The Church That Jesus Imagined

by Stephen W. Smith          After 25 years of serving the church and now having 10 years under my belt of serving the church’s leaders across the world, I feel like I’m going to upset the apple cart and cause many people devoted to the work of the church distress in stating the obvious and giving some reflection to the fact that Jesus said the word “church” only twice in his entire life and both of those times are recorded by only one of the four Gospel writers—Matthew in 16:17 and 18:17. He never told us to plant churches. He never instructed us to join churches. He never told us much at all about the church he envisioned.My point here is not to solve the many questions that this blog will raise but to allow some honest discussion. I''m an insider to the church and my aim is not to throw stones but to actually invigorate a discussion whose time has come. One blog on this is not enough so I’m planning more and would invite your feedback, discussion and questions—as long as you use the “comment” space on the blog provided.Jesus spoke more about prayer, money, forgiveness, love and friendship than he did church. Have we missed something here by ignoring this reality?  With all of the church’s efforts to build itself up and to grow itself, expand itself and propagate itself, one needs to stop and ask oneself: What is the church that Jesus imagined?As I recently walked up to one of the nation’s largest mega-churches hosting a sanctuary that cost over $100 million dollars, my companion who was walking beside me pointed to the megapolis that we were about to enter, and asked quietly “Steve, do you think Jesus had this (meaning thee huge church campus) in mind while he ministered here on earth?”What do you think?How are you answering that question these days?  Think for a moment of all the strategy meetings you have sat through; the deacons and elder’s meetings; the woman’s meetings and the men’s pancake breakfasts; all of the terms that come up every three or four years to help us re-envision church like missional, the purpose driven church and so forth. Are these mere words to help us have to re-think what Jesus may have never wanted us to think about anyway?The truth is simply this. Jesus spoke more about the gathering of two or three and the mystery of experiencing his presence than he did planting churches, growing churches and managing churches. For Jesus, it was simple. When he spoke the word, “church” he meant the ones called out to form a new sort of community—a new way of doing relationships. His intent was basic and fundamental. In Jesus’ way of doing church, people would simply recognize his presence in their midst and have assurance of the fact that they were truly no longer alone—but that in this new community—God was surely with them. Here, they would love and be loved; help and be helped, celebrate and be celebrated; serve and be served. They would then share that Sacred Presence inviting the outsider to become the insider.  Church was sharing the experience of God in our midst. Together, we would do what one could not do alone. We would offer the cup of cold water. We would extend the incarnation of Jesus by sharing this message and experience. We would offer hope. We would experience forgiveness and we would practice accepting each other just as Christ accepted us—with our flaws, failures and fissures.  Love would be our goal. Praise would be our song.I have often experienced this same phenomenon when I have lunch with my friend and we break bread together at lunch time. We talk about the beautiful and the brutal in our lives. We do far more than “catching up.” We share our lives, our hopes and fears as we share the bread on the table.  We bow and give thanks for the food we are about to receive—knowing that our true food is the Host in our midst. Our hearts are warmed by the togetherness we are experiencing.  And as I do this, I often feel as if I am—right then and there experiencing the church that Jesus imagined. It feels holy, sacred and –yes, it feels like church to me.In my work with leaders in the church, I find few happy with their work. Most are lamenting. Many are afraid of the slippery slope, not of theology but of the church we find ourselves on.  Where are we headed?  Is the American church doomed?  Why are churches in other cultures (Latin America, Africa and The East) thriving while the American church is waning (All statistics confirm this). All admit that there is trouble in the camp and life seems about rising above the trouble and enduring a calling that at times seems hopeless against the cultural tides that are sweeping against us in this present hour.When I look and examine the life of the Apostle Paul, I find great encouragement in the very final verse of the book of Acts, where Paul is imprisoned and facing the end of his life of having planted churches throughout the then known world.  What Paul does is staggering in his final description of his remaining days of his life. He does not organize mission teams to go plant more churches. He does not give edicts or advice about strategy. And he certainly does not convene a Leadership Summit to problem solve his demise.  No, Luke gives us an important clue into Paul’s heart and his belief the church that Jesus imagined. Luke says this about Paul’s remaining days and his philosophy about what was really important: “For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 28 :30-31). I have to admit, I yearn for that kind of church today. Paul did two things in his final years that we need to embrace today--now in this very time. He talked about the Kingdom of God—that pivotal relationship where there is a King who is all about living in new ways with new ethics and new values that match the King’s heart.   Secondly, he simply taught them about Jesus.  That seems so simple yet so strangely profound. Something really does happen when we teach people about Jesus—his ways, his practices, his insights into human nature and his stories about authentic transformation. It's like Jesus said, when he is lifted up, he will draw people unto himself. Paul settled on two things and for the last two years of his life focused on this two prong approach to life.  It was not about the church. It was not about buildings. It was not about programs. It was about Kingdom living and the King, himself.This being so, then we must ask ourselves why church growth has replaced the very practice of Paul.  Why is the message of the missional church replacing the message about Jesus? What if the church has hijacked the very teaching of Jesus and now we can't hear the message cause the preachers and teachers are more concerned about other things than what Paul was concerned about?I admit it. I am weary of all of this hype about the church that is happening now. Tell me about the Kingdom. Remind me of the values I should align my heart to. Tell me the stories of Jesus.  Often, when I am with a church leader, I will share those final verses in Acts with my friends and without exception, I will always hear, “I never knew that was in the Bible.” And we sit in stunned silence--together as a tiny micro-church confessing our wayward ways and sensing that Presence again invading our space to become his presence.Why all the emphasis on mega?  It's more American than Biblical. Why not then celebrate the micro?  The small seed, the grain of wheat, the lone sheep and the micro-church---it  just might be the church home you’ve been waiting for—the church that Jesus really imagined for us to enjoy.Let me be clear. I am a member of a mega-church. We are 6,000 strong or struggling which ever way you look at it. But it is not in my worship there; it is not in my attendance but it is in the moments in my Sunday School class where we sit around circled tables that I gain this perspective I need. There at the table sit my fellow pilgrims who come as tossed about life’s storms as I am and we share and we read a passage about Jesus and we unfold our insights for others to feast on. And it is that moment that I know where I am. I am in the church that Jesus imagined. I really don’t think (pardon me, please) that Jesus envisioned choirs in robes, silver offering plates and  sermons lasting forty minutes. George Barna and Frank Viola have shown us conclusively that many of our practices in church are really drawn from pagan ideals and cultural shifts. (See their book, Pagan Christianity.)  Think of our “Praise Band” or now the struggle over traditional or contemporary worship.  At one church recently that I was invited to speak on “the Power of solitude and silence in the believer’s life” all the music was rap with a light show and even smoke—not incense but smoke from machines that blew it far into the reaches of the windowless auditorium. It was windowless to reveal the power of technology—not the glory of God in the skies. Some churches seem more like they are re-arranging the chairs on the deck of their own Titanic. They speak of surviving not thriving. They are lacking the youth—who once were called, “the future of the church” and now they are leaving by the boat loads-- disillusioned with yet one more attempt to be the church that Jesus imagined.Tables at Starbucks now resemble more of the church Jesus imagined than our sanctuaries.  There, over java, people are connecting, talking and perhaps even praying with eyes wide open in search of the church that Jesus imagined. Perhaps they are in it---actually experiencing it. I kick myself when I enter Starbuks today and read their new fall promotion.  Fall Rhythm?  We need a winter, spring and summer rhythm as well. Will the church help me or abandon me to the busy world without prophetically calling me to live another way... a way in rhythm, not balance.Questions I want to walk into here are these:  What hope is there for the existing church? Where did we go wrong?  How do we reclaim the intent of Jesus in our church?  Why establishing community may be more important than planting churches!  What is the role of missions today?  Why does the church shoot the wounded? If this bores you, pardon me while I try to voice some things that have been stirring in my heart for quite a time now.