Premises, programme, people and presence

Jesus said “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matthew 16:18). That is not a command to Christians to build the church. That is a promise. Jesus will build his church. But what is this church which Jesus is building? Over the last couple of years we have looked at different pictures which the New Testament uses for the church of Jesus Christ. The church is the body of Christ, and God’s forever family, and the bride of Christ. The church is the new temple where God lives through the Holy Spirit, made up of the living stones of the lives of believers. We are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation and God’s special possession. The church is the household of faith, the family of God, God’s forever family. Those are eight of the pictures which the Bible uses for the church. This morning I want to give you four more words which describe how people think about the church. And to keep things simple, all four words begin with the same letter. The first is
When folk who are not Christians use the word church, they are most often thinking about buildings. There are around 40,000 church buildings in the UK. Starting almost 3,000 years ago the focus of the Jewish faith and religion was the Temple in Jerusalem. But from Pentecost onwards, Christians mostly met in each other’s homes. The Bible and later Christian writings over the first few centuries A.D. never use the word “church” to refer to any buildings. The earliest church buildings only date from the first half of the third century. Today many like us do own or rent premises to use for their worship services and for their other activities. A building can be very useful to help the church fulfil its mission. But we need to be very clear, the church is not the premises. So what is the church? When they think about church, many people think not of the premises but of the
Sometime in the week ahead somebody may ask you, “how was church on Sunday?” “It was fantastic,” you’ll doubtless say. “The sermon was brilliant.” (Well, even ministers can dream!) Alternatively, some people might say, “I didn’t get much out of church this week”. Perhaps all they really mean by that is we didn’t sing their favourite songs this week. The sermon wasn’t very exciting and the coffee was a bit cold. If we ever think like that, we are assessing our experience of church solely on the basis of the programme.
The programme of a church doesn’t just refer to the contents of the Sunday services of course. It includes the whole package of midweek activities, special events and so on. Often people will say “I like this church, but I don’t like that church” when what they really mean is they like the programme one church offered but the other church’s programme didn’t appeal as much. The programme wasn’t to their taste, wasn’t as enjoyable, wasn’t as uplifting. In truth, many people choose the kind of church they attend or join, not on the basis of the theology of the church, whether it believes and preaches the Bible, whether it is open to the power of the Holy Spirit, but simply on the basis of the kind of programme the church follows – whether there is an organ or a music group, whether they use a prayer book or go forward to kneel at the front for communion, or even whether the minister wears a tie or a dog collar (or a skirt).
Over the centuries churches have put enormous effort into trying to improve their programmes. They have changed the times and even the days of their worship services. They have changed the prayers their use and the hymns and songs they sing. Some ideas work, some don’t. Some programmes prove to be more popular than others. But the church is not the programme. The future of any church does not rest on improving the programme, on “liturgical engineering”, or following the latest fashions in worship or gimmicks in evangelism.
We find details of the programmes the first churches followed in the Book of Acts and especially in our reading today from Acts chapter 2. Those first Christians were saved (verse 41) they were steadfast ( verse 42) they were sacrificial (verses 44-45) they were serving (verse 46) and they were spirit-filled (verse 47). And we read about the things they did when they were being church together.
Acts 2 42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
The first Christians built their programme around the apostles’ teaching. Learning how to believe in Jesus and how to follow him. We saw last week how Jesus had commanded his apostles to make disciples of all nations, baptising them and teaching them to obey his teaching. They devoted themselves to fellowship: sharing a common life together, caring for each other, sharing life and bearing one another’s burdens. The first Christians shared in the breaking of bread: joining together in worship and especially breaking bread together in communion. And they devoted themselves to prayer. Probably not set prayers, not just one person from the front praying but ALL praying together.
The programme of the Early Church involved meeting together not just once a week, but every day!
46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts,
Those first Christians did much more than meeting all together in the Temple courts for teaching and evangelism. They met in smaller groups in each other’s homes breaking bread together as well. They never had church buildings. Their programme was simple: teaching, fellowship, worship and prayer. Because of course there are at least two elements of church which are much more important than the premises or the programme.
You have probably already heard about the man who one Sunday discovered the most marvellous church. The worship was heavenly, the teaching inspiring, the fellowship warm and uplifting. (Modesty forbids us naming North Springfield Baptist Church). But when he went back the next day, the church had gone – vanished – he couldn’t find that church anywhere! Of course not! Oh, he found the building – but he couldn’t find the church – because the people weren’t there!
The third and much more important way of looking at church, of course, is in terms of the
There’s a repulsive American phrase which has crept in over recent years: “doing church” I hate that phrase!! The important issue is not “doing church” or “running church” but BEING church! The people are more important than the programme! The programme is just a means to an end, not an end in itself.
When people talk about “church” and “going to church” they are usually only thinking about the times when Christians gather together for worship on Sunday. But church is NOT what we DO on a Sunday all together. Church is what we ARE, 24 hours a day 7 days a week. We don’t need new ways of “doing church”. What Christians do need to discover is more and more of what it means to “be the church”, to be the people of God and Christ’s body here on earth.
As North Springfield Baptist church we meet together on Sunday morning and Sunday evening. But we also gather for prayer on Tuesday evening. We meet in homes on Tuesday morning and Thursday evening. And we also meet together in twos and threes on lots of other occasions. When we gather the important thing is not the programme we follow, the hymns and the prayers and the Bible readings and the sermons and the Bible studies. What matters more when we gather together is that we should experience “being the church” together. Not racing through a programme so that we can then run away home as fast as possible! The purpose of the programme should be to help us get to the point where we can begin to trust one another, begin to care for each other and share our lives with each other and bear one another’s burdens. If we go home after church services without talking to each other there is a risk that we are just “doing church”. We can experience bits of worship and teaching and prayer but there is a danger that we will miss out on the fellowship which is a big part of what “being church” is all about.
It may just about be possible to be a believer as an individual. Not ideal, but possible. But church is not something any of us can be by ourselves. Church is a corporate thing. We encounter God in each other. Church worship is a corporate thing. We worship him together – of course as individuals, but also joining in worship together, When it comes to “being the church” the people are much more important than the programme. This is why only coming to Sunday services isn’t enough for a normal Christian life. Meeting regularly in small groups like Home Groups or Prayer groups is not an optional extra for super-keen Christians but an essential part of what is means to be “church”. EVERY Christian will benefit from meeting with other believers at the very least for fellowship and prayer during the week as well as all together on Sundays. The emphasis here isn’t on “holding a meeting” but on BEING the church – not meetings but friendships, sharing our lives together.
May I just say a few words directly to the many friends who are joining in with this service on Facebook or YouTube, especially if these videos are the only link you have with a church or with other Christians. We would love to get to know you better. Do feel free to get in touch, through comments online or through Facebook Messenger or through email. Let us know if there are things we can pray about for you, or ways in which we can encourage you in your faith. If anybody would be interested in getting together from time to time over Zoom to pray or to study the Bible or just to chat, just let me know. Don’t be a stranger.
In church the people are more important than the programme or the premises. But none of these is the most important thing in what it means to BE the church. That vital factor is of course the
Matthew 18 19 ‘Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.’
That is what the church is – two or three people gathered in the name of Jesus with Jesus in the midst of them.
A.W.TOZER wrote, “the presence is more important than the programme! Whether it was worship or evangelism or fellowship the Early Church never relied on any programme but always gathered together in the greater glory of the Presence of God.” Tozer warns that in these days all too often “the programme has been substituted for the presence. The programme rather than the Lord of glory is the centre of attraction.” Tozer goes on, “If we make Christ the supreme and constant object of devotion the programme will take its place as a gentle aid. If we fail to this then the programme will finally obscure the Light entirely. And no church can afford that!”
As we go home after a church service, the most important question we should ask is not “Did I enjoy that service?” It’s not “Did I learn something new in that sermon? ” It’s not “Were our worship and prayers pleasing to God today?” It’s not even, “Did we have a good time of fellowship over the coffee today?” The most important question we should ask is “Did we encounter the presence and reality of God today?” We should ask the same after home groups or prayer meetings or any time we meet together formally or informally as Christians. “Was God with us as we met?” If we have met with God as well as each other then we will please God as we worship, we will learn from the sermon, we will enjoy our experience of “being the church” together. But if God isn’t in our midst then it isn’t church at all.
It is the presence of the Holy Spirit which turns a group of people into the body of Christ and into the new Temple built out of living stones. The church is the people in the presence of God.
Ephesians 2 19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.
It is the presence of the Risen Christ in the midst and the activity of God the Holy Spirit in the hearts of believers that stops a group of Christians just being a religious club and makes us into the church. Again A.W. Tozer put it very well. “Eleven dead men don’t make a football team.”
The Greek word for church is ekklesia – which literally means those who are called together – called into the presence of God. The whole purpose of the programme, the reason why we gather together as the people of God, is to experience an encounter with the PRESENCE of God.
We read this about the First Christians.
Acts 2 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles.
The presence of God was not only demonstrated in signs and wonders. Lives were transformed, God’s love was revealed and the Holy Spirit spoke in powerful preaching, dreams and visions and words of prophecy. But God was certainly present in signs and wonders too. The present reality of God the Holy Spirit in supernatural as well as natural ways is not just for “charismatic” or “pentecostal” churches. It is the Holy Spirit who makes each of us Christians. And it is the Holy Spirit who turns a group of people who trust and follow Jesus into His church. Without the Holy Spirit there IS NO church!
If any of us want to move on in our Christian lives, we need to be open to the working of God the Holy Spirit. And if any church wants to move on with God as a church it will not be by building better premises, or adopting better programmes, nor even by growing closer and loving each other more as people, although these are good things to do. The only way forward will be to open our lives and press on to know more of the power and presence of God the Holy Spirit in everything we do together, in our discipleship, in our fellowship, in our worship, in our praying, and in our witness to a lost world.
The holiday season is upon us. Some people will spend days on the beach and play in the sand. Some may even build sandcastles. Some people build sandcastles to be intricate and beautiful. Others build sandcastles to be strong and stand up to the waves and the tide. Jesus is building His church to be both beautiful and strong. When I’m on a beach I don’t usually make sandcastles. What I enjoy is to find a stream and build a dam. I like to build a dam which will change the course of that stream, not just for one afternoon, but to change the course of the stream so that if you come back weeks later the stream is still taking the path I’ve chosen, long after the tide has washed the dam itself away.
Jesus said “I will build my church”. Jesus is building His church to be that kind of dam against the tides of evil, to change the course of human history. Not so much to be beautiful and strong, but to change the spiritual direction of society. To do that we don’t need new premises or new programmes. We need to focus instead on the people who make up the church, and even more than that, to experience more and more of the presence of God!

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