To say churches are in a crisis of meaning is an understatement. Some attend church because of a moralistic impulse. They have been conditioned to believe it’s the right thing to do, though they may not know why it’s the right thing to do. Others go to church because they feel like the church has something to offer, usually emotional support.
A troubled person can find uplifting sayings in the sermon, instructions for living a more fulfilling life, and comfort in a sea of smiling parishioners. Others attend church but have no idea why. They just haven’t faced the uncomfortable reality that they, perhaps, believe nothing the church says and that they’ve been driving to church from Sunday to Sunday out of sheer habit. Still, a small minority are secure in their church attendance. They want to be there and they know precisely why.
This crisis of meaning stems from a drought of theological understanding, a fault I might attribute to pulpits nationwide. But I’m not looking to blame anyone in this article. Far from it. I want to offer something more constructive. That is, I want to paint a portrait of the church that will help us understand why the church is cosmically and practically significant. But first, we need to begin with the identity of the church.
A Biblical Portrait of the Church
The church is an organism with a divinely bestowed identity and a heaven-entranced trajectory.
Let me explain…
In Colossians 1:17, Paul is reveling in the mystery of Christ as he writes, “He is before all things, and in Him all things consist.” Christ is the Creator and sustainer of all things. But then in v. 18, he writes, “And He is the head of the body, the church…” When we attempt to understand what the church is, we must start here. The church is “the body,” of which Christ is the head. The “body language” refers to the church’s union with Christ, denoting the marital union of Genesis 2. Illustrating this point further, Paul writes, “For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones. ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church.” (Eph. 5:30-32)
The church, therefore, is in vital union with the Son of God through the gospel of the Son of God. It is an organism that has been brought into a life-giving relation to the triune God through the Mediatorial office of the incarnate Christ. All people who are united to Christ comprise His church. Hence, the historical designation of “universal church.” This church knows no geographical or architectural bounds. It consists of all who have been effectually called and united to the Savior. Apart from this union, a person cannot possess spiritual life, “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.” (Jn. 15:5)
Those who are grafted into the true vine and thus members of the new covenant are termed “the church.” But since this macrocosmic church is made up of those who have been made alive in Christ through His Holy Spirit, (cf. Tit. 3:5) there is a real communal life that takes place among them. And since these members are scattered all over the globe at any given time, the ordinary way in which this communal life takes place is in localized, microcosmic versions of the universal church.
The local church is a sacred assembly of God’s people in a given area where there are some Christians banded together by a common confession of faith. The presupposition of their local assembly is their membership in the broader body and bride of Jesus Christ, from whom they derive their life. The local church, therefore, is but a visible manifestation of the universal church. (Cf. 2LCF 26.1, 5) People who have been endowed with the virtue of faith because of the gospel are those who receive the gospel. And those who receive the gospel do so precisely because they’ve been freely given a life that receives it. This life, expressive of one’s union with Christ, necessarily manifests in the vibrant religious life of local churches.
For those in Christ, going to church is but an inaugural manifestation of Christ’s own vibrant, resurrectional life in the lives of His people. This alone ought to cast due aspersions upon the crisis of meaning commonly experienced in many churches today.
Cosmic Renewal & the Place of the Church
The divine operation of the gospel is described in 2 Corinthians 5:19, where we learn that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself…” This cosmic redemption occurs through means of and within the church. In Christ, the church constitutes an inaugurated new creation and new nation into which people from all tribes and tongues are gathered. Speaking to the Corinthian church, Paul writes, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.” (2 Cor. 5:17) And Peter describes the church as a holy nation, “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light…” (1 Pet. 2:9)
This nation is, in essence, the new covenant kingdom and world established in the blood of the Lamb. For it is in the death of Christ that He secures the church and rescues her from the dominion of sin, death, and Satan — “Now is the judgment of this world,” He says, “now the ruler of this world will be cast out. And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.” (Jn. 12:31-32) That the church is the initiatory new world into which the redeemed are transferred upon their Spirit-wrought renewal means that the church plays a transitional role between this world and the next. (Col. 1:13)
If the already/not yet distinction was an institution, it would be the church of the living God. This is why the structure of Colossians 1:15-23 is [creation → church → new creation]. I want to suggest that the church is the inter-creational vehicle in which the redeemed begin to exit one world and enter another. The church has one foot in the old world and one foot in the new. This transitional status of the militant church needs to inform how we understand the church’s place between two cosmic realities.
We might mistakenly conclude, therefore, that once a person is united to Christ and is made a part of His body, the old world no longer matters. This would be a gross error. The church may be between two worlds, but it’s not between two separate and unrelated locations. The new world could accurately be described as the old world remade, renewed, and redeemed. In Romans 8:21, Paul contemplates a renewal of the old world in connection to the resurrection, “the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.” The church must continue to take the first creation seriously even as she enjoys and looks forward to the second.
The creation and sustainment of the old world is through Christ according to Colossians 1:15-17, “And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist.” And in v. 18, “He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence.” Though Christ is the Creator and sustainer of the old world, only the church is said to be His own body. Upon His entering into new, resurrectional life and taking His seat at the right hand of God, Christ begins to bestow that same life upon elect sinners. The project of new creation starts with Christ, and the church is caught up with Christ to participate in His new resurrectional life. There is no place or institution other than the church in which this occurs. The bodily resurrection of the church means the old world will be consummately delivered from the Genesis 3 curse only to participate in the new creational reality commenced by King Jesus 2,000 years ago.
The preeminence of Christ over “all things” follows from His headship over the church which suggests that the church takes priority in the spiritual hierarchy over the first creation. It further indicates God’s purpose of creational renewal in and through an ever-expanding new and holy nation full of restored images of God. The renewal of the divine image of those within the church can be explained only by their union with the exact imprint of the Father’s nature, the Lord Jesus Christ. (Heb. 1:1-4; Rom. 8:29) Thus, the church at present is a seminal new world populated with renewed image bearers of God pilgrimaging toward the consummation of the new heavens and new earth. Hence, in Colossians 1:19-20, there is a reconciliation and renewal of all things through the blood of Jesus.
This [creation → church → new creation] order in Colossians 1 insinuates the present trans-creational position of Christ’s church. The church is the only entity that simultaneously straddles old and new creations. The church touches, sees, smells, hears, and tastes the old world daily. And as she does, she must shine brightly. (Matt. 5:14) But she also participates in new-world realities that are both already and not yet, e.g. justification, adoption, sanctification, and the several benefits that flow from them.
The church is that in which redeemed image bearers participate in new creational life. While this no doubt indirectly implies some practical solutions to present woes, the emphatic reason why Christians ought to find meaning in the church is that the church is united and is being united with God through Jesus Christ. It is the gathering of God’s people called by Christ and formed by His Spirit through means of churchly ordinances. As such, the ritual life of the church consisting of ordinances administered on the Lord’s Day ought to be seen as cosmically significant. If life in the church is participation in the new world, then the ordinances and practices occurring within the church are slivers of heaven intended by God to make us more heaven-like.
Therefore, the worship of the church — particularly on the Lord’s Day — takes on heavenly overtones. The crisis of meaning in contemporary Western church culture is a crisis of identity. What the church is and what the church does is disconnected from the God to whom the Savior reconciles us. And when this happens, “church life” becomes nothing more than an extracurricular activity among many other possible extracurricular activities. But when the church is seen as an organism peculiarly favored by God through Christ intended to result in our consummate delight in God Himself, the meaning of the church is at once understood to be essential to the lives of Christians.
For more relevant material & bibliography see my article, “A Most Meaningful Church,” https://www.academia.edu/111267547/A_Most_Meaningful_Church.