I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. (Matthew 16:18)
These days it’s possible to find just about whatever you might want in a church. Whether your style is traditional or contemporary, your interest fellowship or outreach, your preference for the young and hip or the older and more sedate, big steeple or no steeple, liturgical or more spontaneous, preaching or story-telling – just about whatever you want in a church, you can find. Church leaders today feel at liberty to shape and position their churches according to the interests and needs of their communities, or the preferences in style or structure of church leaders. Never before have there been so many different kinds of churches to engage the visions of church leaders or the fancies of prospective worshipers.
In some ways, this is a wholesome and welcome development, a fresh change from the days when just about any church you might enter seemed as cold, stodgy, and irrelevant as the next. However, the danger is that, in seeking to distance themselves from traditional church forms and formats, churches may all be drifting toward a point where, once again, they’re all starting to look and feel the same – only contemporary, at least, for now. Changing, updating, repositioning, and reshaping our churches can be very healthy, but only if we keep within parameters of change and reformation which acknowledge that there are some basic components of shape, form, elements, mission, and so forth which must characterize any church in order for it to be a church.
For, at the end of the day, the church is not ours to build and shape as we like. The Church and all local churches as expressions of the universal Church belong to the Lord Jesus Christ. In His ascended glory, He has taken on the task of building His Church. Moreover, He has provided the tools, resources, and designs by which local church leaders must build their congregations. If we would have the blessing of the Church’s Chief Architect and Builder on our facilities, ministries, and people, we should pay special attention to what Jesus intends for His Church.
The Church belongs to the Lord Jesus Christ; He alone articulates the vision church leaders must follow if they would fulfill His purpose in having raised them up to build a church. Jesus Christ intends for His Church to be an agent of transformation—salt, light, and leaven—wherever it puts down roots and puts up walls. If churches are not having the kind of transforming effects Jesus envisioned, it may be that we have been building according to the wrong set of drawings. Today, when the Church in America is more marginal and meaningless than it has ever been, we do well to examine the vision of the church which guides our local efforts at worship and ministry. We may build impressive facilities, attract large numbers of people, and fill everybody’s week with plenty of things to do, but we will not be the church unless we are following the plans and building according to the designs of the One Who, at the end of the day, must build our churches Himself if they are to be what He intends.
A Glorious Temple
...Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. Ephesians 2:20-22
In what sense(s) can we speak of the local church as being a “temple” of the Lord?
The Lord’s Dwelling Place
Foundational to Christ’s vision for His Church is that it should be a dwelling place where He and His people live together in the salvation He provides. The New Testament uses the language of “temple” to describe this, primarily because this is what the people of God were familiar with in those days. In ancient Israel, God came to dwell with His people, to meet with them and receive their offerings, and to send them out with His blessing, from the confines of a temple constructed according to God’s own plans. So it doesn’t surprise us when we see the New Testament freely using the language of “temple” and “dwelling-place” to describe local churches. But, unlike the temples of the Old Testament, the temple which is the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ is not made with hands – it is not a constructed site, at least, not in the first instance. The temple of the Lord is realized in the members of the Body of Christ, in whom Jesus dwells by His Spirit. We who believe are the temple of the Lord (1 Cor. 6:19), both individually and together. What value is there in thinking of ourselves – individually and as congregations – as “temples” of the Lord? Do your church leaders encourage such a vision for your church?
The Body of Christ
Now this has tremendous significance, in the first place, because it should turn us away from thinking of our churches – of that which Christ would build through us – as physical and material facilities. The bricks and mortar and all the furnishings may be useful when the temple of the Lord assembles, but these are not them temple of the Lord in themselves. Nevertheless, large portions of the budgets and time of any local congregation go to caring for, keeping up, and using a physical facility. That’s not bad in itself; it can be, though, if when we think of “church” we think, in the first instance, of the buildings in which we gather as the temple of the Lord.
The temple of the Lord is His own body, which He is raising up, adorning, beautifying, strengthening, and commissioning to the task of advancing the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. The Apostle Paul tells us that a temple of God, properly adorned and maintained, grows in unity and maturity in the Lord Jesus, as pastors and teachers equip church members to do the work of ministry (Eph. 4:11-16). A building and other facilities can aid in this process, but they are not essential. Indeed, in many ways they can actually distract us from our task by so defining and confining what we do in the name of ministry that our endeavors consistently look more like the ways of the world than the work of the Lord. Meditate on Ephesians 4:13-16. Define “unity” and “maturity” and explain what these will look like in your church as it begins to grow as a temple of the Lord: The Vision of the Church
What Matters Most
Jesus is building Himself a dwelling-place of beauty and joy, one that so reflects His presence and power that it can seem, at times, to be indistinguishable from Him (Ps. 48:1-3, 12-14). As we build our churches let us not lose sight of the fact that what matters most to the Lord is not the number, shape, and usability of the buildings we erect, but the health, growth, and ministries of the people in whom He has come to dwell. For the people who believe in Jesus are His temple, the centerpiece of Christ’s vision for His Church.
Why is it important that we keep our focus on people as the church rather than on buildings or programs? How will such a focus affect our approach to “building” the church?
First published November 9, 2009 on Colson Center for Christian Worldview as part of the seven-part series, The Vision of The Church.
The Worldview Church staff recommends Chuck Colson’s book, Being The Body that can be purchased from the Colson Center Bookstore. Purchases help financially support this ministry!
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture references are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright 2001by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.