In the Nicene Creed we confess that we believe in “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” What is that one Church? Our Augsburg Confession says, “The Church is the congregation of saints in which the Gospel is purely taught and the Sacraments are correctly administered” (AC VII:1).
Yet there seem to be competing “mental pictures” that people have for understanding the Church these days. How do you view the Church, and how do you view your place in the Church?
The Church as a Fitness Center?
One “mental picture” sees the Church as a fitness center. People see the local congregation as a spiritual version of Bally Total Fitness or Gold’s Gym. The “fitness center church” strives to offer a place where people can gather for programs of spiritual exercise and fitness.
At a fitness center, some people like to run or walk on treadmills, while others like to lift weights or do aerobics, and still others choose to swim laps. Many fitness centers hire specialized trainers who set up individualized workout routines “just for you.”
When you view the Church as a spiritual “Gold’s Gym,” then you will look for those activities and exercises that suit your personal preferences for getting into “spiritual shape.” Your sin will merely be a matter of getting a little “flabby around the middle.” Worship services or Bible classes will merely be exercise machines for building your spiritual muscles. And if the religious fitness center (the local congregation) does not have the equipment or the programs that get you in the shape that you want to be in, you may try to find another fitness center that offers what you want.
The Church as a Business?
A second “mental picture” views the Church as a business that offers religious goods and services. As at the grocery store or the mall, people browse and shop at churches for the goods and services that they “need” or want. The purpose of the “business church” is to attract and keep the customers (called “members”). This leads to competing with the “branch office” down the street and viewing the pastor as the store manager who must keep the “customers” happy at all costs.
“Business churches” might be like 7-Eleven or QuikTrip. They offer similar goods and services, and the customer simply chooses which one to go to based on personal likes. Or the “business church” might be like Barnes and Noble, where you go to get some information and reading material. That information might be vital for life, or it might simply be a nice diversion from the hustle and bustle of life.
One congregation may offer some goods or services that a congregation down the street does not. One “branch office” might offer a better youth group, a second might focus on older adults, and a third might offer a unique kind of worship. When you look for the “business church,” you find one that satisfies you right now, but if that changes, then you go shopping for another church.
The Church as a Clubhouse?
A third “mental picture” views the Church as a clubhouse at the country club. After golfers finish their 18 holes, they gather in the clubhouse to enjoy refreshments and conversation. The “clubhouse church” seeks to give people with a common interest a place to gather, socialize, and enjoy each other’s company.
The “clubhouse church” is a welcome sight after a week of grueling work. People expect to see friends and acquaintances. They want to sit down, relax a bit, and just chat. They might have an occasional organized event (the worship service), but what really counts is seeing people and talking with them over the refreshments of choice. If someone new walks in, people may look at him, think, “Who’s that guy?” but then quickly return to their conversation and refreshments. If, by chance, too many new people enter the clubhouse, you can seek out another “clubhouse church” more to your liking.
These “mental pictures” of the Church all have something in common: they offer some personal fulfillment for you. If you are not satisfied with what they offer, you simply go elsewhere to find something that does satisfy. Each of these “mental pictures” may have a grain of truth, such as the first picture with its health theme. But each of these “mental pictures” is quite questionable! Here are some better, more Scriptural, pictures of the Church.
The Church as a Hospital
When something is wrong with you, and you need help in fighting an illness, you go to a hospital for healing. The doctor diagnoses your illness and prescribes the healing medicine. When you are seriously ill or critically wounded, you stay in the hospital for a long time and faithfully receive the medicine and treatments prescribed for you. The healing may take some time, first as you recover your strength and then as you go through therapy.
In the Church, you are the sick patient and Great Physician Jesus comes to heal you. Jesus said of Himself, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick…. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matt. 9:12-13). Great Physician Jesus uses His Commandments like x-rays and blood tests to see where the sickness of sin is plaguing you.
In this hospital called the Church, Jesus gives you the healing medicine of His forgiveness and life. Jesus said, “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (Jn. 6:63). Jesus also gives His Body and Blood for healing medicine: “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (Jn. 6:54).
In this hospital called the Church, we are all patients who must rely on Physician Jesus to heal us. This is what unites us: we all are sick with sin and death, we all receive Jesus’ healing medicine, and we encourage and help each other in the healing process. Some may be stronger than others, but no one is completely healed until the Last Day. That’s when we will be released from the hospital and fully enjoy the sin-free, death-free life of eternity with God.
The Church as a Body
The greatest Biblical picture of the Church is that of a body. (Read 1 Corinthians 12.) This is not just any body; it’s the Body of Christ Himself! Jesus is the Head of this body (Col. 1:18), and we are members of it individually (1 Cor. 12:27). But members of the Body cannot remain individual members, divided by their own personal likes or dislikes. St. Paul says, “just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ” (1 Cor. 12:12).
As the Body of Christ, we belong to each other, and we rely on each other. We all need the Head, Christ Jesus, but we also need each other. This Biblical picture of the Church shows us that we cannot just separate ourselves willy-nilly from each other. That would be like cutting off your pinky finger or your little toe! As the Body of Christ, we are intimately attached to one another because we are intimately attached to Jesus Himself. “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor. 12:26).
As the Body of Christ, we are joined together and strengthened to live together by the very Body and Blood that Jesus gives us in His holy Sacrament!
The Church as a Family
A third Biblical picture of the Church is a family. Not only does the Bible call us Christians the “children of God,” but we also confess God as our Father, Jesus Christ as our Brother (Hebrews 2:11), and the Church herself as our Mother. The Church as a whole and the local congregation in particular are family. We are related to each other by Jesus’ blood, and we must rely on each other.
God the Father gives us life in the family when we are born in our Baptism. Mother Church nurtures us in this life of faith as she feeds us on the words and the Body and Blood of our big brother Jesus. That means that we all are related and get to rely on each other. Unlike the questionable pictures, we cannot merely jump from church to church as consumers shopping for something. Instead, we are intimately bound together as a family. Siblings may bicker and argue with each other, but they are still siblings in the family. Nothing can change that.
The family ties also mean that we try to work things out and live like the family that God makes us. We cannot simply run away when things get tough. We cannot dispose of our brothers and sisters. But we can work together on living together in the peace that our Lord Jesus gives us. We can learn to confess our sins to each other and pray for one another (James 5:16).
The Church is God’s own creation, because in it we receive the new life that God gives us in His Son Jesus Christ. May we all “view” it correctly and grow in it now and forever.