Church… or Community?
We’ve been thinking quite a bit recently in the OTCC family about ‘church’ and ‘community’; and some of us may be wondering if they mean the same thing in our ‘Old Town’ context, or whether ‘church’ and ‘community’ are helpfully distinct from each other. The answer, according to the Scriptures – and as Sir Humphrey would regularly respond in the TV show: “Yes Prime Minister” – is “yes and no, Prime Minister”!!
Let’s go straight to the Scriptures. The Greek word ekklesia – translated ‘church’ – occurs more than 100 times in the New Testament. To the ancient Greeks the word literally meant ‘the gathering of those summoned’. And so, for example, the Athenian Ekklesia did not just refer to the citizens of Athens; but the assembly of the citizens of Athens. Against that background it is quite clear that in the New Testament the word is always used to describe the Believers (because only Believers were added to the church) as a group of people: either gathered together, working together: but always as an entity. And so, biblically speaking, the Church in Old Town refers to the Believers in Old Town, as a group of people, sometimes gathered together, sometimes working together, but certainly as a ‘together entity’.
So here’s where the “Yes and no, Prime Minister” comes in. On the one hand, it follows from the above that it is perfectly reasonable to describe the church in Old Town as a community (ie a community of Believers). On the other hand, however, that is distinct from the Old Town community as a whole, which currently includes not-yet Believers as well as Believers. So it is true to say that the church in Old Town is a community (that is growing) within the larger Old Town community.
Kingdom of God (Kingdom of Heaven)
At this point it is helpful to bring in another important biblical term: in fact something Jesus taught more about than anything else – ‘the Kingdom of God’. In Matthew 13 the writer records a number of back-to-back parables Jesus told, each one illustrating a different aspect of the Kingdom of God. A ‘kingdom’, of course, is the territory over which the rule and reign of a particular king prevails.
This is not the same as the church. The church is comprised of citizens of the Kingdom. But the Kingdom of God in Old Town, according to the Scriptures, extends beyond the periphery of the church. Taking the ‘Kingdom images’ in the parables of the mustard seed, and the weeds, and applying them to Old Town, the Kingdom of God (the territory over which God’s rule and reign prevails and has influence) began as something quite small, but is growing into something which will become the most significant influence in the Town. Its branches penetrating further and further in all directions, with every kind of bird (person) able to find refuge and safety in it.
And we can see that this is exactly what is happening. Kingdom influence is reaching further and further into all parts of the town, touching and blessing the lives of all kinds of people. We hear new stories, every week. The tree is growing and growing. And it is the parable of the weeds that explains that the Kingdom of God in Old Town extends outside and beyond the periphery of the church. The parable teaches us that the Kingdom of God in a locality comprises wheat and weeds. Side by side. However, nowhere in the Scripture is the church described as comprising both wheat and weeds.
So as we overlay these Scriptural images we have the exciting picture of the Kingdom of God growing and extending all over Old Town, and the church of Jesus Christ growing, and being added-to within that. A community (of Believers growing) within the larger community which is increasingly becoming the Kingdom of God.
Church Without Walls
So how does all this happen? Where or what is the ‘dynamo’ that energises and drives this process? As Jonathan Bugden reminded the Leadership recently, only the love and power of God can give life and growth to the ‘tree’. To pursue our vision of seeing the whole Old Town community touched, refreshed and transformed socially and spiritually without the driving, energising and transforming enabling of the Spirit of God would surely be a recipe for disappointment, failure, and burn-out!
The driving force is the Spirit of God, pulsating through the present day Body of Christ, the ekklesia, the local church community. The picture of the ‘church without walls’ (Zechariah 2: 4 ) is very helpful here. It paints a picture of the church – the community of Believers in Old Town – growing within the wider, Old Town community. But with no walls: no unhelpful, man-made ‘them and us’ barriers. Just an ever-growing community of Believers filled with the glory of God (says God to Zechariah), and reaching out as salt and light into the wider community, ‘doing’ kingdom stuff day by day. And that’s how the Kingdom of God ‘tree’ extends its branches further and further into the whole community.
I also like God’s explanation to Zechariah that He will be the wall of fire around the church. That speaks of protection, cleansing and purifying, power, and a bright light to expose and consume the darkness. Like the leading edge of a forest fire: always moving, always spreading.
And so the prophetic parable of the mustard seed is being fulfilled in Old Town. We are seeing the branches of the Kingdom of God reaching more and more people. More and more people finding hope, and a place of refuge, love and hospitality as empowered by the Spirit the church brings Kingdom life and power to bear in the different nooks and crannies of the community. And so, as Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, as the not-yet Believers’ lives are touched and blessed by the love and good deeds of the Believers, so they will see Jesus in it and then “give glory to God” themselves. That’s how it works! Exposed to the Kingdom of God, they are being drawn – in a naturally supernatural way – from the periphery of the community towards the centre: to Christ Himself. And when they embrace Him for themselves, they become part of ‘the church without walls’, and then they in turn become salt and light, further extending the Kingdom of God into the community at large.
Graham J Horsnell