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What is church?

September 2011

Dear Friends,

We were delighted to welcome so many people to our services on Sunday 18th September, both students and non-students, and we are very grateful to God and to all those who prayed for and supported us during the first phase of our outreach activities this September (see Douglas Humphris’s report on pp. 10-11). One of the questions that has been frequently asked by our friends from overseas, and indeed by some who live locally, is: ‘What is the Church?’ Given the confusion in all the denominations, and in those outside the Church, this question is one of the most important for the times we are living in. In so many electronic games, we are invited to design and construct our own building, whether it be a house, a castle, a city, or, indeed, a space station! I have recently discovered that there is even a game (probably, though by no means certainly, aimed at the younger age group!) called Build a Church. Now, it is possible to play a variation of this game in real life. For all of us, it is sometimes useful to ask ourselves what really are the essentials of a church.

For some, a church is essentially its material aspects: the building, the pews, the pulpit, the font or the baptistery, the communion vessels, vestments, instant or real coffee, food, and so on. Others may concentrate on the music: the role of a praise group, of a choir, the use of the organ and/or modern instruments – or indeed of instruments at all – of data projectors, a version of the Bible and/or hymn book. Some might focus on a particular denomination. Others may say that the most important aspect of a church is its minister. I think if we are honest with ourselves we may find that this was the chief criterion for our initial choice of a church, and we certainly will be doing our utmost to ensure that the ministry of the word of God is a vital feature in Sandyford’s worship. While some of these issues can be very important, and it is almost impossible to reduce all that is said about the Christian Church to a few basic characteristics, it might be helpful to remind ourselves of three essential aspects.

1) A fellowship of people

The dominant recurring image with regard to the church in the Bible is that of a building. However, while in the Old Testament there is much reference to the physical house of God, the Temple, terms from building and construction in the New Testament refer principally to the church as an ‘assembly of people’, called out by God to be his representatives, who have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and who are trusting Him for salvation. Organisational structures, particularly denominations, may help us express this representation in service and worship. In this respect, it has been quite interesting to learn how recent events have caused people to think about the essentials in church life. Many in Sandyford have said that they owe all that they are under God to the ministry and support within the Church of Scotland. However, these members would be the first to acknowledge that the church is primarily a fellowship of believing people whose head and leader is none other than the Son of God, Jesus Christ. Many rightly confess their disorientation with regard to all the different denominations; it would seem that every year within our own city a new expression of the local church comes into being. So many today outside the church equate denomination with the church. In the eighteenth century, the eminent French philosopher and writer, Voltaire, made such an error in extolling the tolerance of the Church in England, which allowed an Englishman ‘thirty ways of going to heaven’! In stating that the Church comprises people, the apostle Peter explores the building imagery to emphasise just how precious each church member is. We are ‘living stones’ (1 Peter 2: 5), which were initially rough and jagged but have been shaped individually through the study of the Bible, worship, prayer, service and the providence of God. Each stone is vital in this construction. In a church of over 200 members we can sometimes have difficulty grasping how we fit in, as an individual stone, into a big building. It is very easy for us to think that we have no part to play in the life of Sandyford, and yet, if we are not playing our part then the building is going to suffer. If we take a stone out of one of the walls in Sandyford, draughts would be felt and leaks would soon be visible, or felt! One of the exciting challenges during a vacancy is to see the role which every person, from whatever background or experience, can play, and indeed is playing, in the Church.

2) Joint-Heirs with Jesus

Yet one of the temptations for us is to think that the Church exists for us, and to look for what we can get out of it. The focus in the Bible is, however, on the Church being an inheritance for Jesus. In the BBC programme, Heir Hunters, a painstaking search for long-lost relatives who are entitled to considerable financial gain from an unclaimed estate may lead to an exhilarating conclusion. The heir hunters, who can spend sometimes up to three or four years chasing false leads and going down countless investigative cul-de-sacs, find all the hard work so worthwhile when their enquiries identify rightful heir(s). How much more – and this is so hard to believe considering what lives we lead and what we are by nature – will Jesus, who is both the heir hunter and the inheritor, be thrilled to get his treasured possession, over which he has, in His search for us, gone to extreme limits of expenditure, culminating in his death on a cross. It is difficult to think of the Church in these terms. Yet we are reassured that Jesus will see ‘the travail of his soul and be satisfied’ (Isaiah, 53: 11), considering His Church worth the sacrifice of Gethsemane and Calvary, and all the betrayals and disappointments on our part on the way. The Church is essentially the personal property of Jesus (1 Peter 2: 9) – we need to put up the old-fashioned sign, ‘Keep off: trespassers will be prosecuted’. The Church was brought into being ‘that we declare the praises of him who called us out of darkness into his wonderful light’. So many problems in churches can arise when we lose sight of Jesus as the foundation stone. If we could see ourselves as part of this inheritance of Jesus it would give a fresh dynamic to our willingness to live for Jesus and to serve him and his people. We have a Master Builder who, unlike Henrik Ibsen’s self-absorbed titular hero, Halvard Solness, the elderly architect who in the end falls off the scaffold of his own construction, wants us to share all his resources and is at work 24/7 with us to help us complete the task.

3) The Special Commission

This is not the body of people set up by the Church of Scotland to look into a vexatious problem from the General Assembly which could divide the national Church (see the June letter). While we are keeping a close eye on all developments and are pleased to have input into discussions we are conscious of the danger of becoming so preoccupied with the internal denominational issues as to forget the great commission and part of the raison d‘être of the Church, which is to preach the good news that Jesus came to give us life, full, meaningful, ’abundant‘ life (John 10: 10). It is right that the Church should engage in good works and show social concern and enrich the moral life of the nation, but this is not its primary responsibility, which is to go out into the whole world and preach the gospel (Mark 16: 15). One of the greatest social reformers of the last century, William Booth, who founded the Salvation Army, was quite clear that the overriding mission was not the amelioration of social conditions but ’first and foremost, the bringing of men [and women and children] to repentance, that their souls might be saved':

Take a man from the filth and squalor of the slums, exchange his rags for decent clothing, move him from the stifling stench of the city tenement to a neat little cottage in the pure air of the country, put him on his feet economically where he can make a decent living for himself and his family, and then let him die in his sins unsaved, and be lost forever at last – really it is not worthwhile, and I, for one, would not attempt it.

(William Booth, explaining his ‘Darkest England’ Scheme)

It is so easy to lose the focus on kingdom building. In fact, in Britain, if one judges from statistics from various surveys, the spiritual building industry is in serious recession. Yet God’s building work is not subject to the vagaries of the market. The treasury in heaven has unlimited resources. We are seeing evidence of this in quite a few countries overseas where there is a real spiritual construction boom at the moment. In one church we attended in East Asia a service was delayed by an hour by the baptism of 68 people. Outside, folk were queuing to get into the next service. Such occurrences happened regularly in the history of the Church of Scotland. As Douglas reports, so many people set foot in Sandyford for the first time last week, either at a lunch, at the gazebo, and/or at a service. What a challenge for us. But what a privilege also to be engaged, in whatever way, with the Master Builder, and to be a member of His Church!

With very best wishes

Noël Peacock

Session Clerk

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