Words Fail Me: Rethinking Church

With a mug of java in hand, seats arranged in an inviting circle, and snacks generously heaped upon the central coffee table, many would-be emerging Christians are having conversations about church and the new things that God is doing. And while there has been a steady influx of fresh innovations and discussions, the sleek emerging/evangelical church hybrid is often in danger of falling into well-worn ruts that previous travelers sunk into . . . with little hope of emerging again.

Language, culture, assumptions, traditions, a limited collection of scripture verses, and a boxing of the Holy Spirit all act as spoilers for anything that would be fresh and emergent. While this fence around theologians must not be completely destroyed, it is sorely in need of alterations. Some parts need to be demolished, others need to be extended to include more, and others must be left in place but still recognized as a fence.

Language is the first specimen to be placed under the microscope.

God may do a new thing, but our words will always betray whether or not we have caught on to his heart. Even if we are meeting in homes as simple gatherings that aim to listen to the Spirit of God, we are still in danger of falling into the same old traps we encountered at institutional church. When we gather, is our only goal, “To be fed.” Do we value the gathering time for what we can “get out of it,” or are we coming to give? Is time with fellow believers only for our benefit or for the benefit of all involved?

“I am going to church,” is another statement that betrays a misunderstanding about the very nature of church. We can go to a gathering or a worship service (though I’m not big on the word “service” in this context), but we can never go to church. The people who are wed to Christ form the church. Such an identity cannot be granted by an institution or a building. To live and gather as the church or people of God is something larger than meeting within the walls of a church, it is an identity granted by God himself.

Other words that become tricky relate to salvation and those presumably on the outside of God’s Kingdom. How do we perceive people who do not know Jesus? Do we call them “the lost,” “the unsaved,” “the world,” “the heathen”? Each of these reveals a certain perception that we hold of the world and, to one degree or another, the pride we put in our own position as “the saved.” Can we move to a more generous, hopeful, and (dare I say) inclusive way of speaking about those on the outside of the Kingdom that doesn’t sound so . . . degrading? Need we even make a distinction? Can we just leave the sorting out to God and simply do our best to make disciples of all nations, knowing all along that people are separated from God and need the reconciliation of the Gospel?

Other words like “righteousness” and “salvation” have untapped meanings that we often miss out on. Righteousness during Second Temple Judaism (400 BC-100 AD) implied generosity and striving for justice in addition just a spiritual state of rightness. Do our words imply the same meaning as the words in scripture? Do we only offer a spiritual form of salvation when we speak of being saved?

If we want to catch on to the new things God is up to, we need to be ready to hear God use old words in new ways and to think critically about the scope of their meanings. If we describe church in certain way, it would help to take a look at the words we use and the standards they imply. God may want to pour out his Spirit on a gathering of Christians and really spread his love. No one may learn a new thing, or get “something out of it,” or “be fed,” but such expressions belie a system of values and expectations that limit what God wants to do. God may want to work in ways that transcend our words and terminology. Can we handle that?