Study Guide: Stop Going to Church

Sunday September 19, 2004 | Paul Eddy, Sandra Unger

Focus Scripture:

Brief Summary:

Paul and Sandra's message called for a major shift in thought for many of us: church isn't a place you go or an event you attend. Instead, church is what happens when those who follow Jesus gather and live in unity and obedience to who Jesus is and what Jesus does. Both speakers discussed the effects of this new perspective.

Extended Summary:

This weekend Sandra Unger and Paul Eddy tag-teamed, and the topic was “the church,” what it is, what it isn’t, and how it happens. To demonstrate the need for a shift in how we think about “church,” Sandra asked, “Who will volunteer to stop going to church?” Of course, no one jumped up for this. Sandra proceeded to explain why she would ask such a question. The word for “church” in Greek is “ecclesia,” and unlike the English usage of the word “church,” “ecclesia” is a very generic term. It can refer to any gathering of people, even a riot (Acts 19 has such a usage of “ecclesia”)! So, “ecclesia” simply means “gathering.” And what we now refer to as “church” in English was really just the “gathering” of those who follow Jesus. This means that when Jesus referred to his church, our translations would better get the sense of it if they said, “my gathering,” or “those who gather in my name.”

Sandra wanted us to shift our ideas of church away from it being just a building (with a religious leader) that in some way mediates the presence of God to the world. Instead, the church is what happens when those who follow Jesus gather and live in unity and obedience to who Jesus is and what Jesus does. The church has a moving center. Wherever Jesus is, and wherever people are following him, there is the church. Sandra’s point was that it has never been possible to go to church, simply because ecclesia/church is not that sort of word. We are not to be focused around a building or a spiritual leader, we are those who gather around Christ and follow him. Paul picked up by pointing out that Jesus claimed that he himself would build his church/gathering.

Paul reminded us that Jesus’ idea of church planting was quite different from what we usually see today. Not only did Jesus not use conventional wisdom on drawing a crowd and keeping them loyal, but Jesus regularly offended those who followed him! (Paul alluded to several passages to this effect. Luke 14:25ff, John 6, etc.) Even though Jesus didn’t concern himself with winning people by the usual strategies, his church grew nonetheless. In fact, it grew so powerfully that it eventually took over the Roman Empire!

At least two things were very distinctive about Jesus’ “church planting strategy”: Who he called and what he called them to do. Jesus didn’t call the religious leaders, but rather the common folks (Acts 4:13). They were not the ones considered holy by the people of God in that day, but were ordinary people like you and me. He called people of every political persuasion and made them work together for the sake of a new kind of kingdom. The disciples were imperfect people who struggled for power, wouldn’t wash one another’s feet, judged one another, and betrayed Christ during the final hours of Jesus’ life. Jesus called real people just like you and me. This is who made up the early church. What exactly did he call them to?

Paul outlined many things that Jesus called the church to do and be. Jesus called them to convert from servants of the kingdom of darkness to servants of the Son of God and his kingdom (Col 1:13). He called them to abandon their former life and embrace a new life of in Christ. He called them to follow and become like Jesus. He called them to heal the world in the many ways it is broken (Acts 10:38). He called them to covenant community with one another, just as the Father and Son are in community with each other and the Spirit (John 17:23). He called them to advance the Kingdom of God! (See Luke 10:5, 8-9) All of these things go far beyond what we can do on Sunday mornings. Celebrating the God who saved us is good and worth doing! But being and doing the church is so much more than getting together on Sunday mornings. Use this message as an opportunity to examine your own life and see if you are truly participating in the church, the gathering and working of those who follow Christ!

Reflection Questions:

Discuss Sandra’s question after having read the summary above. “Are you ready to stop going to church?” How would you respond now? Why? Be sure to use the new insight into the connection between our English word “church” and the Greek word “ecclesia,” which means “gathering.”

Discuss as a group what it might look like if church were more like what Paul and Sandra described today. What if we really did think of all believers as priests and pastors and everywhere there were believers the calling of God was being acted on! How might things look different? What might you do differently?