Organizations tend to become more centralized and complex. For example, governments begin as revolutionary, grassroots movements and end in bureaucracies or dictatorships. Companies begin as nimble, collaborative efforts that later stall out under the weight of multilayered management pyramids.
Religion is no different. In the beginning the gospel ignited the faith of individuals who, by the thousands, went everywhere sharing the message (Acts 8:4). The organization of the church was simple and local with the goal of activating the spiritual potential of each member (Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3-4; Titus 1). Every believer came to the table with their own gifts and abilities to share for the benefit of all (Acts 4:32-37; 1 Cor. 12:7; 14:12; Eph. 4:16). There was a joyful “all-ness” and “everybody” to the lively fellowship (Acts 2:44-45)!
However, the church began to add new layers of organization, bureaucracy and authority that are not found in the New Testament. There became a distinction between the clergy and laity; between the professionals who ruled and acted and the commoners who followed and watched. Faith became centralized at a place with performers. Doctrine drifted from its moorings in the gospel as cathedrals replaced caves. This cycle repeats countless times in one religious movement after another.
What is your experience? A few generations ago the message of the gospel stirred the hearts of many in our culture. There was a passion to share the gospel with the lost, start new churches where none existed, and teach the gospel in simplicity and truth.
Is it possible that this primitive fever is being replaced with what cultural observers call, “Big Box Christianity?”* This prevailing philosophy defines the church as a highly produced religious event which takes place on a sprawling campus. Crowds are drawn to watch the skills and personality of a superstar performer. Being in the crowd is more important than making connections. Therefore, church “staffs” swell with paid specialists to do the work. Administrators are hired to run the facilities and oversee the programs. Paid professionals govern and perform while the common people follow and watch.
Is there a way out of this cycle? Is there a way to rediscover the vibrant, individual faith of the early church? I believe there is! If we can just peer past culture for a moment, a picture of the church will emerge from the gospel which is more beautiful than any “big box” campus or ornate cathedral. There we find the church is nothing less than “the body of Christ.”
“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12:27)
If we begin to see the church, not as an event, but as a people who comprise “the body of Christ” it will do much to unravel the alluring tapestry of our religious culture.
God Makes Us Different
We will see that we are wonderfully different for a reason. Have you ever wondered why God made so many kinds of flowers, trees and animals? The endless variety magnifies his glory and multiplies our pleasure. The same is true in his church.
Paul told the Corinthian believers that God gave them a “variety of gifts” but they all point to the “same Spirit,” and join to proclaim, “Jesus is Lord” (1 Cor. 12:1-11). Yet, the church magnified the possessor of the gift rather than the one who gave it. The church fractured into the “gifted” and the “mundane.”
While the need for miraculous gifts has past the problem of seeking spiritual superstars is still most present. Differences that are intended to exalt Jesus as Lord are used to make a name for ourselves.
In contrast, God made us different for the benefit of others. “To each is given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7). Hammers are great for building homes, but they inadequate for digging foundations and painting walls. Likewise, the growth of the church was never intended to depend upon the gift of a few but by each member doing their part (Eph. 4:16). The “Big Box” mentality leaves tools clean and in their box.
We Need Each Other
In Christ’s church, we need each other.
“12 For just as the body is one and has many members, … so it is with Christ.” (1 Cor. 12:12)
How noble is the church!? How precious is each member!?
We must not say, “I can’t do anything,” because our talents and experiences are seemingly less valued (“I don’t belong” 1 Cor. 12:15,16). Our idleness and jealousy are unwarranted. God crafted the church with a place shaped for each of us (1 Cor. 12:18-19).
Neither dare we exalt ourselves and think, “I am better than you” (“I have no need of you” 1 Cor. 12:21). The petty social orders that characterize the world have no place in the church! Each skill is utterly dependent upon the support and response of others (1 Cor. 12:24-25).
The vices of inactivity and pride, which characterizes the religion of our day, make the church one dimensional, boring and useless. Thankfully, Paul provides us with a tool to help turn things around.
“26 If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” (1 Cor. 12:26)
We chip away at our selfish ambition for power and fame each time we suffer with a suffering believer. It is there we learn how Jesus “carried our sorrows,” and we affirm the value of every soul.
In addition, we carve out the envy of our hearts each time we take joy in the spiritual service of others and the blessings they receive. Then we are unchained from our resentment to serve the Lord in our own way.
Religious movements tend to become more centralized and complex. After all, it is easier. “Let the professionals do it.” But ultimately it reduces religion to a show that guts the body of Christ of its power. A power that flows through each member actively caring for one another until Jesus is known as Lord.
When that happens the church becomes, not an event we attend, but a people we care about, empathize with, and learn from. We become, “the body of Christ, and individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12:27).
“Let all that you do be done in love” (1 Cor. 16:10)
*“Big Box” stats. Over the past decade church attendance among professed Christians has declined (http://www.pewforum.org/2015/11/03/chapter-2-religious-practices-and-experiences/). At the same time churches with a regular attendance of 2,000+ have nearly tripled (http://hirr.hartsem.edu/megachurch/database.html). Simply put, there are less people attending Christian worship in fewer, but larger places. The motivations behind the shift are interesting to consider (http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/attendance-at-religious-services/). Those who attend are looking for a religious experience or information for personal improvement. Their attendance does reflect they believe the teachings of the Bible.