Rehearsing the lessons I learned from 1998 to the present would fill another volume. (If I ever tell that story, it will be when I’m much older.)
Suffice it to say that church life is a holy wedding of glory and gore. When you experience a gathering of believers who are free to know Christ together and who are free to make decisions collectively under His Headship, you’ve tasted something that will forever wreck your life. “Church” will never be the same after that.
The ekklesia . . . the experience of the Body of Christ . . . is the playground of God and His children. It’s the foretaste of the New Jerusalem. It’s the habitat of the new humanity . . . the new species . . . the new man. It’s the community of the redeemed. It’s where the spiritual realm and the physical realm touch one another. It’s the place where heaven and earth meet. And it’s were you and I belong.
I will simply say the Bride of Jesus Christ, when she’s expressed in Christian community, is beautiful. She’s addictive even. I’ve not only seen her in revelation and vision, but I’ve known her in practice and experience. And I shall give myself to her as long as there is breath in my body. For this reason, deep within the subterranean parts of our hearts, every Christian longs to experience her.
On the other hand, the experience of the Body of Christ is the most painful ordeal you may ever know as a Christian. That’s because we are deeply fallen and sin-diseased creatures. This becomes unmistakably evident when we begin living in community. As I’ve often said, God created the church to kill you.
Indeed, His sword is deep, His grinding is thorough, and His breaking is complete. To live in the tension of organic Body life will test your metal.
In such a context, you get to know one another really well. Too well in fact. Many (if not most) Christians in the traditional church don’t realize how deep the Fall goes. I certainly didn’t when I was a part of it. The flesh knows how to hide itself underneath one’s “Sunday best” clothing. It’s unmistakable stench is hidden fairly well beneath layers of perfume and cologne (whichever the case may be).
In the traditional church, we are all insulated from one another. To be more candid, we’re protected from killing each other. Think about it—how deeply can you know your fellow brothers and sisters when you are only with them in a non-participatory meeting once or twice a week for a few hours? Your knowledge of them rarely gets beyond becoming an expert at inspecting the back of their necks.
But if you put them together in close-knit community where they share their lives together, well, that’s when you get popcorn. Truthfully, organic church is a high risk endeavor. The ekklesia is a vulnerable organism. It’s always fragile, even on its best day.
Throughout the years of 1988 to 1995, my motives for serving God were deeply excavated. My character flaws were unceremoniously exposed and dealt with drastically. My patience was tried beyond measure. And I learned to know my Lord in ways that were beyond the dreams of my imagination.
Someone once wrote a book entitled, Everybody’s Normal ‘Til You Get to Know Them. That about sums up my first eight years of church life. To put it in (somewhat) more Biblical language, “Many are called, but few can stand it.”
Henry Nouwen said it beautifully when he wrote, “Community is the place where the person you least want to live with always lives.” Such is the inimitable arrangement of our God.
One of the most daunting realities I learned during my spiritual journey is that Body life demands a titanic amount of flex to adapt to the theological mindsets of others, let alone to their oddities. Church life is messy. It’s messy because relationships are messy. We humans are messy and (in many ways) messed-up.
Every Christian is eccentric in some way. On the surface, they may appear to be the model of normality. But spend a few years living with them in community and you just might conclude that they are weirder than a seven dollar bill.
We all engage in impression management. We try to create a good impression by masking our dark edges. But that won’t last long in Body life. One day when you least expect it, the mask refuses to stay on, and you discover that church life is a hall of mirrors.
Consequently, when you step outside the traditional church and begin meeting in the simplicity of Christian community, you enter into the messy corner of the universe. (Sometimes that corner can become a blood-curdling mess.) But it is through such an atmosphere that the Lord will be able to extract from you what He wants. And He will be able to gain territory in your life.
Allow me to introduce you to some of the people who you will doubtlessly encounter if you take the plunge with other Christians into the turbulent waters of organic church life.
Some in the group will own a pet theological rock that they wish to show everyone else. They’ll do all they can to put the other members in a corner so they can turn down the screws on their heads with their hobby-horse doctrine.
Others have personalities so intense that they will paralyze everyone else from voicing their opinions. Others are control-freaks at heart. If things don’t go their away, they either melt down, blow a fuse, or they start manipulating at high gear. Still others are terminally offensive. They have Ph.Ds. in rudeness.
Some have explosive personalities. They will shoot in the knee caps anyone who pushes their buttons. “Rage-aholics,” I believe they’re called. Others are classic fence-sitters. They attend the church’s meetings only when it’s convenient for them. They hang around so they may warm their hands over the church’s flame, but they never commit themselves.
Some are legalists at heart. They have a penchant for judging others and for hurling insults at the less righteous. Others have fallen off the other side of that horse. They are the libertines. To their minds, anything goes because the church is “under grace.”
Some are loafers, refusing to work. Yet they will gladly receive money and food from the other members. Others suffer from an extreme guilt complex. They are so burdened down with guilt that nothing under heaven can shake them loose from it. Some are passive-aggressives. Others are expert blamers. Some go through life having some unhealed psychological wound that controls their behavior. Others suffer from neurosis. Still others are extremely pushy when it comes to getting their own way.
I can expand the list. But I trust you get the idea. The problems that our fallen humanity has created show up in living color in church life. And they are enormous and formidable.
Consequently, if people can’t handle the skirmishness, heartbreak, and pain that is required to get on in the war of love, they will not survive outside the traditional church. Those who can’t tolerate the foibles of others quickly leave after the first flare of conflict. In this regard, I’ve found Teresa of Avila’s advice to be one of the important survival skills for enduring Body life: “Take God seriously, but don’t take yourself seriously.”
Unfortunately, I’ve watched many people make their exit out of Body life only to hide out in a safe campsite in the wilderness. Truthfully, it’s much easier to do that than to deal with the complicated business of loving one another. It’s much harder to sort through the melange of messy problems that’s part and parcel of being built together into the Head, who is Christ.
Although church life is the one of the most difficult adventures that a Christian may walk through, it’s the most rewarding in my opinion. And I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
To be sure, the presence of the Lord can be experienced in the traditional church. His blessing can be found there as well. But you will be hard pressed to find the cross in its fury. By virtue of the institution and the organizational structure, there is a great deal of human control present. For that reason, there’s little fire, little heat, and little pressure present for God’s people to be molded and refined.
If you ever take the noble step of gathering with an organic church, I can promise you one thing: God will press your grapes.
Countless Christians who have gathered outside the traditional church have made the following statement: “That way of meeting made me into somebody I never was. It turned me into somebody else. I had temper tantrums. Sometimes I’d get madder than a wet hen at my brothers and sisters in the Lord.”
My response? You had those things inside of you all along. The church simply brought them out into the light.
Observation: Until you rub elbows with other Christians and live as a family with them, you’ll never see the capacities of your flesh. The old man will stay neatly tucked away and hidden, resting prim and proper in a suit or dress, singing songs for thirty minutes, listening to a sermon, throwing money into the offering plate, and walking out of the building.
The crucible of Body life is God’s brilliant method of transforming you and the chief means of fulfilling His eternal purpose.
I like to think of it this way. You and I are like a pile of crooked sticks that point in all directions. God’s intention is to bundle those sticks together. When that happens, each stick has a fascinating way of straightening each other out where they don’t look so crooked after all. To change the metaphor, we are wrinkled people. But together, we iron each other out. And that’s what the experience of the Body of Christ is all about.
This article is by Frank Viola Author