I asked a question that brought the Future of the Church summit participants to an uncomfortable silence. It was a simple question that continued to provoke a good deal of soul searching among these church leaders weeks later.
The question: What is the church?
Some expected an easy answer to such a basic question. But others wrestled with the ramifications of the possible answers. Some wondered if they were to define the original concept of the church–or what the church has become.
It’s a question that surfaced repeatedly in our research for our new book, Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore. We heard the vast unchurched public conclude that the present-day church has become its own focus. They perceive that the church is a complicated machine that is designed to sustain and preserve itself.
Any entity that yokes its identity to self-preservation eventually destroys the very thing it sets out to protect.
In our upcoming documentary film When God Left the Building, Leadership Network’s Reggie McNeal says, “Somehow we got it in our minds that the church is the point. The church is not the point.”
AN INSPIRATIONAL IDENTITY
I pondered McNeal’s comment on a recent trip to India, where the established institutional Christian churches are experiencing many of the same issues of stagnation and decline that we see in America. But we weren’t there to spend time with those churches. We were there with a team from Lifetree Adventures to help obscure churches conduct their ministries in the slums of Delhi.
What we witnessed there gave me a glimpse of the church’s true identity.
We met passionate, dedicated church leaders and members downplay their own comfort and safety to serve in an environment that is predominantly Hindu and Muslim–and often outwardly anti-Christian. Here they’ve humbly established communities of Christ-followers without fanfare, flash or flair. Many of their places of worship don’t even bear an identifying sign.
They meet in the spare room of a house, or in a small rented space, or in an open area along an alleyway. Once they gather more people than the space can accommodate, they establish another small church in another location.
When the faithful gather, their praises, songs and prayers fill the neighborhood air. They’re not there to listen to professional musicians. They’re there to worship together–with joy and heart. They often linger long after the service to pray for one another’s needs. And not just on Sunday. We watched as God’s people gathered spontaneously on any day at any time to join in worship.
Here, the church’s presence and outreach is based on meeting neighbors’ real needs, and building authentic relationships. One of our pastor friends here has been patiently building friendships in an enclave of snake charmers. In terms of converts, it’s slow going. But he’s not preoccupied with numbers. He’s focused on delivering the love of Christ to his friends–one by one.
The church in the slums of Delhi is not consumed with what the American church sometimes calls the ABCs–attendance, buildings and cash. Instead, this is a church focused on the enveloping love of Christ, a contagious community of faith sharing in fellowship around the one true God who loves each individual individually. That’s the church.