I am NOT the church and you are NOT the church; however, together WE are the church. In our culture we hear a lot about me. When people visit churches they might say things like: the music really spoke to me, the message didn’t relate to me, or this is not the kind of church for me. Our measure and standard for churches is reduced down to our own personal preferences and in doing so we have lost sight about what the church truly is: the gathered together community of believers.
Early in the book of Acts we find that the author begins to describe the early church with the Greek word ekklesia which was used to refer to a group of gathered people. The concept of church was based in the communal gathering together of people. Therefore, it is impossible to get a Biblical understanding of the meaning of church without including the idea of a group gathered together. In other words there is no Biblical basis for Lone Ranger Christians who are purposefully avoid the gathered community of faith. It was this gathered community where a Christian finds teaching, support, correction, and is able to provide the same for the others who are gathered with them. There might be reasons that people do not go to church: illness, no other Christians in the area, or deep hurt caused by the church; this is not the norm in Scripture and is certainly not the original intent of the writers of the New Testament.
In the same way that the church is not about me but a we, the church is not about a denomination, a region, or a particular church. We often think of “church” as the particular church we attend or denomination with which we affiliate. Often when I speak about “the church” I am referencing the local church I serve, the United Methodist denomination, or the larger church in the United States. In doing this I might conclude that the church is shrinking and not gaining many new members because this is the reality of the church in the United States and especially of my denomination. However, this narrow view of the church overlooks the experience of the broader church. In Africa and Asia the church is growing rapidly and new congregations are started frequently.
In the Apostles Creed when we affirm our belief in “the holy catholic church” we are affirming our belief in this larger worldwide church. The church of Jesus Christ is not bound by geography or borders. This universal church is the bride of Christ that will be maintained and preserved until the end. Denominations will come and go, local churches will rise, thrive, and then die, and even entire continents see growth and then stagnation; however, the holy catholic church will never end. So when we confess our belief in the church it goes beyond the church we are a member in, beyond a denomination, and even beyond a geographical area. It expands into the entire world.
If this is true and you and I are a part of a universal church how then does this impact our actions. I believe it does in a few important ways. First, we cannot speak for the entire church without first trying to listen and hear from the entire church. In other words, I cannot write a book or even a blog and claim that what I am saying is the true experience of the whole entire church. The models that help churches grow in Africa may or may not work here in the US. The ideas that we are using in the US to reach our communities might be universal in their application or they may not be. The strength of the universal church is found in listening and sharing ideas so that the whole of the church might be blessed. Second, the universal nature of the church means that I cannot ignore what is happening around the world. If the church is the gathering together of believers and is therefore relational in nature then I cannot ignore what is happening to my brothers and sisters in other parts of the world. Whether it be a flood in South Carolina, refugees in Syria, or the persecuted church in Northern Nigeria. These are not just other people these are my fellow church members. Third, the universal nature of the church forces me to realize that my denomination isn’t the only one that matters and that in the end there will not be a UMC or Southern Baptist but the redeemed church of Christ.
The Apostles Creed challenges us to do several things when we affirm the holy catholic church. It points us into community with others both across the street and around the world. It directs our attention to whats happening around the world and not just in our little corner of creation. It also reminds us that we are not the church without the others. The church is community and for us that community is worldwide.