We all love the Church, especially our own Church, whatever the name of it may be. Yet in mentioning the word, an image has already been conjured up in your mind. Perhaps it is of stained glass windows, high spires, pipe organs, ringing bells, candles and crosses, or it may include the image of theater seating, large stages, projector screens and a live band. But whether your image has padded pews and cathedral ceilings, or pine benches in a small meeting house, the word irrevocably initiates the thought of a place. A Holy place, no doubt, but a place nonetheless. The ironic thing is that when the word was used in the New Testament it had no such meaning. It did not constitute a place, but a people.
Richard K. Avery and Donald S. Marsh have blessed the Church with the familiar refrain that attempts to help us understand this concept in the new classic hymn “We are the Church.” For those unfamiliar with the hymn, the refrain simply states, “I am the Church, You are the Church, we are the Church together. All who follow Jesus, all around the world, yes we’re the church together.” Nevertheless, when someone speaks of going to Church, or working at the Church, or even mentions the name of said Church they inevitably refer to the brick and mortar location of our weekly gatherings. Not that there is anything wrong with a building dedicated to worshipping the Living God, yet by defining ourselves as members of the Church, and thinking of the Church in this way, we seemed to have joined a building instead of a community. We seem to have become members of a locale instead of members of a body.
In discussing the concept of church as embodied by the Greek word “ecclesia” at a recent Bible study at my church (yes, the locale), we discovered an image that is rarely deployed when thinking about Church. Although 1 Corinthians is replete with images for Church, one image from chapter three really stood out. As Paul is addressing the troublesome prospect of divisions in the Church (the called out community, not the building) he includes two different images in the same verse: one that we seem to have held onto, although still misunderstood, and the other that we have seemingly reserved for new churches only. In verse 9 Paul declares “For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.”
Admittedly, in many ways I regret that Paul referred to the gathering of called out Christians as a building, although he does flesh out his ideas in the following verses, yet the concept of the Church as being God’s field is the one that really excites me. Consider the difference in the concepts. If we consider the Church a building, then our concern would simply be for upkeep, or building maintenance. Maybe we might want a few upgrades from time to time, but essentially we would be content to live into the building or Church that we had.
Yet consider the concept of field. The field requires work. Constant work. And workers. Many workers. The task is not maintenance, but of concern for growth. There would be the work of preparing the field, sowing the seeds, watering the sprouts, expelling the weeds, harvesting in season, and preparing for winter. There is continual care and nurture, a continual looking to the skies to check the weather, realizing how each change in climate will affect the growth or lack of growth. Admittedly, there is at least one segment of the Church that uses this analogy, church planters. But even with church planters, the goal is often simply to begin the process until the church is established enough to maintain itself, usually recognized by the acquisition or occupancy of a Church building. The most exciting thing about the analogy of a field, though, is that it continues year after year. There is always need for more workers for there is always more work. The field is never finished. The building may be completed, the mortgage burned, but the field will yield a new harvest next year.
Imagine the difference in your church (the called out community) if it understood itself in terms of a field instead of as a building. If it understood its’ task as a continual process of planting, watering, weeding, and harvesting. If it recognized the call of Jesus when he declared “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” (Luke 10:2).
We are the Church. We are God’s field. Let us also be workers in the field, for the field does not only need planted or harvested once. But it needs re-planted and re-harvested. Let’s continue to work until the Master returns.