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The Church - A New View


My experience is that

Church is not primarily where God is active.

More generally, most of what God is doing seems to be outwith the confines of churches - of congregations who meet in buildings. God is 'happening' in the lives of ordinary people throughout the world. And, it seems from Scripture, that's the way God planned it to be. Except for the fact that the church, being a social entity, is more visible and can organise better.

What is meant by 'church'? The statements above refer to organizations whose members meet together, usually in a dedicated building, for Christian worship. See below for various other meanings, including the worldwide "body of Christ", through which God is indeed working.

"I'd rather be in the mountains thinking of God than in church thinking of the mountains."

[John Muir]

Many people have some kind of regard for God but seldom visit churches. People need to be introduced to God personally, more than to be brought to church. Especially in non-Christian cultures, what is important is people's relationship with God, rather than their being in a church. See, for instance, David Garrison's [2014] Wind in the House of Islam. I wonder whether church is as important in God's eyes as it is in the eyes of most Christians.

And yet, some argue that, since Jesus said "I will build my church" then church is the single most important thing that Jesus came to produce, and Christians have a duty to help build up the church. Really? With this mindset, will you not breed a bunch of people who don't particularly enjoy coming to church? But if you have the mindset that the church is ancillary to serve Christians as they live their lives for Christ in the world, then you will breed a bunch of people who love to come to meet their fellow CHristians.

We are called to introduce people to Jesus,
    make disciples who learn from Jesus.

Do we instead introduce people to church
    and hope that, once they are there,
    they might find out something of Jesus?

Some will say, surely people need church to maintain their relationship with God. Really? I find that, of those who follow Jesus, many outwith the church live for Him more avidly and serioussy, while most in the churches live largely for themselves, even while naming and singing to Jesus.

I have deliberatly been over-negative towards church there - mainly because most take its utter importance for granted - so let me row back on that. Perhaps church does have some value, but what exactly is it's value - and what are its downsides? Let us think this through.


Why Isn't Church So Important in God's Eyes?

When David proposed building God a temple, one of the first parts of God's reply was "Did I ever criticise one of the past leaders for not building me a house? All that time, I was moving about among the people." God let David build a 'house of God', not because God wants a special house, but because David's heart was right. That God did not consider 'his' temple to be important is confirmed by God deliberately letting 'his' temple be destroyed, not once but twice, by Babylon and by Rome.

In some cultural situations God works via churches, but in others God works without them, and often in spite of them. In the UK, Europe and America, church is in a crisis - evidenced by falling numbers and a host of 'new ways of doing church' being explored. Is this because church is less important in God's eyes than in ours?

Some problems of church:

By the way: What should we see on church websites?

Standard Views of Church

Most standard views of church seem to be something like the following:

Church as the medium through which God relates to people

The church seems to be treated as the medium through which God relates to people. Most clearly seen in the Roman Catholic view, it is also very common among Orthodox, Protestant, Reformed, Evangelical and Pentecostal views. It is usually through church that we expect evangelism to occur, and for people to come to Christ; the out-going missionary is seen as a noble aberration. It is only through church that, it is expected, people remain faithful, are fed and taught - mainly because of that famous verse in Hebrews. This view fosters the idea that the primary purpose of the Christian disciple is to be a loyal member of the church.

But God has acted to relate directly to people, with or without church.


Yet, church does seem important in some ways. Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, speaks about the church being Christ's body, and important in God's Plan.

So the question is: In what ways is church important, and Why?

And how do we overcome its problems? - by 'fresh expressions', being 'messy', by better teaching and preaching, or what? Perhaps we need to rethink the meaningfulness of church in God's eyes, rather than just try to do different things within the confines of the standard view?

This 'New View' in theology and practice provides a way to address these questions, not by address them head-on, but by coming at them from a different angle. This different angle first answers some foundational questions about the meaningfulness of church in God's Cosmic Plan. Only then is it ready to answer these more visible questions. Unless we gain a clear understanding the cosmic meaningfulness of church - which does not make the presuppositions of the twentieth century - we cannot understand what the problems are.

'The Church' has many meanings. Many meanings of 'church' include: the worldwide people of God, a denomination or grouping (e.g. the Methodist Church, RCCG, or New Frontiers International), an organisation (e.g. the Church of Scotland), a congregation (e.g. Edinburgh City Fellowship), a building (e.g. the church in the main street), and so on. In all senses it represents something of God to the rest of the world, to a greater or lesser extent. Each meaning is useful in God's Plan, and is discussed below. However, the main one we discuss when we say 'church' is the organisation that people encounter everyday, i.e. the congregation with its building(s) and activities.

Traditional Christianities today give priority to the church (see the diagram above). To this New View, church is not a major issue, but is a sub-issue of the main issue, which is Representing God. We might depict the role of the church as a social phenomenon among those who relate to God, as follows:

Church as a social phenomenon among the people of God

What follows elaborates this and some of its implications. I trust the page is useful.

Cosmic Meaningfulness of Church

We have argued that God's Cosmic Plan is to bring about a varied creation in which all bless each other with 'shalomic rejoicing' in the way God would. To summarise this Plan, God created, humankind turned away, God instituted a long-term rescue plan, which involved God entering His creation as a human being, Jesus Christ, to enact three dimensional salvation, in which Christ's people represent God in a number of ways for a couple of millennia, and this eventually becomes consummated in a new heaven and earth.

The church is an institution or organisational reality that contributes to part of that - Christ's people representing God for a couple of millennia. However, it is not the church that is important, but representing God that is important, and the church is one aid to that.

So, our answer to "Why the church is important?" is "The church is a social vehicle that helps Christ's people represent God." Let us examine each of the components of that.

Social. Humankind is inherently and inescapably social, meaning that we live and work together, agreeing or disagreeing as we go. Social functioning is more effective than a collection of individuals functioning, because social functioning (working together with different roles) 'amplifies' individual functioning. Part of social functioning is to create organisations. Some such organisations are churches. Churches might be defined as organisations that are led by a faith purpose. This is perhaps fairly obvious, and already found in most thinking about, and practice of, church, but it is useful to make it explicit.

Vehicle. A vehicle is a means to an end, not an end in itself. The church is a vehicle to help Christ's people represent God in all these ways. It is a means to an end, not an end in itself. It is a vehicle, not a medium.

Christ's people representing God. What is elaborated elsewhere about representing God is summarised here, as the purpose for which church exists and towards which it aims. The social phenomenon that is church - as any social phenomenon does - amplifies and enriches the activity of individuals by the very nature of social functioning. There are six elements to representing God:

This provides an answer to "Why is the church important?"

But What About Being Fed?

However, someone pointed out that this does not include being the place where we are fed spiritually for the rest of the week, in a worshipping community, where sacraments are dispensed. She made me think, and ask myself whether this should be added.

Actually, it does include that, but indirectly. "Fed" is part of "helps Christ's people represent God". "Community" is what is implied by "social".

There is a place for being "fed spirtually" in church, insofar as our understanding is added to, sharpened up, challenged, etc. by rubbing shoulders with others in church, and encountering their ideas (whether those of preachers or fellow members). Being with our sisters and brothers in Christ can be stimulating - though it can also be frustrating. However, I think I would like people to get away from the metaphor of being fed, for several reasons. 1. In my experience, I find Jesus' words true, "my food and drink is to do the will of Him who sent me" - doing and activity in the midst of life rather than being filled with some sustenance that runs out over the week. 2. I find God more present and real Monday to Saturday than I do on Sunday in church. 3. The "feeding" we receive in church is often cerebral rather than active. 4. The diet we are fed in church is often severely limited by the theology or worldview of those in charge, in comparison with the diversity of everyday experience with God. 5. Too often, by "fed spiritually" we mean listening to a preacher; our friend was from Dallas and attends a church where that is probably the case.

Regarding worshipping community, I do not see worship in a church service as as important as many do; see discussion of worship.

Regarding sacraments, I'm afraid that I have not given much thought to a 'new view' of them; I myself am not a sacramentalist, seeing the whole notion of sacraments as being root in the Greek paganism expressed in Aristotle. However, I might be unfair, and it might be something that requires thinking out: why exactly do we partake of the Lord's Supper (as we used to call it in Scotland), for instance.

Current State of Church

Unfortunately, in practice, most church leaders tend to talk and act and plan, and many church people tend to assume, that church is almost an end in itself.

Traditional Christianities give priority to church for various reasons. Do some do so as an antidote to the individualism that besets Western thinking and mindset today? So some do so because of the self-seeking of Christian leadership? Do some do so because of the rivalry between different churches?

Today some of Christ's people are fed up with church, and drop out of church, though not necessarily out of Christ. Various new 'ways of doing church' today, such as café church, messy church, church without walls, emerging church, etc. have arisen. Many of these are attempts to recover the main purpose of church, which is variously seen as evangelism, justice, community for Christ, etc. These are portions of the New View, which is that church is part of God's Plan that his people will represent him.

HSolving the Problem

(This to some extend answers the third question, "And how do we overcome its problems?"

Unfortunately, many of the current attempts at solutions still treat the church as an end in itself - things like messy church, fresh expressions. It is not that these are wrong, but that their main aim is to rejuvenate the organisation we call 'church' rather than getting God's people to represent God more clearly and effectively.

I am not interested in a church that focuses on growth, that focuses its attention on its own aliveness, its own revival. I'm not interested in a church that puts a lot of attention into its own buildings and web presence, not even if it tries to be PR for God. I'm not interest in a church that has wonderful worship. I'm not interested in a church in which everyone knows each other. I'm not interested in a church that puts on activities that increasingly suck its members in and take up their time, so they fail to engage with those outside.

I am interested in a church:

Doing this does not involve doing radically new things, but rather doing current and new things in a radically new way, with a radically different motivation and aim.

It could be said that it is when church becomes a social vehicle for helping Christ's people represent God in all ways, that revival can break out. Revival is not a thing to aim for, but a result of grasping the whole three dimensions of God's salvation fully and taking them very seriously as a community.

Meanings of 'Church'

This part briefly discusses each of the types of meaning that 'church' has, to see how each can validly be part of representing God. It also recognises that each emphasises different aspects of life, and that each has its own dangers in misrepresenting God. Thus, for each type, New View offers a means of evaluation. The types include:

In the diagram, these various meanings of church are shown, each with something it contributes to God's Plan that is worked out via his people.

The various meanings of 'church'

Church as Worldwide People of God

This is everyday representation. Here the church is all those who have been chosen by God / have deliberately committed themselves to Jesus Christ. It is the collectiion of such people, throughout the world and across all time. It is probably what the Scripture means by the Bride of Christ. We might augment the second diagram with this, where God's people are collectively the Bride of Christ, in a way that differs from other meanings of 'church'.

In each such person the Holy Spirit lives, to make them like Christ in character (), to change their worldview (Rom 12:2), to activate them in power () and to provide comfort and help, so that each such person represents God in their very living here and now.

This is probably the most important type of representation, because it is accessible to most people, whether religious or not, because it is where God is seen and known in multi-aspectual everyday life, rather than expressing one particular aspect of life.

Unfortunately, many who claim to be Christ's do not well represent God in one or more of these ways. For example, many who are like Christ in character still retain the Scholastic or Humanist (convenience- and comfor-seeking) worldview. On the other hand, some who espouse a better worldview are working by their own power rather than that of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, God their Father is faithful and patient.

Church as Congregation

This is social representation. A congregation is a social institution or distinct group in a local community. It will (soon) have a structure (at least leaders and the rest) and a either goal or a tacit purpose (reason why it is functioning as a distinct group).

The usefulness of church-as-congregation in God's Plan is that it provides a setting for meeting together [Heb 12] as God's people, so that they help each other. A congregation also makes God's Plan more distinctly visible in each community, as the community see the church-as-congregation working together and achieving things. The following are valid activities that may be seen as part of representing God as a congregation in the community: gospel-preaching, doctrine-defence, locality-winning, mission. But "To be the church in this locality" is possibly the best expression, though it is frequently used almost as an excuse to maintain status quo and comfortable lives of members. (Note that God's people can meet together with blessing, without a congregation, just by occasional meetings in which the things of God are deeply discussed.)

Unfortunately, the church-as-congregation often misrepresents God because of scandals, rivalries and jealousies among its members, because of hypocrisy in its members, because of self-seeking by its members, because of ineptness by its members.

Church-as-congregation: why do several distinct congregations tend to form in local communities? This relates to other aspects, especially the economic and doctrinal aspects. What is preached in any congregation at any given time can be seen, in many instances, as either what the preacher has been discovering for themselves, or what they are reacting against.

Church as Building

This is physical, symbolic and aesthetic representation. The building that is 'the church', houses a congregation and other communal activities. It is seen by some theology as a 'holy' place, dedicated sacred physical space. New View recognises this might be useful in representation in some cultures, but does not accord it priority.

The usefulness of church-as-building in God's Plan is the static location so that local people know where it is, and its visibility to people. It can also express visual-aesthetically something of God and what his people think of him - hence expensive decorations. To have their own building gives comfort and dignity to a congregation.

However, church-as-building soon becomes an end in itself, diverting the congregation's focus and attention from being active in representing God to upkeep, maintenance and development of the building. Moreover, the comfort and dignity that a building gives to a congregation is often contaminated with affluence and pride.

This is clear in Garrison's book. In most of the world, Muslim-background followers of Jesus do not bother too much with church buildings, and they are expanding rapidly. However, in North Africa, Muslim-background followers of Jesus do build churches, following what they saw of evangelical Christians in France. These do attract believers from afar. But the in this room of Islam, the numbers of Muslims turning to Jesus is not expanding so rapidly, and indeed it might already have peaked.

Church as Organisation

This is organisational representation, focusing on the economic or management aspect of life. The church-as-organisation is a congregation with structure, rules and procedures for operating and, usually, formal links with other similar congregations. Church-as-organisation has explicitly stated aims, and mechanisms of detection and correction of behaviours that go against those aims. Church-as-organisation is conscious that resources are limited, and often has a Board of Trustees to look after its assets.

This is useful in God's Plan because organisations are more effective and efficient for achieving things than are individual people or congregations. Different organisational structures can be more or less effective and efficient in achieving things of God. In the UK, "Does the structure adequately represent God?" was much discussed (and fought over) for several hundred years (e.g. congregationalism v. presbyterianism v. episcopacy).

Someone has said "The Church's main responsibility is to find out where God is working and go and join Him there." On Christmas Day 2012 Justin Whelby, preached his last Christmas sermon as Bishop of Durham (before becoming Archbishop of Canterbury). In it he said

"The job of the church is not self-preservation.
That way leads to destruction.
The job of the Church is to glorify God."

Unfortunately, many churches as organisations are self-serving, not centred on representing God. 'To grow' is a self-serving aim, even though many leaderships focus on it, because it is self-absorbing. 'Growing' is a characteristic rather than a purpose - and it says nothing about representing the Living God. Some churches-as-organisation are dominated in what they do by different gods (e.g. Freemasonary).


Church as Denomination

e.g. Methodist Church, Roman Catholic Church, Redeemed Christian Church of God.

This is doctrinal representation, which emphasises explicit expression of the faith aspect of life. Each denomination is an organisation that espouses a particular theory about what we should believe and how we should organise and govern the church-as-organisation. Each denomination is distinguished from others by the theories it holds about these things. These theories are expressed in Statements of Faith or doctrines, and in procedures and by which the denomination runs itself.

Church-as-denomination is useful in God's Plan, to help crystallize his message and plan in each culture. So people in each culture can gain a clear explicit understanding of God and what he wishes.

However, Roy Clouser once sent the following: "the medieval church made the same assumption that the Jews had made, namely, that since they were God's people God wouldn't allow them to fall into error. So whatever traditions had grown up must have God's approval. Jesus rebuked that when he told the religious leaders that they were teaching the "traditions of men" rather than the word of God."

Error is certainly possible; indeed it is likely. The preface to the first unified Book of Common Prayer (1549) begins: "There was never any thing by the wit of man so well devised or sure established, which in continuance of time hath not been corrupted..."

Unfortunately, the theories expressed in doctrines and rules veer away from God's important messages as found in Scripture. Often the doctrines and rules focus on just one aspect, and so are narrow and unrepresentative of God's full reality. Often this has happened because previous churches-as-organisations have ignored that one aspect, so the new organisation wishes to focus on it. But they, in turn, ignore others.

Often, the biggest battles in Christendom have been over doctrine - consider, for example, the split of Protestant from Roman Catholic at the Reformation. This led to wars. (We see similar in Islam.) Within the Protestant side of the church, further splits occurred over doctrine, but also over organisational structure as seen above. One reason why the Roman Catholic church did not further split is because it has focussed too much on church-as-organisation as well as denomination, often to the detriment of worldwide people of God and church-as-community (despite the title 'catholic').

Church as Christendom

This is global representation. Christendom is the recognisable practices, theories (doctrines) and legislature through all time of all those who call themselves 'Christian', whether they are God's people or not.

The usefulness of Christendom to God's Plan is in showing clearly that there is a distinction between religions. It can also demonstrate God's action, work and character over a long period.

However, as the author of that excellent book The Cruelty of Heresy said, for most of its life the Church as Christendom has been heretical rather than orthodox, in that it has espoused false views (theories) about God. In particular, from the period 500 - 1500 CE Christendom has been infected with the false separation between sacred and secular, especially in the Scholastic attitude. The work and character of God have been distorted.

The Social Role of Church

Let us look at the social, collaborative roles in more detail. The main value of the church, in helping the people of God represent him to and in the world is a social role of the local congregation and possibly also the networks afforded by denominations or para-church organizations, to the worldwide body of Christ. There are several roles, which social institutions and networks provide, which individuals acting alone cannot. (However, each also has a downside, in brackets.)

Most of these involve the local congregation, but some of them involve groups of congregations such as denominations, and networks.

AND YET - there is something valuable beyond the social role of the church. In old-fashioned church services in the Anglican churches, and probably also in Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, there is a lot of ritual. Such ritual can be performed almost without any social function. Ostensibly, and sometimes in reality, it is directed towards God, as worship or penitence or even listening to God. I have quite often heard of people who find something of God for themselves in this ritual, privately, for themselves, and they then take this away with them into their daily lives. That is indeed what is intended. Even priests and other officers of those churches who perform those rituals on their own sometimes find that.

Both in the social and the extra-social activities of the church it is possible for the people of God to receive something from God through the activities of the church.

(But at the same time, in both social and extra-social, can there be much idolatry, much diverting of the gaze away from God to either the social milieu or to e.g. aesthetics?)

What To Do?

What should those who find church unhelpful do? How should we/they conduct ourselves? First, we should ask ourselves how serious we are about Jesus Christ. If our finding church unhelpful is just a symptom of a lack of relationship with Jesus Christ then what follows is not for us. But if we genuinely treasure Jesus Christ, then perhaps the following might help us move forward and keep on fostering the role Jesus and His Father have given us in this world.

===== to be written.


The church, in its various forms, is useful as a social activity and institution to assist God's people in what God is doing through and with them in his world, but church should be seen as a social phenomenon among God's people, supportive and helpful, rather than as necessary, as servant and tool rather than master and straitjacket.


Garrison, D. 2014. A Wind in the House of Islam. Wigtake, Colorado, USA.


Thanks to Layne Matthews for commenting on this page and pointing out that my discussion of the cosmic role of church did not include the idea (which she had held) that church is a place of feeding etc. It made me think carefully.

This page, URL= ' .html', is offered to God as on-going work in developing a 'New View' in theology that is appropriate to the days that are coming upon us. Comments, queries welcome.

Copyright (c) Andrew Basden to latest date below, but you may use this material subject to certain conditions.

Written on the Amiga with Protext.

Created: 11 December 2011. Last updated: 13 May 2012 what preached as reaction; new intro. 26 September 2012 Clouser on error. 25 December 2012 church to go where God is working, and glorify him. 19 January 2014 completely new intro and material linking church to representing God; the previous rather academic discussion of meanings of word 'church' becomes a kind of appendix at end. 10 May 2014 new intro, church not where God happening. 13 October 2015 John Muir, with slight rewrite of intro. 26 October 2015 some problems of church. 1 May 2016 Intro improved, rid counter. 14 August 2016 diagrams of church and relating with God, and added Standard Views section. 4 September 2016 Social roles of church, modified meanings, fig 3, and intro; contents; conclusion, refces. 6 September 2016 Garrison on buildings. 25 September 2016 intro change. 8 October 2017 What do do. 12 April 2019 fosters notion of loyal membership. rw intro. 16 June 2019 Challenged by Layne's suggestion that church is where we are fed; Comment on cosmic meaningfulness of church. 22 February 2020 people follow Jesus less in church; and rearranged intro. 10 October 2020 added to intro. 11 October 2020 extra-social role of church ritual. 25 October 2020 box: introducing people to Jesus.