In his 2012 book The Righteous Mind, Social Psychologist Jonathan Haidt said that religion was a product of evolution in the mind of man with the hope and intent of greater social and community connection. That means religions like Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity were only developed as an outflow of man’s evolving mind hoping to come closer and closer together with the people around them. We Christians would eye such a statement with a baffled look and a hurt spirit, saying in total confidence, “That couldn’t be true about the Church.”
There are people in this country who were born into “churchgoing homes.” There are people in this country with no church concept growing up, only to be brought into the fold in their elder years. There are people in this country who in the womb were at church, and later on, they could not take the culture anymore. Still, everyone in this country has some opinion of the Church, either good or bad. The American Dream transformed the American Church, separating it from all other churches around the world.
There are small churches, big churches, and megachurches. There are thousands of denominations within the American Church. Some denominations embrace each other, tolerate one another, and others have an intense hostility over doctrinal disagreements. Church pastors, authors, and speakers have made millions of dollars in profit off the Church, either from preaching a prosperity message or starting a church organization that millions of American churchgoers dedicate a portion of their paycheck every month.
But from the beginning of this nation, entire groups of people in this country have felt cast out, neglected, and hated by society, and whether we accept it or not, the Church played a part in their isolation. The church concept has been around since the settlers came from across the Atlantic to flee their state Church only to start a new Church. I could go on and talk about America and the church’s history because there hasn’t been an America without an American church.
But if I’m candid, taking a good look at the church today would affirm Dr. Haidt’s premise because we stick to our church friends are staying in the church bubble. We limit ourselves to church things, spending our money at Christian-owned businesses. Now, am I saying we should frolic into sin, leave God, and embrace Dr. Haidt’s secular framework? Absolutely not. However, we should take a good, long look at the current state of the church and the cultural stigma it has created and embraced.
So, I want to take that closer look and ask those different questions in hopes of proving that the true Church of God is not some evolutionary development, but rather God’s chosen people made to accomplish God’s sovereign purpose. Far too often, we only talk about the “big C” Church and “little C” church. But to fully grasp the church’s identity without a Church History course, we’re going to zoom in on the infamous scene from Avengers: Infinity War. On Thanos’s ship, Star-Lord, Iron Man, and Drax went back and forth trying to understand Peter Quill’s request to find his beloved Gamora.
Quill: “Where is Gamora?”
Iron Man: “I’ll do you one better. Who is Gamora?”
Drax: “I’ll do you one better. Why is Gamora?”
Those are our questions, not about Gamora, but our beloved church. and our focus will be in Acts chapter two, verses forty-two through forty-seven, where Luke writes of the great and growing church:
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and signs were being performed through the apostles. Now all the believers were together and held all things in common. They sold their possessions and property and distributed the proceeds to all, as any had need. Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple and broke bread from house to house. They ate their food with joyful and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. Every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” Acts 2:42-47
Where is the Church?
Let’s flip a chapter over to Acts 1, where Jesus instructs his disciples and students on the Mount of Olives where to go and carry his message:
He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”Acts 1:7-8
As the leaders of his Church, Jesus instructs them to start in Jerusalem, their town, and move onward and outward, building up believers and churches. But what’s the problem with this first set of verses? What’s the struggle with Acts 1:7-8? This is Jesus, God in the flesh telling them to do something. Didn’t they do it? We wear these verses on shirts for missions! Entire books and mission strategies are dedicated to the nitty-gritty of this sentence, but the problem is that the church in Jerusalem and leaders within it STAYED in Jerusalem! They didn’t move! They were comfortable with the lives they had and did ministry there.
So, what happened? Move to chapter two. The Holy Spirit came down like a roaring fire at Pentecost, saving the souls of men, women, and children from all over the world. Thousands of people originally coming for the Festival of Weeks were ignited by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit lit a flame and sent these people from Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, or wherever they came from. The ministry of the Church was carried to new places in a manner of moments.
While the verses here show the early Church praising God all days of the week, they were not hidden in buildings for certain days of the week. Why? Because they did not consider themselves bound to one place. No, they were out, and they were out all the time. In the people’s workplaces as merchants, carpenters, tent makers, fishermen, the Church carried their identity as God’s people wherever they went. So, where was the church? Everywhere and anywhere. Why? Because they had that fire, guided and led by the Holy Spirit TO BE everywhere and anywhere.
Only a couple verses before, the Holy Spirit came down like a roaring fire at Pentecost, sending countrymen from all over to all over. They couldn’t strictly associate with their fellow church members at all times. The church moved as its people moved. From what we know about the book of Acts, the church further expanded its mission field in the face of persecution. Rome made a decree a few years before that abolished the establishment of new religions after AD 30. Still, when it was clear that Christianity was far more than a denominational piece of the pie of Judaism, suppressors were sent to Jerusalem to stomp out the Church and its leaders. This outside oppression coupled with the fire for mission moves the Christian Church across Europe, Northern Africa, and Asia in a few decades.
There are churches in the country that have created incredible atmospheres, but they can quickly become comfortable. Churchgoers can come and go as they please because of how safe they are. The church has a responsibility to be anywhere and everywhere. In our practices, classes, and homes, the church is still present because the Holy Spirit is still there with us. As big as it may be, the only difference is no outside oppressors are forcing us to go out into different communities. With the religious freedom we have in America, it’s all on us to make the decision and to be honest, there aren’t a lot of us doing it.
The early church was not out and about on first-century message boards chatting about the downtrodden realities of the world they lived in. They were not complaining about the emperor’s incompetency and lackluster leadership. They were out ministering in their countercultural hope, repairing the social struggles. They were aiming to share their solution instead of pointing out more and more problems. So, where is the church right now? For the most part, it’s in the building, but where does it need to be? Anywhere and everywhere.
Who is the Church?
The church is you. The church is me, but first and foremost, the church is a people group, a unit. It’s a unit that shows no singular demographic. People of all ages in all countries with men, women, and children have taken part in the church’s growth because they realized early on that it wasn’t about them. We always say it’s more than a building, but more remarkable than that is the fact it’s more than a team. It’s more than a family. It’s a spiritually connected body that cannot be replicated anywhere else. It’s like what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3 that “We are God’s coworkers.”
To give an example, Michael Jordan, in the late 1980s, was the most gifted scorer in the league. He had achieved quick success on the court under the leadership of coach Doug Collins. He won scoring titles, defensive player of the year, and MVP honors. Off the court, millions of dollars went into his pocket from his best-selling shoes and Gatorade advertisements.
He was the man, and everyone wanted to be like Mike. But when Phil Jackson took over, instituting an offense that more often took the ball out of Michael’s hands (The Triangle), the team started to win championships. Michael still had his individual greatness, but he had to sacrifice his number of touches, buy into Jackson’s game plan, and see the team as something more than just a group of guys under his footstool. He went on win, as most of us know, six NBA championships.
In interviews over the years, Jordan will demonstrate that it’s not about the most incredible individual player of all time, but in his opinion, the best team. The best teams are not teams. They’re not corporations or organizations. They are families, brothers, and sisters from the top-down, from the ownership group to the concession workers united under a common goal of striving for greatness.
Regardless of Sunday morning attendance or individual pastor success, no church will indeed be a church if there is no corporate body buy-in, sacrifice, and surrender. The local church is bound to fail if it relies on the senior pastor, teaching pastor, or the elder board to be the Church.
The early church, shown here in verses forty-three and forty-four, is described with the plural pronoun they. They possessed together. They fellowshipped together. They sacrificed together. They were filled with awe and reverence toward the mercies and miracles of God together. Individuals like Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 were killed by the mighty hand of God because of their individualistic mindset. They were punished because they considered themselves higher than they ought, lying to the Holy Spirit, and cared more about their bottom line than the church’s growth and generosity.
What was the result of the Church’s unity? What’s the gain of such corporate surrender? They were “enjoying the favor of all people.” Not only that but, “Every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” When Nero and the Roman Empire denounced Christians as cannibals over the Lord’s supper, eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ, people from outside the church came to bat in defense of Christians.
They were recognized as a loving, caring group of people always willing to do the right thing for the right reason. When Nero blamed Rome’s destruction on the church, historians both then and now shot down the sentiment because there was no possibility of the Church causing such destruction.
But now, when individuals coming with hope to harm in our nation’s capital on January 6th waving “Jesus Saves” and “John 3:16” posters carrying the name of the Church with them, why are we not surprised? When insurrectionists breach the Senate chamber doors only to pray in Jesus’ name, why does this country expect nothing less? Why are we not broken, ripped to shreds at the sight of people defaming the truth of Scripture and our Lord Jesus in such a way, not for the sake of sharing the gospel but standing up for “stolen elections”? At that moment, the Church has been downgraded to a place we go, or something we do, instead of the identity we hold or someone we are. At that moment, Jonathan Haidt looks correct, and we are made to look foolish.
When the people of God are less individually focused, man-centered, and materialistic, the church undergoes serious growth. Notice here that the development is not directed in the amount of money dedicated and pledged to the church budget because that was not their most significant focus. Cities like Bentonville and Nashville are undergoing serious growth in all aspects of society, and visiting preachers have repeated time and time that churches in the areas are in line for growth and change, if they haven’t already. Still, the local churches should be growing spiritually whether or not Bentonville or Nashville are some of the nation’s fastest-growing cities.
The early church was not looking at the fastest growing places as the future Christian hubs. They looked at the number of lost people around them, which became their greatest goal and focus. They did not worry about whether their individual needs were met by their church leaders. They did not stress over the decisions of the church going forward, how they were going to “adapt to the changing culture” or “outside pressure.” Their goal was saving souls, and the Lord blessed them with that attitude.
So, who is the church? You, me, but most importantly, all of us. A family is more than a family bonded together, which leads us to our final question.
Why is the Church?
Paul writes to the church at Ephesus in Ephesians chapter two:
“So, then, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with the saints, and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.”Ephesians 2:19-20
Plain and simple, Jesus Christ is why. We know that, but what we see from the Church in Acts chapter two and all branches after that is that Jesus is both the moral driver and sole motivation for every action they do.
Fast forward to Acts chapters four and five, Peter and John stood in the face of Sanhedrin and proclaimed Jesus Christ as the Cornerstone. In Acts chapter seven, Stephen became the first Christian martyr as he was being stoned preaching that Jesus was killed by those who believed and knew in the laws of Moses and not his prophetic word that Christ would fulfill.
Acts chapter eight, Phillip is carried by the Holy Spirit to an Ethiopian eunuch to explain the truths of Isaiah and how Christ was the object of the words he was reading. Acts 9, Jesus leads Saul away from Damascus toward Ananias and saves him of his physical and, more importantly, spiritual blindness.
Chapters eleven through fourteen display the expansion of the Gentile mission, proving that the gospel was for the nations all along. We could go on and on and on highlighting the message of Acts and the early church, clearly seeing that Jesus Christ was their “why,” and God’s glory being shown to the world became their “what.”
So, if our “why” informs our “what,” what does it say about the church today? It’s easy to see from particular churches across the country that Christ is both their focus and mission, but the American Church as a whole is walking along a different line. As the leaders of today and tomorrow, our job is to point the Church back to the source if we want to get back to the kind of spiritual growth shown in the book of Acts. We have to cast aside our wants, needs, and agendas and gather together under the banner of spirit and truth and the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
Our nation is struggling because the Church is struggling. Our country’s religious freedom is a great thing, but it is more than pointless to fight for it in the courts if we are not taking advantage of it. Brothers and sisters around the world would be kicking themselves to have the kind of liberties America does. Yet, our nation is secularizing at the fastest rate, and the freefall and rapid decline of the church’s witness is a big part of it.
The call has been clear for us to press on together, as a unit, a family more than a family, looking to the testimony of the Church that came before us to be the Church that Jesus wants us to be today. It’s a rough journey ahead into the darkness of this world that has to be filled with leaning into Scripture and trusting the Cross and the Empty Tomb. But a forgotten step is trusting your brothers and sisters in Christ to journey alongside you.
We cannot be churchgoers, church culture warriors, legalistic, or closed-minded. We can’t be a group of people that merely follows a religion or a community that simply meets twice a week. We have to be the Church of God where people risk their lives every day. The Church of God that Jesus Christ died and rose again. The Church of God whose priorities are reaching the lost and giving God the glory.
Because there will come a day when that Church, the bride of Christ, comes together with the Savior of the World to usher in the New Creation where there will be no more crying and no more pain. That Church, united in spirit and truth, will be composed of all nations, tribes, and tongues. That Church will be of one voice praising God on his throne. That’s you and me. That’s us. Let’s be that Church.