I was in prison. I had just walked into the visitor’s room. There was a quiet assortment of folks waiting to go inside the heart of the prison to visit with a loved one, relative, or friend. As I put my personal items away in a storage locker, a tough looking young man said something to the effect of “this is a ————– stupid place.” He was clearly frustrated. He noticed me, and said with a sigh, “I’m sorry Father.” I replied: “don’t worry about it, we’re all human.” He, like many of the people in the room, was agitated with some of the stringent rules the correctional facility required them to observe as visitors. I sat down across the room to wait for visiting hours to begin.
As we waited, the young man, who I later discovered was a truck driver, started to chat with me. We talked about his family member who was being held and his unfavorable assessment of the prison. Eventually he started a conversation about church and religion. He wanted to make something very clear: “Oh I believe, I just don’t like the church thing.” He talked about some of his experiences while attending church and how he didn’t enjoy being hugged by strangers he didn’t know. I listened with sympathy and replied, “Yeah, I’m not much of a touchy-feely person myself.” I spent a little bit of time explaining the reason why church was important and he listened with interest. Eventually it was time to go inside to visit. I wished him God’s blessings and went on my way. This sincere and bright young guy expressed the sentiment that I have heard dozens of times and I bet you have also. Different people say it in their own way, but essentially they are saying, “I’m a spiritual person but I’m not into organized religion.”
This view is held by millions of people across the world for numerous reasons. One of the major reasons for the prevalence of this view is the lack of understanding of what Christianity, spirituality, and the Church really are. Another reason is the failure of the Christian Church to model and be what God has called her to be throughout the centuries. There are many churches trapped in a narrow religion that only observes certain rituals and activities divorced from any connection to everyday living. Conversely, the Church is intended to be a place of vibrant spirituality that helps people connect to God in a personal way. Being a part of the Church is more about being dialed into the divine, embracing a new spiritual identity, and living a transformed life and less about rules, regulations, and buildings. Community spirituality, which is the true expression of the Christian faith, is never about mere institutional religion but always transcends institutions and allows the Spirit of God to transform human lives and the world.
I can virtually guarantee that anyone reading this sentence comes into contact with the Church on a daily basis. You might not attend worship services on the weekend, but you probably interact with the Church all the time. It’s not unusual for me to say in the middle of a sermon or a class, “True of False, the Church is a building?” and in many places I preach people are quick to say, “No, the people are the Church!” If you are a follower of Jesus then you are the Church. You don’t contain the fullness or completeness of the Church within yourself, but you are a part of its organic reality. I’m not talking about membership in a local church, rather I’m referring to the Biblical truth that people form, express, and make up the essence of the Church. Therefore, as Christians go about their daily lives they literally bring the Church with them to work, to the grocery store, or to the nightclub, making the possibility likely that the majority of people in America encounter the Church as expressed in individual Christians on a daily basis.
Buildings only help the Church to gather for worship, relational development, and other activities. Buildings are an aide to being the Church, but they should never become the focus of the Church. When they do, they become idols of unhealthy spirituality. The authentic life of the Church is best captured in the collective lives of Christians throughout the ages. This encompasses not only all of the contemporary believers of our time in history, but those who have gone before us and those who will live after us. The Church is at once present, past, and future. It, along with its savior Jesus will last forever.
The most famous metaphor for the Church is found in the Biblical book of 1st Corinthians where Saint Paul describes the Church as a body. He writes in chapter 12, “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body — whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free, and we were all given one Spirit to drink.” In other words, despite what differences individuals may have related to race, employment, or religious background once they enter the Christian faith they all become a part of the one living body of Jesus Christ. Once separate individuals, they now are united together by the Spirit of God. Jesus the great cell phone tower takes the lone voices of individual spiritual cell phone users and connects them all together to form one Christian network with one united voice.
The purpose of the Church, whether seen as body or network, is to tell the story of Jesus by living it and speaking it to others. It is this purpose that forms the core mission that Christians are called to accomplish in their individual lives. However, the behavior and actions of the lone Christian are never done individually because every believer through what they do and say is always giving expression to the entire Body of Christ, the Church. Healthy spirituality links the individual man or woman with the living God, but it never stops there, it always links the individual man or woman with others to form a spiritual community.
Christian spirituality is never a solo performance. You and I are to play our notes and our parts as members of the Spirit led orchestra that is the Church. Christ is our conductor and we play our symphonies not in search of earthly applause but in order that others would join us in playing the melody of the Gospel. Christianity is not a me and God affair. It is always about how the individual me becomes a part of the collective we in worshipping the One God who is Trinity.