by
As James K.A. Smith observes in his book You Are What You Love, humans are at their core loving creatures. We will find something or someone to love whether it is right or not. We also need to be loved by someone else. God loves us, and he often chooses to use his people to show us this love. The gathering of Jesus-people is supposed to be a hotbed for experiencing God’s love. If you don’t feel God’s love in your local gathering, have you considered when the last time you took the opportunity to love the people around you? Start with the man/woman in the mirror. Love one another.