We live in an age of increasing ecclesiological befuddlement. There is a wide spread confusion over the Christian doctrine of the church that transcends both geographic regions and denominational lines. The market demonstrates this in that there have been scores of new books recently seeking to bring clarity to the matter. Vintage Church, Total Church, Organic Church, and Simple Church are a few of these books—all of which were just published in the last four years. I have also seen a quite a few sermon series of late that attempt to tackle the subject. Moreover, I personally find this question constantly coming up in random conversations I have with a huge range of people. One of the sayings that people frequently cite in these discourses is that Christians should not “go to church but be the church.” I use to be fond of this saying but it seems like it has quickly degenerated into nothing more than a platitude. I had promised that I would attempt to explain why I think this phrase does not help disoriented Christians set their compasses to North in the debate over the church.
First, let us consider what this phrase gets right. When it says do not “go” to church it is trying to slyly point out that church is a family and not a place. It is definitely right in confronting the doctrinal reduction that sees church as merely a program, building, event, or just some mixture of all three which a Christian goes to/attends. I cannot think of one fellowship that would openly define church this way. However, I think it is fair to say that many pastors and members would, by their practice, define church as attendance to large corporate worship gatherings. This understanding of church ignores the Bible’s emphasis of the “one-anothering” and intimate pastoral care that is suppose to be a daily practice in the local church. I cannot blame anyone for wanting to correct a view of church that neglects those precious gifts of grace.
Second, let us consider what this phrase gets wrong or does not do well. I find that most people who employ this saying often do very little in answering exactly what it means to be the church. I think it is easy for us to figure out what we are supposed to take away from “don’t go to church” as noted in the previous paragraph. However, what is meant by “be the church” remains incredibly foggy. The phrase gets its power not from what it builds up but from what it tears down. It seems to me the thrust of this phrase tends to be mostly deconstruction. Those who put it to use most spend the greater part of their energy attacking the legitimacy of Sunday services, worship bands/choirs, church buildings, pastoral salaries, and a host of other issues. They bring little clarity to the key issues of polity, church discipline, and the sacraments that lie at the heart of the confusion. Clearly, there is a need to tear down bad theology. The church has benefited greatly from the “tearing down” of faulty theology at the hands of men such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, and J. Gresham Machen. However, these men did not just wield a jackhammer but also a trowel. The problem with this phrase is that it just digs a hole but lays no cement.
In summary, this little phrase rightly criticizes one faulty definition of the church but does nothing in providing a correct understanding of what it means to be the church. We need less of these trite cliché and more of disciplined conservation that is interesting in more than deconstruction. There is kingdom building to be done.