Hospital or museum?

Is the church a “hospital for sinners?” A “museum of saints?”

Is the church a place of safety and solitude, or is it an outpost from which to launch missions into sometimes hostile territory?

Every day, I have conversations with members and guests about what we’re doing as a church. Each person is shaped by strong views of what they think the church is or ought to be.

The Apostle Peter, the one on whom Jesus said he would build the church, had a bunch of powerful metaphors to describe it.

There is “living stones.” The church is a group of people, built together like stones in a wall, where the Spirit of God resides.

Peter said the church is “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, and a holy nation.” At the same time, he said church members are “aliens and strangers in the world.”

Together those metaphors, and there are lots more of them in the Bible, paint a wonderful, complex, and engaging picture of the church. There’s a lot there to both support and challenge our personal views. Clearly, Peter says the church is set apart in order to be a light to the culture. But, just by being the church, we’ll be treated as aliens and strangers.

The great thing about being a church in the center of the city is that we’re called to live into the fullness of Peter’s metaphors, in all their wonderful complexity.

 

Led by the Spirit

Over and over and over, God tried to get through to Peter. “Go to Cornelius’ house.” God sent visions. Cornelius sent messengers. Finally, the Spirit told Peter to get up and go.

For his entire life, Peter had been steeped in the conviction that the Jews were God’s chosen people, and that being faithful to that identity meant staying away from Gentiles like Cornelius. But God was making it possible for anyone, not just God’s chosen people, to have a relationship with the creator.

So of course it was hard for Peter to grasp that God was doing something new.

I think something like that is going on here and now. Our culture has been running away from church and organized religion for a long time, but God hasn’t given up on his people. God still wants to have a relationship with us, and so he’s making that possible through our relationships with others.

The meaning and impact of this movement of the Spirit is just as radical and just as hard to comprehend for many of us today as the Spirit’s direction was to Peter. We’ve been steeped our whole lives in our convictions about what church is supposed to look like.

People are suspicious of churches and church programs. They’re wary of making commitments, being asked for their personal information, and being asked to join. People crave authentic relationships. They want to be part of making a real difference in the lives of others.

The church must shift from administering programs to building relationships. We’ve got to make it our job to greet people and invite them to lunch. We’ve got to volunteer. We can’t expect to make a difference by showing up at a meeting and lending our opinion.

Like Peter, it’s hard for us to grasp that God is doing something new. But I’m convinced that God wants to reach out to the world not through programs, but through us.

Peter finally got it. Will we?