Back in my seminary days a professor asked our class this question – how do you build a church? We knew, of course, that he wasn’t asking how to construct a church building. We assumed he was asking how to build a church in terms of membership, attendance, budget, activities, programs, and ministries. We gave all types of answers, within those particular parameters, thinking we were giving good and accurate answers, but it was very obvious our professor believed we hadn’t really answered the question accurately. I remember that discussion very well, and I also remember that he never told us what he believed was the one, great, defining answer for how we are to build the church. Instead, he simply told us this – you better figure it out. Well, that wasn’t really helpful, or was it? In fact, it greatly worried me, because I thought, what if I don’t figure it out? What will happen?
What does it mean to build the church? I’ve spent a lot of time considering that question over the years, and I’ve worked hard to try to help build the churches where I have served. But the answer to that question is not as simple as it might seem. In one sense, the answer is as numerous as the people to whom we pose that question. But is every answer given a valid answer to the question of what it means to build the church? In a word, no. When we talk of building the church, we are not talking about the physical construction of a church building or even the work we do to build the membership or attendance of a particular congregation. When we speak of building the church, we are speaking of accomplishing the one larger, overarching, primary purpose of which Jesus spoke when he said those words to Peter, on this rock I will build my church.
So let me ask you, how do you build the church? Does a particular answer come to mind when I ask that question? Have we figured out that question? Anyone want to call out an answer? What does it mean to build the church?
Since this series of messages is based upon the theme of building, and because it is based upon a verse of Scripture in which Jesus speaks of building his church, it is time to consider the topic of Building the Church. Let’s turn to the passage that serves as the foundation to this series of messages and see what we find.
Matthew 16:13-18 –
13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
15 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.
18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.
I have two points to make this morning, the first of which is –
1. We Must Ask the Right Question When We Talk About the Church.
This is where, I believe, a lot of books and conferences about churches miss the mark. They speak of building a particular facet of the church, such as attendance, or the budget, without necessarily speaking to the purpose of Jesus when he spoke of the church. They begin with a list of questions – how can you get more people to attend your church? How can you increase your giving? How can you recruit volunteers more effectively? And on and on the questions go, all of which are the wrong questions if you want to arrive at the most important answer about how to build the church. Now, it’s not that those questions and the activities to which they speak are totally wrong; we certainly want to increase attendance and grow a budget, and we want to have effective ministries, but it can be deceptively easy to miss the primary purpose and calling of the church while focusing on those other activities, and these questions do not lead us to that primary purpose and calling.
We also need to acknowledge that another question we ask when it comes to the church is the wrong question. We often ask of others, or of ourselves, what are you – or what am I – looking for in a church?
Some people might choose by architectural style. I’ve taken people through our building and heard them say your church has such a great building. I hosted a meeting once and a person in attendance looked around this room, noted the lack of pews, noted the basketball goals, and said, I couldn’t worship in a building like this. I’m certain that when it comes to what matters most, Jesus is not looking for a particular architectural style. Some people are drawn in by the music. Some churches have top-notch bands, great choirs, powerful instrumentalists, and those blessings draw people to the church. I’m certain that when it comes to what matters most, Jesus is not looking for either a particular musical style or perhaps not even looking for music in a church. I’m certain he’s not looking for particular programs. I am certain that he’s looking for a particular kind of people. I am absolutely certain of that.
Buildings, programs, and ministries are tools to the larger purpose. What we have to be careful to avoid is the ease at which the tools can become the primary purpose. The tools are a means to the end, but the tools cannot become the end. If they do, the church becomes little more than a good works organization and it is so much more.
What are you looking for in a church is the wrong question because the correct question is, what is Jesus looking for in his church? When we ask others what they are looking for in a church or ask ourselves what we desire in a church we are making our image and our desire for the church primary, and that is not in keeping with the purpose of the church.
2. What Is Jesus Looking for In His Church?
Jesus, Matthew tells us, takes his disciples to the region of Caesarea Philippi. And he first asks them who do people say that I am? And the disciples give their answers, some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets. Then Jesus gets much more personal and pointed, as he asks, but what about you? Who do you say I am? And Peter gives his great answer, you are the Messiah, the Son of the living God, to which Jesus responds, blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. Peter, probably without realizing, gave Jesus the answer he was looking for, and Jesus affirms this by saying on this rock I will build my church. What is in that answer that provides the foundation for building the church? Peter recognized you build the church by connecting people to Jesus. That is what Jesus is looking for in the church – connecting people to him.
Sounds really simple, doesn’t it? And yet, for all its simplicity, we can miss it. We are called to build the church, and by the church I mean this church; every church; the kingdom of God; we do it by connecting people to Jesus. Not to a building, not to a ministry, not to other people, not to a program, but to Jesus.
I grew up in a part of the country that did not possess a strong church culture. There simply wasn’t a strong culture of going to church. The far majority of my friends never went to church. Never. Most of the churches were not that large. When I moved to the south I was surprised at the number of churches, how many big churches there were, and how much activity took place at and through the churches. It was a new experience to see people going to church on Sunday night and Wednesday night and all the other activities that took place the rest of the week. My home church didn’t have a lot going on, in terms of activities. We didn’t have a music director or a youth director. We didn’t have much of a children’s program or youth program. Nothing much has changed there in all the years since I’ve moved away from there. The sanctuary looks exactly the same, except for the carpet. You walk the same creaky steps to get to the sanctuary, which is on the second floor, because it’s only a block from the river and gets flooded every so many years. I can still tell you where the steps creak, because we learned to avoid those spots when we came in church late because we went to Wilson’s Grocery between Sunday School and the worship service. The fellowship hall looks exactly the same. The Sunday School rooms are exactly the same. On the occasion that I am able to walk into that church it’s a bit like stepping into a time machine, because it looks the same. I love that church and always will, because what that church did was connect me to Jesus, and I am profoundly grateful for that gift. There were wonderful people there who helped to teach me and to nurture my spiritual life, but they pointed beyond themselves to the greater purpose of connecting me to God.
And that lesson helped me to understand the need to help connect others to Jesus. I was not very successful in convincing my unchurched friends to attend my church, but what I did learn was that they were willing to go to church camp with me. One of my friends went with me and not only enjoyed it very much, late in the week he told me he wanted to be baptized. We were walking to the barn – where the guys slept – one afternoon at the beginning of free time when he told me the week meant a lot to him and he decided he wanted to be baptized. I told him we should speak to one of the counselors and he told me, no, I want you to baptize me. I struggled with what to say, as I was surprised at his request. I hadn’t been to college or seminary; I was still in high school and had yet to understand a call to ministry. But he was insistent that I should baptize him, and asked that we walk down to the creek that ran along the edge of the camp to find a place deep enough to baptize him. We climbed down the bank, splashed through the creek a short distance until we found a pool deep enough, and there, with just the two of us present (and God, of course) I baptized him, without any real idea if I was doing it correctly or not. I am grateful for that moment, and I am grateful that my friend became connected with Jesus, because that is what I am called to do – connect others to Jesus. We are all, in fact, called to connect others to Jesus.
Everyone is born with the need for that connection, whether or not they acknowledge it. Everyone is spiritual. Everyone. Even the most ardent atheist is born spiritual, even though they will most likely deny it. Our task is to help awaken people to that spirituality that is already within them, however deeply buried it may be.
If we replace the need to be connected with Jesus with the latest and greatest programming and activities, we haven’t truly built the church. If we attract people with a great facility, but we don’t connect people to Jesus, we haven’t really built the church. If we have music that outdoes every other church, but we don’t connect people to Jesus, we haven’t really built the church. If we have a lot of great, flashy programming, but we don’t connect people to Jesus, we haven’t really built the church. If we have a parking lot full not only on Sunday but also throughout the week, but we don’t connect people to Jesus, we haven’t really built the church.
So let’s connect people to Jesus, and build the church!