My earliest memories of church come from my preschool days in a little church in Memphis, Texas. I remember the songs. When the Roll is Called Up Yonder was one of my favorite. The Church of Christ-ers could belt that one out with enthusiasm.
There were two things that caught my young attention in that song. First, I thought it had something to do with dinner rolls so my mouth started watering when we’d sing that one. And second, the idea of the trumpet of the Lord sounding created vivid scenes in my mind of some big angel—like Gabriel—blowing that horn real loud.
So one Sunday as I was laying down on the church pew during the sermon and dreaming about dinner rolls, I heard it. A loud sound like a trumpet. It was brash and long. I bolted straight up. I thought, “This is it! The roll is being called up yonder, and I’m going there.” I looked around and saw my Mom and Dad. I didn’t see my older brother Scott who was sometimes mean to me so it figured that he wouldn’t be there. Just when I was getting ready to find the heavenly banquet table with bottomless dinner rolls, my Mom patted me on the back, leaned over and whispered, “It’s just a train blowing its horn. Lay back down.”
I did. But those experiences gave me my first ideas about church. You have ideas about church too, don’t you? What is it that has shaped those ideas? For some, it’s childhood. For others, it’s some church you went to at Easter or Christmas Eve. For still others, it’s some new church in the neighborhood that has popped up and gives the impression they’ve figured something new out that no one else has yet discovered.
Maybe our ideas of what the church is should come from the New Testament instead of the latest blog article or the fastest growing church in whatever part of the country we live in. Maybe we should get our ideas of church from the Apostle Paul, the one who established the churches we read about in the New Testament. When we turn to Paul we get a different picture of the church.
There we find ekklesia. Ekklesia is the Greek word for church. It is a compound word meaning to be “called out” or “called together” for a special purpose. Ekklesia is a word that was common in the first century to describe any group that assembled. It was used to describe the group of free men who could vote, the popular assembly, part of the Greek system of governance, or any gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place. The word for “church,” then, is not that “churchy” to begin with.
When Paul uses the word he has in mind the Old Testament word qahal. It was used to refer to Israel who had been called out by God to serve a special purpose. Paul connects these new churches to the old Israel, God’s people who had a purpose for their existence. When we understand “church” the way Paul did, no church is a new church.
He also connects the church to Christ. The gospel—the good news of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ—was the unifying common interest that brought them together as the church. They weren’t all alike. Men, women, slaves, free, rich and poor. They were called out of their daily routines and assembled around Christ. This kind of diversity was unprecedented among ancient associations.
Because of their diversity they needed a new identity. Paul gives them one. He says they are now family. “Family” is the predominant image for the church in the New Testament and Paul’s writings.
In 1 Thessalonians—Paul’s first letter to a church he established—he says a family: has a corporate identity, is beloved by God, is to walk in a manner worthy of God, is to be holy, are children of light, and are siblings to each other. Paul knows nothing of the individual Christian because people respond to the gospel by living in community. For Paul, to be a believer is to be in the church.
The church is a family. And its messy. The first century church was too. There was never a time when the church “did it perfectly.” You’ll never find a perfect church now. Plant yourself in a church, focus on your calling in Christ, and learn to be family.
When the “roll is called up yonder” you’ll want to be there. You won’t be alone. But you may be surprised at who else is there with you.
Question: How is church like a family to you?