Book Remarks are not book reviews, but topical posts inspired by books. This post was inspired by Rediscover Church, by Collin Hansen and Jonathan Leeman.
In the twenty-first century, is the traditional church outdated? Maybe this two-thousand-year-old institution needs a modern makeover.
During the recent pandemic’s “stay-at-home” stage, many Christians experienced the convenience of online services for the first time. It turns out, we can stream our local church’s service live online and praise Jesus in our jammies. Or better yet, we can sleep in and watch the service later in the day – or even the next day.
Virtual church is convenient; it’s comfortable. It’s Church On-Demand. The temple made simple.
In fact, with online videos, podcasts, audiobooks, and other options, Christianity has never been so accessible. Thanks to technology, we can listen to sermons during our commute to work; we can become more holy while on the highway.
And, on the one hand, there’s nothing wrong with getting God on the go.
On the other hand, Collin Hansen and Jonathan Leeman aren’t so sure that all this convenience is a good thing. As they state in Rediscover Church (2021), “The push toward the virtual church, we fear, is a push to individualize Christianity” (page 53).
And that’s a problem. Indeed, there are several functions of a church that cannot be accomplished effectively by individuals acting as… well, individuals. A church is a group of believers who gather, and it has multiple purposes.
The church as a corporate entity should serve as an embassy, a community, and a school.
Hansen and Leeman suggest that a church is “an embassy of heaven” (page 54), and the comparison makes sense. After all, “An embassy is an officially sanctioned outpost of one nation inside the borders of another nation” (page 54).
What is a church, if not an outpost of the Kingdom of God?
We know that Jesus did not consider Earth his home. The night before the crucifixion, he said, “Now I am going to him who sent me…” (John 16:5, NIV). He later told Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). Basically, Jesus wasn’t from around here.
Once we become Christians, the world is no longer our true home, either; we become citizens of the Kingdom of God. In fact, Jesus told his disciples, “You do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world” (John 15:19).
We don’t belong here, either. We’re foreigners. Even the psalmist sang, “I am a stranger on earth” (Psalm 119:19).
But we do serve a function here. We are God’s representatives on Earth. As Paul said, “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors” (2 Cor. 5:20).
But what does that really mean?
An embassy represents its homeland, and seeks to influence the host country. It is not, however, the base of operations for an invasion. Likewise, the church should obey local laws as much as possible: “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established” (Romans 13:1).
In fact, to rebel against earthly authority “is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves” (Romans 13:2). The church can seek to influence the laws of earthly nations, but it should not seek to subvert those laws.
Instead, the church should go about the Father’s business. But what is that?
For one thing, it’s the Great Commission: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).
In 2 Corinthians, when Paul described us as Christ’s ambassadors, he added that we have been given “the ministry of reconciliation” (5:18). The message is simple: “We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God” (5:20).
That’s the message we need to spread: Repent. God loves you.
It is worth noting that Paul implores people to change; he doesn’t demand it. God does not enforce obedience – He allows humanity the choice to follow him, or not.
It’s the church’s job to extend the invitation to follow God: to proclaim the Good News, and to offer a better way to live. The church should be a city on a hill, and the light of the world (Matthew 5:14) – it should be an example of how to love God and treat others.
In addition to representing Christ on earth, the Church has another function: to provide a community for believers.
The world is a lonely place, and in some ways technology isolates people as much as it connects us. If virtual church is a move toward the individualization of Christianity, it will rob us of one of our most powerful witnessing techniques: togetherness.
Jesus told his disciples, “A new command I give to you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35).
One of the ways Christians stand out is by how they treat each other. It differentiates us; it generates curiosity; it’s inviting.
The early church modeled such behavior well. Its members held things in common and met the needs of each person; they ate together in their homes and praised God together (see Acts 2:42-47).
This sense of community is another reason that virtual church should supplement, but not replace, attending an actual church. As the writer of the book of Hebrews says, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (10:25).
Elsewhere, Paul said, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2).
There are a lot of “one another” commands in the New Testament, including love (John 13:35), honor (Romans 12:10), accept (Romans 15:7), comfort (2 Corinthians 1:4), serve (Galatians 5:13), forgive (Colossians 3:13), encourage (1 Thessalonians 5:11), and many more.
By the way, what was the result of the early church’s loving behavior? “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). A loving community – a family – appeals to people. When the church provides a safe space, instead of a house of judgment, people are drawn to it.
The church is not just an embassy; it’s also an expat community. And, it’s where true disciples are made.
There’s a reason many churches have “Sunday School” classes – it’s a place for instruction. Indeed, when Moses announced the Ten Commandments to the people of Israel, he said, “Learn them and be sure to follow them” (Deut. 5:1; emphasis added).
In fact, the word disciple comes from the Latin word discere, which means “to learn.”
In the previous blog post, we discussed some simple tips to creating your own testimony – how you can respond if someone asks you why you believe in God. And, that simple approach is a great way to start doing your part in spreading the Gospel.
But eventually, we need to take some steps forward. We need to be able to answer some of the tougher questions about our faith. Peter said, “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good” (1 Peter 2:2).
The author of Hebrews actually expressed some frustration with Christians who don’t mature: “Though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature…” (5:12-14).
The church helps in this maturing process. Hansen and Leeman call church services “a time of job training” (page 127), and even suggest, “The short description of a pastor’s job is that he is to equip you to do your job” (page 126). In fact, any church leader should teach by example, not just pastors (1 Peter 5:3).
But we can only observe someone’s demeanor and behavior if we spend time with them – something limited by virtual church.
As Hansen and Leeman say, “Both instruction and correction are necessary for growth” (page 87). The church provides both things in a way that individualized Christianity simply cannot.
So, is the traditional church outdated?
No. But perhaps we need to reimagine church. Hansen and Leeman make a compelling statement: “You want to find a church that grabs the world’s attention? Find a church that looks like the one to come” (page 110).
We can debate exactly what the church to come will look like, but it surely will be diverse. People of all races, cultures, political parties, occupations, social statuses, and temperaments will be in heaven. They will love each other, serve each other, and do all those “other” things mentioned in the New Testament. They will be unified.
Modeling these behaviors would be a great place for a reimagining of "church" to start.
Let me close with Hansen and Leeman’s key takeaway: If you want to attend a church you love, don’t ask what the church can do for you. Instead, “Just show up and ask how you can help” (page 147).
How can you serve your church?