One of the most famous quotes in American history is the comical retort by Mark Twain (circa 1897) sent from London after he heard that his obituary had been published in the New York Journal: “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” Let’s hope the obituary of the local church, written by some, is just as exaggerated.
In 2006, Christian pollster George Barna shocked the evangelical community with his book “Revolution.” In it he wrote the obituary of the church as we know it. In less than 200 pages he wrote of the many Christian movements that operate apart from local congregations while declaring the local church to be on its death bed with a fatal disease. In its place, Barna argued, would arise thousands of house churches with sincere people who have no loyalty to any church—only to Jesus.
Recently Rev. Robert H. Schuller, the successor of his famous father at the Crystal Cathedral, joined the growing list of those who believe the local church is doomed to die a slow, agonizing death. In an interview with the Christian Post, Rev. Schuller was asked: “So what do you think the future of the churches will look like?” In response Schuller said: “I think we’re in a new era in the church. And that era is ‘denominationaless.’ I think the Church is actually going to reflect what Jesus Christ has envisioned the Church being since day one. I think it’s going to be a body of believers, not necessarily congregated in a specific location, but those who have a sincere faith and a heart and love for Jesus Christ...” (emphasis added). He went on to state that this new Church will worship God in “unique ways that [are] yet to be determined and at different times.” Sadly, his comments echo the feelings of many people in America today.
For Rev. Schuller I suppose this would be a welcome trend. After all, far more people are in the Crystal Cathedral’s television audience than in the glass church itself. A body of believers with no set time or place to meet would fit nicely into a new paradigm of worship that favors an impersonal television congregation.
Here is my honest question: Is the local church a biblical concept or just a worn out tradition of Christianity that needs to be “thrown into a closet” somewhere with tie die shirts and button up shoes?
Obviously, there is not enough space in this column to present a complete and comprehensive argument for the biblical foundation of the local church, but allow me to simply suggest the study of two clearly biblical pictures of the church given to us in the New Testament.
The first picture is that of a “body” found in 1 Cor. 12.
The Apostle Paul likens the church, in unmistakable terms, to a physical body. Christ is the head and we are individual members—each of us uniquely gifted to be a particular part of Christ’s church. This concept requires a connectedness and intimate cooperation between all the respective members.
One could not imagine a body where each member simply did their own thing, and only when they wanted to do it. And yet, that is the model some are presenting today. (I realize the concept of the universal Church clearly exists in biblical doctrine, but the analogy of a body can only be fully realized in a local church.) Imagine trying to accomplish anything productive with one of your arms in one city, a foot in another city and an ear across the ocean! How can we truly make disciples of Christ other than through a local body? Consider just one example: church discipline. How can our church leaders faithfully “keep watch over … all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made [them] overseers” (Acts 20:28) except in a local body where all the members are striving together to live in harmony with scriptural accountability?
The second word picture worth considering is that of “building” the church found in 1 Peter 2:5.
Individual members are referred to as “lively” or “living” stones that make up a spiritual house. The picture is clear. The New Testament refers to Jesus Christ as both the foundation and the cornerstone of the church. Upon this foundation is laid “living stones”—individual believers. Together these stones make up Christ’s church.
This concept is used in Eph. 4 as well where we are told to “edify” the body of Christ. The term “edify” is literally a construction term that simply means to “build up.” The picture is meant to demonstrate that Christ is the foundation of the church; we are the living stones laboring to build each other up. Is any of that possible with a congregation that meets only through a television program?
The church may be sick and hurting. The church may need to be re-examined as to its methodology. The church definitely needs to be revived by God’s Spirit. However, the church is not dead.
There is no need to abandon a plan clearly revealed in the New Testament. The problem is not in the plan. Rather, the problem resides in those of us who are trying to implement it. Therefore, instead of declaring dead the local church, let’s pray that God would grant us wisdom and energy to help the church thrive in this postmodern age so that the next generation will say of the church: “Reports of its death were greatly exaggerated.”