Through the mouths of her fictional characters, Rivers makes some alarmingly true-to-life observations. One character in the book is a Christian contractor. Having been burned by involvement with a building program, he lamented that once his church decided to build, the focus changed:
It was all about bringing in more people so there'd be money to continue the project...It was about events. It wasn't about building a relationship with Christ. It was about a head count and the take on Sunday morning. How many times did the Lord have to destroy the temple? And we're still trying to rebuild it.
Maybe it's easier to pour our efforts into building a house for God rather than building a relationship with Him. One requires a few years of hard work, but the other asks for a lifetime of commitment. The problem is, the building becomes the idol we worship. The programs are the sacred cows. Numbers are our means of evaluating our success. And it's all about vanity.
While institutional concerns may well be the focus of today's church, it was not that way in the earliest churches. As River's fictional contractor says of the early church a bit earlier,
...the first order of business was not to go out and put up a building for meetings. It was to win souls, teach, have fellowship, break bread together, and pray. If I'm going to be a part of building a church, I'd like to build a church without walls.
Reading between the lines, Rivers' word of caution is not just about building programs. It is about how the institutionalization of the church can distract us from what should be the main focus.
The first century church was not an institution. It was a living organism--a body. Consider the modern institutional trappings that were not present in the early church. They did not have...
- Buildings, mortgages, insurance, or utility bills.
- Full time staff.
- Bank accounts.
- Church sponsored colleges or universities.
So what am I saying? Are these things wrong? Not necessarily. But it's ludicrous to think that the way we do things is an exact replica of how they were done in the first century. To radically restore things to how they were done then, we would have to jettison all the above mentioned items.
While I do not believe it's wrong to have those items, they become wrong when our focus shifts from spiritually forming people into the image of Christ to maintaining an institution. While institutional maintenance may at times be God's work, it could also get in the way of doing God's work.
We might wrongly judge success by how the visible institution is doing. A body of Christians can fall into thinking that without the institutional trappings of building, staff, or positive cash flow that they are not really a church. It's how our culture defines church, although the earliest church had none of these things.
What really matters is ministry. Are people being formed into the image of Christ? It is exhausting and expensive to maintain an institution. But these external trappings aren't necessary for us to be the body of Christ. What is required is that we bear our cross, serving sacrificially, giving reason for our hope to others. We can do that with or without walls.
There are movements to restore this first century dynamic of a church without walls. Established churches try restoring this dynamic of fellowship, caring, and accountability through small group ministries. Other churches are being newly planted on this model. It's ironic that those who argue vehemently for pattern restorationism are often the most vocal critics of such efforts.
What do you see as the pros and cons? Some days I wonder if life could be simpler in a church without walls.