We have all seen that well-intentioned pastor or speaker on a video in our Facebook jazzed about how this is the biggest moment in the history of the world. The face changes, but the message does not. This is our time, and we must seize it. Carpe diem!
If every day is the most important, then no day winds up being important. Too much sensationalism and it is eventually overlooked. But that is not the purpose of today’s post.
In his substantial work on the doctrine of the church, Gregg Allison makes a really important point and I want to tease out some of its implications. He writes,
Scripture indicates that specific churches were established in specific places with concrete addresses. For example, Paul wrote “to the church in God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1: 2); similarly, he wrote “to the churches of Galatia” (Gal. 1: 2). “God called the churches there for his purposes— and the there was not inconsequential, seeing God’s providential ordering of peoples, times, and places (Acts 17: 26).” Indeed, by far the most common referent of the New Testament’s presentation of the church is a spatio-temporal gathering of Christ-followers — a local church.
Pay no attention to the fancy word “spatio-temporal.” That simply means that the church has a physical location at a specific moment in history. In other words, your local church should have a specific address and a specific timeframe for its existence, and that is really important.
To be clear, Allison is not concerned about your church having a building. He continues, “Throughout its history, the church has met together in catacombs, graveyards, farmhouses, caves, palaces, storefronts, apartments, huts, schools, and many other places.” He is also not concerned about your church having a set Sunday schedule, but points out that your church exists at a fixed point in history, with a past and a future.
I know, this may sound terribly obvious, but I believe it is so obvious it is often overlooked. Here are two quick reasons why I think we should pay attention to this truth.
It isn’t a local church if there is no locale.
Podcasts, online church, and even cyber-churches in computer games are all things today that may have the appearance of church but lack the realness of it. I am all for a church streaming its service for sick members, but that is a very different animal than a church that streams a preacher instead of gathering. Simply put, place matters. The universal church is made visible only in the existence of local assemblies. Your participation in God’s church is done through your actual participation in a real group of people that meet together. The one another commands of Scripture are awfully hard to live out in emails. Furthermore, your church has a witness-bearing responsibility to the outside world. That requires us to get off our couch, away from our phones and screens, and in front of other faces. While this is true of a Sunday morning worship gathering, it is even more true of our disciple-making mission throughout the week. Can an outside community, anywhere, point to your church as something that exists in their midst?
You are a local church for a specific time and place.
This is where Allison’s point bears on mission and ministry. Place matters when we have a mission to accomplish. Your place may be nothing like my place, but both places need churches that are intelligible, faithful witnesses to the gospel. That is your responsibility and it is my responsibility. This is the divine providence of God himself, leaving a witness to his grace, in the form of a group of people changed by that grace. Your church is the church for your place at this time. If this is true, then each church has a solemn responsibility to understand its place and time.
This is the part where I make yet another appeal for contextualization. But knowing your location does not merely mean reading Facebook posts or online articles. It is not merely reading posts about culture at some vague, macro level. It does not merely mean checking out demographic studies or spreadsheets with ethnic and income statistics. Sure, you can and should do these things, but knowing your context is ultimately a human experience. It is lived in setting, among the faces of your community, with open eyes and open ears. You do not need to know “American culture;” you need to know your neighbor’s names and problems.
Your local church is the local church for your neighbors. Place matters because people matter.