The religious teachers had a chance to fire some tough questions at Jesus, so in like manner, let's throw some tough questions at this topic of being church vs. going to church.
1. What's the difference between being church and going to church?
When we "go to church," we tend to think of church as an object...a building, a set of programs, an event we attend once or twice a week, a set of rituals, an organization or denomination, or (God forbid) a TV show. Granted, those may be legitimate outcomes or expressions of church, but in themselves they are not "the church." The Bible's language about church is more akin to words that describe "being"... like an organism (body of Christ), a family, a community, a relationship, a lifestyle, or a cause. At the core, the difference is a heart issue. We cannot "be" a lifeless object. And if we prioritize those objects over "being the church," then we will never experience the Kingdom of God. More on that below.
2. Why does there even have to be a church?
Maybe you don't think any of this is worth the trouble. Maybe church is something that should just be optional for people, whether to be church, go to church, or no church at all. I think that's fair. Many people have seen a lot of hypocrisy and have been burned by church. For others, church is really boring and irrelevant. So perhaps church is something that we can just as well do without if we choose? Well, I can't do much to fix the way people have expressed or experienced church. But here's why we have to have it...
Church starts with God's personality. You know me, I'm one for stretches, so I'm going to say here that God as Trinity (three persons in one) shows that God is in a sense the first church. I'm still not 100% sure how the Trinity works, but I know that it implies "community." God's own personality is a dynamic community of Father, Son, and Spirit that mutually loves and honors one another, and that also loves the world. And so you should naturally find that God would express himself through “community initiatives,” as you actually do find throughout scripture:
…to the Heavenly Host - "Let us make man in our image."
…to Adam - "It’s not good for you to be alone, I will make you a helper."
…to Abraham – "I will bless you into a great nation."
…to Pharaoh – “Let my people go.”
– "You are a chosen, treasured people, set apart from the nations." Israel
…to the disciples – "Come follow me."
...to the World - "Come eat at the banquet table."
All this is to say that God wants people to live in intentional community (as a "church") to bring honor to him and to show love to one another – because it’s what he already does (or “is”) on a daily basis. It’s the reality and purpose for the world.
3. Ok, so then why can’t I just “go to church?”
Here we should be careful to check our motivations for why we even want to go to church to begin with. If you're compelled to go to church because of fear, guilt, obligation, manipulation, or spiritual entertainment, then you should NOT go. On the other hand, if you're looking for good things like a sense of community or to find some meaning in life then you also should NOT go to church. The Trinity thing already shows that church is a state of being, not going. So you will only find true church when you be it, not go to it. I know that sounds all like Yoda talk, but it's for real.
But let's consider another reason why we shouldn't simply "go to church." Remember from the last post that Jesus' reply came from the Torah (the community handbook of Israel). Have you ever read through some of those laws and wondered if the author had ADD? Just take an example from Exodus 23 - in no particular order, the people are instructed on treating foreigners fairly, harvesting crops, refusing bribes, and managing donkeys. How the heck are all these things tied together?
I think this shows us that God wants us to have an integrated, holistic faith, where we don’t compartmentalize our life into church, work, friends, family, or donkey. It all belongs under the umbrella of a lifestyle that is centered on loving God and loving people - being church. We’re not just supposed to show up to church and then go about our lives the rest of the week. Everything we are and do is an expression of our "church" life.
So when the religious teacher agrees, in so many words, that it is more imporant to be church than simply to go to church, Jesus affirmed that he was not far from the Kingdom of God, from the life that God has set up for us. Hence, we are closer to the Kingdom of God (to peace, justice, healing, community, love, celebration, creativity, hope, etc.) when we "be" church.
4. What does it mean to be church?
Very simply, being church means living out Mark 12:28-34 together. It means growing spiritually on your own and helping others grow, using your spiritual gifts to bless others, being a blessing to your neighbors and friends, and sharing life together. So when we take “church” seriously as a community of people intentionally loving God, loving people together, then we can see how our communion with God, our fellowship with each other, and our service to the world around us all make up what it means to “be church.” And so in a sense, we have a refreshed concept of “going” to church and even to "inviting people to church." When you are meeting for worship…that’s church. When you are getting together for dinner…that’s church. When you are doing service and outreach together…that’s church. When you bundle all those things together, you are not just going to church, but you're being church.