We have already noted the discussion surrounding the recent YouTube video "Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus," and have suggested that at least part of the problem is that the church is not what it should be. We attempted to point out that Christianity is a message, a relationship, and a way of life, and that what is often missing in most modern churches is the relationship. There is little sense of the presence of God in our worship, little sense of real communion with Christ. Ironically, most modern churches do not strike outsiders as being especially "spiritual."
But this raises a pertinent question: what is the church supposed to be like? And when we turn to the New Testament what we find there is quite different from what are used to seeing today.
If it were somehow possible to travel back in time and visit a First Century church, we would be surprised at how different it would be. We would probably be struck by what we did not see. There would not be a church building as such – no towering steeple or stained glass windows, no organ and no mahogany pews. The church would most likely meet in a private home. Moreover there would not be a professionally trained clergyman. Neither would there be a formal liturgy nor an elaborate musical program. None of these things are essential to Christianity, and to some extent they may even serve to obscure the real meaning of the faith.
How, then, did the early church manage to function? One of the best explanations we have of how the church is supposed to operate is found in Eph. 4:1-16. What Paul describes there is an organic or mystical relationship between Christ and the church – what theologians sometimes call the "mystical union." He compares the church to a human body, of which Christ is the head, "from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love" (v. 16: NKJV). In other words, the life and vitality of the "body" (the church) flows from Christ. The body is healthy and strong only to the degree that it is connected to Christ Himself.
But how is this life and vitality transmitted to the body? The answer is, by means of spiritual gifts. Every believer, if he is genuinely born again and has the Holy Spirit living inside of Him, has a spiritual gift. "But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ's gift" (v. 7). It will be noted that the underlying assumption here is that the church is a "believers' church," with a regenerate church membership. Every member is presumed to be vitally connected to Christ and to have the Holy Spirit dwelling within him. Paul, then, enumerates several of these special gifts: apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastors and teachers, and he tells us that their function is "the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry" (v. 12). "Ministry" (the Greek word is "diakonia," meaning service) involves serving others – attending to their needs. "Grace," in this context, is the divinely imparted help and ability that enables us to perform the service. It is something that the Holy Spirit gives, not something that is the result of academic training. A person can graduate from an academic institution and not even be converted, let alone have the spiritual gifts necessary for ministry.
The end result of a genuinely spiritual ministry is the kind of church life described in verses 1-3. It is a congregational life marked by "all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (vv. 2,3). In a spiritually healthy church there should be a profound sense of unity, the "communion of the saints." As church members are each united to Christ through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, so they are united to each other in common fellowship. As they grow in spiritual maturity, the "come to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God" (v. 13).
The church with which we are familiar today is but a pale shadow of the original. We maintain the outward form of religion, but the inward vitality is gone. We sing "Sweet Hour of Prayer," but we do not pray. As a result we have robbed ourselves of the church's crowning glory – communion with Christ Himself. And the world can see right through us.