Is dinner with my friends church?

April 23, 2015 at 7:09 pm

friends-581753_1280 “Without going into all the backstory, I’ll just tell you that I feel like God is moving me to be in a different kind of church. Specifically, one that has more of a home-church kind of vibe. So, is it OK for me to have church at my home? I feel like I experience God better at dinner with my friends. Thanks, man.”

So begins a recent Q & A within the pages of Relevant magazine. It is a question that has become fairly representative of the kind I have had lately with a variety of people. The question may come in a range of forms, but the essence is almost always the same… “do I have to go to church in order to be a Christian?”

In answering the initial question posted in Relevant, the magazine turned to a man named Chad Turnbull who serves at Northland Church as their Director of Distributing the Church (whose title probably deserves an article all of its own). His response included a number of insights including the following statements: 

“Church is not a place; Church is something that has to be rooted in relationship and common purpose.”

“The Church is me—it’s us—and it’s something we can’t do alone. The Church isn’t for you, it is you.”

To which I say, yes…and very much no, no, no.

At the outset here, one central question needs to be asked for clarification, and it is unfortunately absent in many of these dialogues. When someone asks me about the connection between their faith and church participation I always ask, “what do you mean when you say the word church?” Their answer inevitably guides my own and often leads to a much healthier conversation about ecclesiology in general.

 When we use the word “church” there has always been more than one way to speak about it. For the sake of clarity in this article I will refer to them simply as “Church” (with a capital c) and “church” (with a lowercase).

 When one is speaking about the Church, they are referring to what is commonly called the Church “Universal” or the Church “Triumphant.” It is the collection of all the followers of Christ from every tribe, nation and tongue throughout history. There are no half-hearted, nominal followers in this Church. This is the Church Christ died for and the Church that will spend eternity with him as his bride.

I believe this is the Church Turnbull has in mind when he suggests that “the church is not a place,” and “the church is you.” And to this I wholeheartedly agree. The Church Universal is not a physical building or place and it is comprised of the people Jesus now calls brothers and sisters. In this Church people are the stones that comprise the temple (Eph. 2:19-22).

BUT… 

These people, members of God’s Universal Church are also called to gather together locally to manifest the Church in every square inch of God’s creation. We call these gatherings “church.”

In contrast to the Universal Church, a local church is inhabited by equal parts sinners and saints, the “wheat and the tares” (Matt. 13:24). Here on earth the church is an institution that is no less tainted by the great Fall than any other organization. There is greed, there is racism, there is gossip, there is hypocrisy, there is sexual immorality, there is pride and there is relational dysfunction of every stripe.

 Which is precisely why I, along with numerous others, would often rather just have dinner with my friends and call it church. This is the struggle articulated by the question to Relevant, and it is the struggle I see weekly in the lives of countless people I know and love, which only underlines the importance for us to distinguish between what kind of church we are talking about in these questions.  

 In the example given at the start of this article, Turnball makes the mistake many people make when addressing this issue; they respond to questions about the local church with truths about the Universal one. The reader wants to know if he has to attend the local church and Turnball tells him, “you are the church.” How confusing is that?

 To answer the question more honestly the response should address both realities. Because you are part of the Church, you should be part of the church. Now in terms of location, can it happen in a house? Absolutely. Do churches gather in theatres, bars, strip malls and cathedrals? Of course. The location is not important, but what happens in those locations is. And this is precisely where the “dinner party church” may break down a bit.

Historically, the local church has been defined by three distinct marks:

  1. The faithful preaching of God’s word
  2. The right administration of the Sacraments (Baptism and the Lords Supper/Communion/Eucharist – depending on the tradition)
  3. The correct practice of church discipline

These ideas have been handed down to each generation through creeds and confessions with catchy names like Augsburg or Belgic. They show up in the writing of people like Calvin, Luther and Augustine. They are widely accepted and have defined the life of the church for two thousand years. They are not new ideas.

So the key question to ask is not “can dinner at my house be my church,” but instead “does dinner at your house have the marks of the church?” Are you preaching the word, administering the sacraments and conducting church discipline? Or are you eating, drinking and talking about your latest Netflix binge?

Perhaps most importantly, is your dinner party a picture of God’s Kingdom to the watching world? Are the marginalized, the outcast, the forgotten foreigner and the sinner invited to come and dine? Or is it merely an exclusive event with the people you like?

Understandably, the church can be a very messy place. There is great risk in sharing yourself with a community of people who will let you down. People who think differently than you, look different than you, or are just plain strange. I get it. But the life of following Christ is not one of comfort and ease. It is not about simply finding places where you “feel close to God” and setting up a tent. It is about being found in the places where God himself dwells and that means, most often, being found among the brokenness of this world where the downcast and hopeless dwell. In the land of the sick and sinful.

If you can find a group of those kind of people meeting somewhere every week in order to hear the gospel preached, consume his body and blood and to be held accountable to a holy life, then join them. And then invite some other sinners to come with you next time you have them over for dinner.