The small town in Arizona where I grew up had a chamber of commerce that promoted the businesses in the community and worked to generate some tourist traffic in a place that could easily be missed by blinking your eyes too many times as you passed through. It was located on the route that Interstate 10 would eventually follow, and so the main street, a mile and a half line of gas stations and blinking neon signs marking the location of motels and restaurants, gave the impression that the town was bigger than the population would suggest. The chamber of commerce had billboards out on the highway that encouraged those travelling to stop in town where there were “350 motel rooms, 22 restaurants, 25 clean service stations and 14 churches.”
Today, the population of about 12,000 people is served by more than 20 churches. Census data and church membership information would show that only about 15% of those people are actually connected to a church in the community and fewer than that are involved or attend. So why is there a need for more than 20 churches in a community where all of the church goers could easily fit into the bleachers in the high school gym?
The scripture, in the book of Acts, when describing the formation of the early church in Jerusalem, mentions only one church, and talks about “the Church at Jerusalem” rather than the “churches”, which is a term Paul and Luke use only after the believers were scattered into different geographic locations. Even after that, though, when they refer to the church in a specific location, they use the singular form of the word. Different meeting places were the norm, but every small group was connected to the body of believers in the same geographic location, and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that this was the norm all across the Roman Empire as the church rapidly expanded.
That’s more or less how my Sunday School teachers explained it to me when I ventured to ask why our town had so many different churches, and how did we know which one was the “real” church? But that’s not how it really was. And it didn’t take very long to discover that there was not a whole lot of Christian love and fellowship in evidence when the people in one church would speak of the people in another. In fact, one summer, when my Mom was looking for something for me to do and I wound up in three or four Vacation Bible Schools, I encountered a Church of Christ preacher who didn’t bat an eye in telling us that the churches we went to on Sunday weren’t really churches at all, and that his church was the “real” one. After all, it had the right name.
I don’t think that’s what Jesus had in mind when he told Peter that his faith, evidenced by his confession, was the rock on which he would build his church. What he had in mind began to develop shortly after the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost, and basically converted hundreds of thousands of people in a predominantly pagan society while finding itself at odds with both the heirarchy of the religion that gave birth to it, and eventually the power and influence of the state.
What it has morphed into, over the 2000 years of its existence, doesn’t often resemble what was described in the pages of the documentation it produced during its early years, which we call the New Testament. The strength of the early church rested on the relationships that developed between members who drew strength from each other, and an organization that has very specific functions and purposes, all tied to the idea of being a community of Christians with faith in Christ as their Lord and savior, and in his divine nature, in common. It was a group of people that, when it came together and sought the presence of God, he came to them in the form of the Holy Spirit, giving them the strength and endurance they needed to face the persecution to which they were subjected.
What the church has become in many parts of the world is a social and political institution built around its own numerical strength and the influences of its more prominent members. In other places, the failure of what has been identified as the “church” to respond in a Christlike manner to human crisis has sucked away its credibility and it has experienced sharp decline further neutralized by having the spiritual guts torn out of it. In our own culture, which I have observed, it has become a social institution sucked into the consumerism that dominates our society, and operates on the basic rules of business rather than on the scriptures. We have built “megachurches” on a consumerist model, utilizing business principles and the personality of preachers with a smooth tongue and a celebrity personality. In the process, the individual relationships and interdependence that the Bible points to as being essential to the nature of the church often goes by the wayside. After a generation of megachurch pastors, and megachurches, some have discovered that no measurable spiritual growth has taken place among their membership, few are willing to admit it, and none seem willing to take the necessary steps to change it.
For most American Christians, church is something you attend for an hour on Sunday.