"An Institution, Or The Living Body Christ?"

Brian E. Burch

As 20th century Christians in America, anyone who would truly desire to follow Jesus in simplicity and truth is faced with difficult choices. Dr. Anthony Campolo, committed disciple of Jesus and professor of sociology with Eastern College, St. David's, Pennsylvania, has spoken so well of the absolute necessity of being true disciples (the normal NT term for Christ's followers), as opposed to nominal, culturally-bound "members" of the church (a phrase never found in Scripture). In his excellent book Who Switched the Price Tags?, he relates a conversation with an individual on the subject of a Christian's lifestyle:

"One yuppie asked me recently if I thought buying a BMW was a sin. I did not quite know how to answer him. I must admit that having a dependable automobile is a legitimate aspiration for any person living in a modern society characterized by urban sprawl. However, there does seem to be something unchristian about spending $40,000 on a sports car. I always have to ask myself what kind of car Jesus would buy if He were presently among us in the flesh. Would the Lord spend $40,000 for a BMW? I doubt it. In the face of the desperate hunger and poverty that exists in the world today, I think that Jesus would live more simply in order to use His resources to help those who are simply trying to live."

One might say from reading Campolo or hearing him speak that he "hits too close to home." Yet there is such a ring of truth in this call to be true disciples, not just nice "believers." I suggest getting acquainted with Mr. Campolo's writing if you are unfamiliar with his tone.

As the title indicates, this article really deals with the body of Christ, and a decision that we American Christians must face. That decision is, are we going to continue to allow the "professionals'' to encumber God's people with more machinery and corporate structure, or will we, like Jesus, throw off the burdens others would tie on us, and follow His simple, radical and liberating life of discipleship? Do we want an institution or the living, breathing, working body of Christ on earth? Are we going to be disciples, whose lifestyles speak for themselves, or "church members" who attend services year after year and yet have no "qualms" about spending thousands of $$$$ upon ourselves and extravagant luxuries because, "after all, I did give my tithe to the church!" Will it be religious ritual, performed once or twice a week, kept in a neat little "Sunday" compartment, or daily, heart obedience in a relationship with the Living Jesus?

Let's spend a few moments rediscovering what God's word says about His people, and compare that to the modern emphasis upon the "church."

In Brother Holt's editorial "What is a church?" (6/88 Examiner), the qualities of a modern church were very plainly put forth. These were obtained from a speech made by Jerome Kurtz in 1978, then commissioner of the IRS, and included 14 criteria to help the agency determine whether a certain organization was a church. I suggest re-reading that article in depth, as it truly put forth a common, American understanding of the "church". In our local paper recently, there was an article on the religion page entitled "What turns off the unchurched in the United States?" Mike McManus, who wrote the article, cited some very interesting statistics such as: While the number of believers in Jesus Christ in America is growing, so is the number of people who do not attend church. He says:

"the reason millions of people are not in church is not a lack of faith, but growing disenchantment with some aspect of church life, and the church's failure to respond to people's inner spiritual journey. The major reason that the number of unchurched people has grown over the years is that religious institutions get decidedly worse grades today than 10 years ago. The percentage of Americans who believe that most churches and synagogues are more concerned with organization, than theological issues, has grown from 51% to 58%."

"Think of it," writes McManus, "people are leaving churches because they are not being challenged spiritually."

Now that does seem unbelievable! However, not that unbelievable to those who, like myself, have been involved in the planning, organization and execution of "churchonomics." I am yet under 30 years old, but I sense such a great movement toward "church" growth (as opposed to "kingdom" growth) today in religious circles that I can withstand it no longer. I have been to some great "church growth" seminars, and even heard the pastor of "the largest church in the world" speak about "his church." While I benefitted greatly from the Biblical insights shared at the conference, especially those relating to the power of prayer, in retrospect I confess that the "vision" I received from a "mega-church" with all the buildings, budgets, and boards, was far more of a concern for me than the tragedy of one, lost, dying soul. So you see, if my experience as a modern minister is at all the "norm," it is no wonder that people searching for the Jesus of Scripture find no solace in the arms of an institution primarily concerned with its own survival and financial well-being, than individuals whose hurts cannot be healed by any but the Great Physician. Most of us professionals have caring hearts, but are so distracted by the "numbers game" we can only give a passing prayer, if time allows.

Thus, we have discovered that what we have in the American religious world today is largely a conflicting view of the mission of God's people. It seems tragic that those who are genuinely searching for the "living water" of Christ are so often unable to find it in the religious institutions of the day. While those on the "inside" of the church are convinced that bigger buildings and more money are the answers to reaching "untold millions." (as they are told by the "experts") those same untold millions are searching for just one concerned heart who will point them to the Fountain of Life JESUS. Sometimes they find such concern in the modern institution, many times I am afraid they do not. All these lost souls want and need is the gospel the Love of God incarnate something money cannot buy.

Most of those reading this will already know that the word "church" is used to translate the New Testament (Greek term "ekklesia." My concern is not to repeat what has already been stated by those who have excellently brought forth the meaning of that term. Suffice it to say that the word, wherever used in the New Testament, ought to be translated assembly, or "gathering,'' or perhaps "congregation." The question that deserves to be addressed by the professionals today is not How do we "grow a church?" (Which, being translated, means model, respectable "mega-church'!) But rather, WHAT is the focus of Scripture? A new religious institution that took the place of Judaism and temple worship? Is that what the "ekklesia" of Christ is all about? Or did Jesus, and Peter, and Paul have in mind an emphasis upon individual lives built upon the "foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the chief cornerstone?" Is our concern for People or a super-church? It seems to me that if Jesus had intended to establish just another religious institution, why should be have wasted His time arguing with the Pharisees over religious ritual? Why even waste His precious blood on Calvary if he intended to have His followers erect a structure like everybody else's with just a different name? It would have been so much more expedient to have left Judaism intact and let people see it as the model institutional religion. Everything was in place a beautiful temple, priests, sacrifices, the Law, etc. it was the perfect institution. BUT WHAT DID JESUS SAY? "No one tears a piece from a new garment and puts it on an old garment; otherwise he will both tear the new, and the piece from the new will not match the old. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled out, and the skins will be ruined" (Luke 5:36-38). He came as a revolutionary, to bring NEW WINE! The old wine (old law) was good, and holy in itself (Rom. 7:12), but it was of no effect in keeping men from sinning. So One, Innocent, Perfect, Law-abiding citizen had to die for the whole race, and "bring us to God." JESUS did NOT die for "a corporate entity that can sue and be sued at law!" He shed His precious blood for PEOPLE of every race! Why? To make us "... a kingdom, priests to His God and Father" (Rev. 1:6), so that one day we might all stand with the "great multitude, which no one can count, from every nation and all tribes and people and tongues, ... before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes ... crying out with a loud voice, saying 'Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb' "(Rev. 7:9-10).

In conclusion it could be said that one of the greatest concerns we ought to have about the modern "church" is that it gives people an avenue of easy, compartmentalized religion apart from the concern of everyday life. We "go" to church; we "attend services," we have "church workdays," the list could go on and on. It all has the appearance of godliness. But why are there really so few DISCIPLES? Because we have tucked away our Christianity into a nice little facility down the road, and tend to it one day a week. Can the structure be reformed? Can it be changed? What shall we do? It is time to stop placing the new wine into old wineskins that Jesus declared ineffective over 2,000 years ago; and it is time to START turning people to the cross to receive lifegiving water! IF this is done, the methods, the money, but most of all the SPIRIT will be there. Leave the "yuppie," corporate mind-set and its BMW budget behind, search for that life that is LIFE INDEED!

"If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them."