by Dillon Burroughs
Church wasn’t designed by an architect. (Technically, Jesus was a carpenter.) So why do we think of churches as buildings instead of groups of people who love Jesus?
The church started in a home. Granted, it must have been a sizable home because there were 120 people there, but it was still a home.
Then the church exploded. Not literally (That would be gross!), but it grew really quickly.
Three thousand people joined up in one day. But their method continued. Acts reveals that the church met in the Jewish temple courts and in homes. The temple courts were an open area, perhaps the equivalent of an ancient parking lot. When weather permitted, they met outside in a large group. Otherwise, they gathered in homes around tables, engaging in worship, learning, and building relationships.
I like the sound of that. Meet outside when it’s nice and in homes the rest of the time.
Sounds similar to the postmodern house church movement or the underground church in China, but it also reminds me of some of my best worship experiences—meeting in small groups around coffee tables, on living room floors, or in classrooms.
During my final year of college, I helped launch a Christian college movement on my campus. We met in Holmstedt Hall 102, one of the larger lecture halls, for our weekly times together. For the rest of the time, we met in dorm rooms, cafeterias, phone booths, restaurants, city parks, cafés, hallways, station wagons, stairwells, and apartments.
When I think back to my deepest memories of connecting with God and other people, megachurch experiences do not come to mind. I’ve yet to experience God through PowerPoint any better than at a table at Taco Bell with Josh or at Coffee Grounds with a guy named Tim.
There’s certainly something to be learned from the early church’s de-emphasis on facilities.
Several weeks ago, my wife and I talked with a homeless woman named Rebecca. We had a decent conversation, including some talk about spirituality. She was already connected with a local social worker and had a church home. We ended up encouraging her the best we could, but we felt highly inadequate to provide help beyond the moment.
As I drove home that night, I couldn’t help but wonder what it would look like if I had invited Rebecca to my church that next morning. My church is great, but it is a church for suburbanites, not street people. My pastors might argue otherwise, but I rarely meet a homeless person attending our church.
But what if I became the church to Rebecca and others like her?
That night, my wife and I were church for Rebecca. While I hope she left better than she did before our encounter, she probably still had the same unfulfilled needs the next day, both physically and spiritually. Where are the people who sing “Shout to the Lord” for the five thousandth time when it is time to respond to such needs?
The concept of homeless church is one I continue to explore. If church is people who love Jesus gathered together, isn’t church at a café with a few friends just as much church as the 6:00 p.m. Saturday service at one of the “Fastest 100 Growing Churches in America”? Isn’t a gathering of thirty Latinos in Reynosa, Mexico just as much church as the gynormous auditoriums built for Sundays in major U.S. metro areas?
I think we would agree the answer is yes. But why do we not live out our answer?
I am currently teaching a graduate-level course called Ecclesiology. That’s a fancy word for accreditation purposes that means “a class about church.” It is designed to cover what the Bible teaches about the New Testament church, along with a little perspective on the college’s unique denominational position. Every time I read verses like the end of Acts 2 or the book of 1 Timothy, my heart accelerates for movements and people who really take the challenge to build communities of faith into our world, which has less enthusiasm for church buildings than it may have before.
Humanitarian needs and communicating Jesus’ message work best when we don’t attempt to separate one from the other. During my first mission experience to Haiti, in 2006, needs exploded in front of my eyes. Poverty, unclean water, environmental damage, lonely children, illiteracy, health issues—and that was just on the way out of the airport.
But who or what can make a dent in such social havoc? Exiting the airport parking lot, our vehicle was flanked by two U.N. military tanks. Yet their presence only kept down violence. It did nothing to change hearts.
About 90 minutes and two gas stations later, I stood atop a little mountain in Gramothe, where I spotted a protruding white steeple. There, in a cinder-block structure, over 500 children receive daily education, food, clothing, and the love of Jesus. It was started by a group of people who call themselves a church.
And they didn’t stop there. Medical outreaches assist nearly one thousand people each week when they are open. An orphanage supporting thirteen Haitian boys and girls has been started halfway down the mountain. A training school for church leaders has started to train ministers for neighboring churches. Pastors walk from hours away each week to participate.
Again, started by a church.
When a church, a group of people who love Jesus, lives out its faith, something beautiful happens that guns and governments cannot touch—the human soul. And when the soul is touched, communities are changed, and our world is a different place.
One well-known American church made national news when it purchased a former NBA arena to rebuild into its own facility. The improvements cost over $100 million. The average person in the nation of Malawi makes $600 per year.
I’ve grown up in church, worked in churches, and now teach about church, but I have yet to figure out how to be church. By God’s grace, my journey will lead through future days where I see the name of Jesus honored through the interactions of rich and poor, black and white, Latino and Anglo, Asian and Caucasian, with hands lifted high to the One who created us all—and loves us each the same.
Churches are like friends. They can bring great joy or great sorrow. It depends on which friend and at which moment we look. More accurately, churches are friends, connections of people who hold one common bond—the Son of God—whose blood was poured out for the doubters and despised, poor and wise. Jesus communicated these things when He read a portion from the prophet Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come (Luke 4:18-19 nlt).
Good news to the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed. The time of the Lord’s favor has come. Jesus has come. He leaves us to be Jesus to those still oppressed and confused.
The church—you, me, and everybody who claims the name of Jesus. So stop complaining about all the hypocrites. Be the church that speaks love, truth, compassion, and grace to those living without purpose and without hope.
Homeless church. Where you and I can both be members because of one homeless man who took our place and gave us grace. Jesus.
Adapted from: Undefending Christianity. Copyright © 2011 by Dillon Burroughs. Published by Harvest House Publishers, Eugene, OR. Used by permission.