There’s lots of talk these days about church as institute vs church as organism. Truthfully, most of the discussion is way over my head. I’m no theologian. Conceptually I understand the difference, but in practice, I suspect it’s not so easy to separate the two. In fact, many in my generation have absolutely no use for an institute without an organism. Which leads me to a bigger question, what exactly is “church?”
One of my first field visits with CRWRC (now known as World Renew) was to a part of India where World Renew and CRWM had worked in the 1980s, but they had left. Imagine my surprise to take the train to a very remote location only to find a church service featuring a pump organ that some missionary had left behind decades before! Worshipping under a makeshift roof, with the organ, it made me realize that yes, you can have a church without a building.
So a few years later when, at a missions event, someone was lamenting the fact that a church in India had no building, my thought was “so?” I’ve since worshipped in many churches that don’t have buildings, mostly without organs. Drums and guitars or even gourds work just as well. This is not to say that I’m against helping churches in developing countries build church buildings; rather, to point out that ministry can continue without them. My own church worships in a rented warehouse.
Another thing that people assume churches have is a full time pastor. However, even in our own country, it’s not always possible for a church to afford a full time pastor. So pastors are shared or are bi-vocational.
At what point does a group of believers constitute a “church?” It’s something to be puzzled over. Often times in community development, whether overseas or in North America, people living in poverty work together to better their neighborhoods. This process is often led by Christians, and after awhile someone suggests a Bible study. This group of believers (some new) will then meet regularly, pray together, sometimes with a pastor, sometimes not. Is this considered a church? Of course it would be great if they could attend a local church, but let’s face it, not all of our traditional churches would welcome “those people.” What then?
How is this relevant to missions? To me, it underscores that we can’t leave evangelism and missions up to “the church” or “the pastor.” A pastor can only do so much. A building, no matter how beautiful, is not going to bring people to Christ. An institute, whatever that means, is not going to fulfill the Great Commission. It’s the responsibility of every single one of us.
This became clearer to me when I was in Nigeria this past January. “There is much noise on Sunday,” one Nigerian observed, “but what difference does it make on Monday?
The pastors shared that they had much training in theology, but not much in practical matters such as human resources, computers, and management. Everywhere we went, the question was, how can church impact society? I wish I had the answer.
What do YOU think? What about the churches that rise out of a group that joins together to live out their faith by transforming their community, are they an institution or an organism? Where does drawing institute-organism lines empower people to live out the gospel and where do those lines create false limitations?