I’ve felt like an outsider almost my whole life. I never had any resentment about it—it was just the reality for our family when I was a kid. My parents were both born in Georgia but met and married in Maryland. So, I began my life as an outsider in Maryland, a child of two outsiders from Georgia. Eventually, we moved away from Maryland back to Georgia. In Georgia, I felt even more like an outsider. In Maryland, kids teased me because I had a southern accent. (I guess I picked it up from my parents.) When we moved to Georgia, kids at school said I talked like a Yankee. Some of the kids in my school in Macon had such thick southern accents, I couldn’t understand what they were saying!
In all, I attended five different elementary schools and, each time, it reinforced the fact that I was an outsider—the new kid on the outside of a circle of friends. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. It was just the way it was and I didn’t know any better and didn’t resent it.
Then, after high school, I moved to Marietta to attend college. Metro Atlanta was very different from Macon, and again, I felt like an outsider among people who had lived in the Atlanta area their whole lives. They would talk about the different towns and roads and places assuming everyone knew where they were—and most everyone did (accept me, the outsider). But that was OK, because by then I knew how to make it as an outsider—a stranger in a foreign land, as they say.
After college, I worked for a small textile mill in Griffin—a small town where everybody knew everybody and everyone in the mill knew everybody else, and probably had for their whole life. Except for me, of course; I was the outsider—that new college kid who thought he was smarter than everyone else. (That was their opinion, not mine, by the way. I deeply respected their vast experience and just wanted to learn from them. I didn’t think I was better than anyone, but some perceived me that way simply because I had a college degree.)
And then I answered the call to ministry as a United Methodist minister. And guess what? United Methodist ministers are reappointed to new churches every so many years (the average is about 5 years in each congregation)! So all together, I’ve lived in twelve different homes in my life and I have attended 10 different churches.
Now, the more I have matured in my Christian faith, the more I see the benefit of my life as an outsider, because one of the great truths is Jesus came to call Christians to be “outsiders” in this world.
18 “If the world hates you, remember that it hated me first. 19 The world would love you as one of its own if you belonged to it, but you are no longer part of the world. I chose you to come out of the world, so it hates you.
Called Out of this World
As we think about the purpose of Church, we have to remember that Christians are a “called out” people. The Greek word for Church in the New Testament is Ekklesia, which literally means “the called out people”. The Church is not a building. The Church is a group of people who have been called out of something old into something new--called out of darkness into light, out of shame into nobility, called out of the world into the Kingdom of God.
Perhaps it has been easier for me than for most to accept that Christians are outsiders in this world because I have never felt “at home” in this world. My faith in Christ has assured me that feeling is OK because this world is not our home.
Philippians 3:20 says, “But we are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives. And we are eagerly waiting for him to return as our Savior.”
You see, being a Christian isn’t a sentence to be an outsider forever. It only means being an outsider in this world. But it means being an insider in God’s Kingdom. Hebrews 13:14 – “For this world is not our permanent home; we are looking forward to a home yet to come.”
But many Christians struggle with being “outsiders in this world.” There are too many things we like about this world. Hank Williams Jr. once sang a song, “If Heaven ain’t a lot like Dixie, I don’t want to go. If Heaven ain’t a lot like Dixie, I’d just as soon stay home.” How about you? If Heaven ain’t a lot like the place you call home, would you still want to go? Are you more a part of this world or of God’s Kingdom? These are critical questions to consider. Remember, all the things of this world will soon melt away, but the Kingdom of God will stand forever (see 2 Peter 3:10-12).
The Purpose of the Church
It’s important to always keep in mind that Christians are not just called out of, but we are also called into. We are called out of the world, but we are called into God’s Kingdom. And this reveals one of the essential purposes of the Church. The Church is the place Christians gather together into a community--a community of faith, God's Kingdom on earth. Right now, it's just an outpost of God's Kingdom. One day, it will be God's full Kingdom on earth when Jesus comes to reign in power and might. Until then, we need a place where the faithful can gather. The Church is that place.
No one can make it in this world completely alone. We’re not made that way. It doesn’t matter how much of a loner you are, you cannot live in complete isolation from other people. Everyone (and I mean everyone) needs to be part of a group of people.
Christians do not live out our faith alone. We need each other. Jesus, the Son of the living God, called together a group of 12 people. Don’t you think Jesus, God in the flesh, imbued with all the power in the universe, could have saved the world all by himself? He didn’t need the help of 12 flawed, feeble mortals to do His work. However, he chose these broken men to be together because being together is essential to the Christian life.
Part of the purpose of Church is for us to be together. Because if we are called out of the world and we don’t gather together, then we’re just alone; and being alone is a death sentence to your spiritual life. I want everyone reading this to understand me clearly. If you are trying to live as a Christian all alone, all bv yourself without a group of other Christians, you will die spiritually.
Now, don’t get me wrong, gathering as a “church” doesn’t have to look like it has traditionally looked in America. Obviously, we’ve been learning a new way to do “church” through online worship for over two months. Church could also be a group of men gathering for lunch at a restaurant for encouragement, accountability, and cooperation in the mission of the Church. Church could also be gathering in your living room or outdoors at a campground. But it’s not just gathering; it’s not the same as getting together with your family or friends for a cookout. We gather for some specific reasons. What are they?
The Church Gathers for Important Reasons
Here are some of essential reasons we must gather. Now, I’m still praying about this and studying. I don't know that I have this all worked out and organized. A lot of this is me just thinking out loud. But here’s what I think are some of the essential reasons Christians must gather together.
Worship. Obviously, we can worship privately as individuals. We can also worship online as we are doing in many churches during the COVID 19 pandemic. Some people may prefer to worship online as we are today. For others, being together in one room worship God with other people enhances the worship experience. We feel God presence more compellingly when we are in a group.
Learning and growing. There is a certain amount of learning and growing that can be accomplished online. We are learning that we might actually be more effective in some ways when we teach online. The jury is still out. If online learning is as effective as onsite learning, then why have we not yet abolished school classrooms and gone completely to online learning for public education as well as college courses. Right now, these are options, but most students and teachers still believe being physically present in a classroom is essential for proper education. I mean, do you want to be operated on by a surgeon who only took online classes in medical school? I believe onsite learning in small groups, Sunday school classes, and Bible studies is essential in the church. We are learning, however, that the right combination of online and onsite learning may be better than either one alone.
The Sacraments of Holy Communion and Baptism. Jesus commanded the Church to perform two sacred ceremonies—Baptism and Holy Communion. These can only be celebrated when a community of Christian believers are gathered together in person. Some are celebrating online/virtual communions and I don't fault them; Christians long to celebrate Holy Communion and this is something many are trying to get by during a global pandemic. However, I would say it's not really true Communion. It is a stand in. True Holy Communion must be celebrated as we gather in person.
Cooperation for the sake of the mission. Together, as a church, we are a team. Christians are more effective when we work together. We can do more as a group than we can do individually. I’m good at some things, but not everything. You are better at some things than I am. When we get together, I add the things I'm good at your good things and the good things of everyone else in the church and it adds up to great things. When we all pool together our time, our talents, our perspectives, and our resources for the sake of the Christ’s mission, we can accomplish greater things than we could ever accomplish alone.
Finally, there is fellowship. And this is huge. Sometimes, fellowship doesn't get the respect it's due. Cynics may say a church that focuses on fellowship is just a social club. That's not fair. Fellowship is vital to the Christian faith. People who don’t meet together regularly to fellowship in person will grow apart. And if a church is going to work together as a team, weathering trials and tribulations, we have to know each other, trust each other, and long for each other. We have to be one as a family—brothers and sisters in Christ. I just don’t see how a Church can go to the depths of relationship building, working together on our great mission, and being the community of faith Jesus calls us to be if we don’t get together regularly in person all in the same space. We can manage it for a time, but eventually we would grow apart. Over the long term, we have to be together to be one in Christ to do the things the Church is called out of the world and into the Kingdom to God to do. Fellowship is essential.
I want everyone reading this to seriously contemplate how you are called to be part of the Church. Over the next month, we will slowly begin to resume onsite gatherings at my church, Pleasant Grove. Is God calling you to be here. If you don’t live close enough, is God calling you to be in a church near you? Please understand, that doesn't necessarily mean you need to worship in a traditional church building. You could worship online at my church on Facebook on Sunday and then meet with a solid group of Christian friends for coffee on Monday morning and get the "in person" portion of Christian relationships you need. Is God calling you to do that?
Jesus came to call you out of darkness into light, to call you out of shame into a noble purpose. He came to call you out of a broken world of sin into God’s glorious Kingdom of eternal life. Won’t you hear His voice today and start to follow Him?