If you are from here or from this region of the county, you know that we live in the so-called Bible belt. I didn’t know this until recently, but the term Bible Belt was first used in 1925 talking about our neighboring town, Dayton, Tennessee. H.L. Mencken was reporting on the Scopes Monkey Trail. This is the trail that made Dayton famous where John Scopes was tried for violating the Butler Act, which made it illegal to teach human evolution in school. In his reporting, Mencken did not use the term “Bible Belt” affectionately. I pretty sure he originally used it to paint this area of the country as backwards or something.
Whatever the case of the original use of the term, the term Bible Belt has stuck. Today it is more of a neutral term, referring to the southern part of the United States. There are certain traits and categories of things that you could say define much of this area. In my opinion, the most defining traits of this area are probably deeply spiritual things like: SEC football, fried chicken, and sweet tea. These are things that people have intense, perhaps you could say religious, feeling about. But another thing that is common in this area of the county is that there are a lot of churches.
Drive through the town of Decatur. There are about 1,600 people in Decatur, and if you drive for less than a mile from south to north, in the heart of town, you will pass four churches. Then get outside of the town, who knows how many churches there are. This same type of thing is true for communities all over our area. Go to any downtown of any city and all you have to do is turn around to see multiple churches. In the community I worked in prior moving to Decatur there was an Episcopal church across the street from a new elementary school, then a new evangelical church started worshiping at the elementary school on Sunday, and I dove by there the other day and one of the big Baptist churches in town built a new campus right in front of the school.
Even with all of these churches around, we don’t always have it clear as to what the church is what it’s supposed to do. This morning, consciously or not, millions of Americans have made the choice to wake up, get dressed, get in the car, and drive to a building for a service of worship. At the same time, millions of other Americans have made the choice, consciously or not, to sleep in, watch tv, do yard work, play with the kids, go to the ball field, or go to brunch.
The reality is that church involvement was once a cornerstone of American life. But this reality has changed. According to recent polling:
Even for those that go to church, presumably you and I, we don’t always know what we are doing or know what we should be doing. The Christian research firm Barna found that, and I have shared this before,
To me, this says we are missing something; to me this says we just don’t know what church is or what it’s for or even if it is important or not. So today we are starting our new message series, Defining Church. Even though so many don’t know or see the purpose of church, I believe strongly that the church is the place where Jesus meets the needs of the world. My hope is that over these three weeks we will gain a better understanding of what church is and how you can find a place to make a difference in our world.
In this first message about defining church we are going to ask the basic question: What is the Church? For us to begin, I want us to look back to the beginning. And if we want to find the first mention of church, we can find it in what Jesus has to say. There was this guy named Matthew that spent a lot of time with Jesus, and later on in life, Matthew took the time to write down all the important stuff about Jesus and his life and ministry. We find his writing in the first book of the New Testament, Matthew. If you have a bible with you, I hope you will turn with me to Matthew 16:15-19.
What going on here is that Jesus is walking and talking with close followers, the disciples. As he is doing this, he asks them a question about who people think Jesus is. All of the disciples kind of chime in and mutter that people think that Jesus may be some prophet, or a famous religious teacher who had been killed. And then, Jesus responds to them in verse 15:
15 He said, “And what about you? Who do you say that I am?”
16 Simon Peter said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
17 Then Jesus replied, “Happy are you, Simon son of Jonah, because no human has shown this to you. Rather my Father who is in heaven has shown you.
Peter gets it right. Peter has this insight and accurately realizes who Jesus is. He is the savior of the world. He is the son of God who has come to save the world. Jesus recognizes that Peter understands this because of the movement of God in his life. And then Jesus continues by telling people what will come in his life.
18 I tell you that you are Peter.[b] And I’ll build my church on this rock. The gates of the underworld won’t be able to stand against it. 19 I’ll give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Anything you fasten on earth will be fastened in heaven. Anything you loosen on earth will be loosened in heaven.”
Peter is the first one to grasp who Jesus is. Peter is the first one who made the leap from seeing Jesus as a miracle worker, from seeing him as a teacher, from seeing him as a revolutionary, from seeing him as a friend, to seeing Jesus for who he really is—the son of the living God. Jesus knows that the movement that starts with him will continue after he dies and will be ignited when he rises from the dead. And he sees that Peter is the first stone laid in the foundation of this movement called the church.
This exchange between Jesus and Peter has been very important in the history of the Christian church. Many in the Roman Catholic church consider Peter to be the first pope and all of the popes after Peter are seen as Peter’s successors. Thusly, because Jesus gave this first place to Peter, the Pope also receives this position and the institution of the church inherits the privilege that Jesus gives to Peter.
I don’t want to debate Roman Catholic teachings, because I am not a scholar in Catholic thought; I’m not even a Roman Catholic—I’m a United Methodist. What I think is important here, though, is that the church is not being built by Peter. Instead, Jesus says, I will build my church. The church belongs and depends on Jesus. Peter is perhaps, the first member, but the church depends not on a man, but on Jesus. In an essence, Jesus is saying, Peter I am building a new movement and a new community of people who love God and of people who are dedicated to bringing God’s love to the world, and you are the beginning of this.
When ask the question, “what is church?” this is where it is important to look. We are looking and focusing on the church, which first and foremost is a community built by Jesus. At its founding, the church is not an institution or a denomination or a building or something to go to on Sunday morning, the church is first and foremost a community built by Jesus. This church, this community built by Jesus, is not limited to any particular denomination but includes all who call on the name of Jesus as Lord.
In answering out question, “what is church?”it’s important to get a hold of what church is and what church does. We have already seen that the church is a community built by Jesus made up of all the people who call on the name of Jesus as Lord; that is, people who have faith in Jesus as Lord. Now, I know that there are divisions and distinctions amongst different groups of Christians—that, perhaps, is topic of study for a different day. To me, part of my deep belief is that our divisions are just our humanness trying to make sense of what this Jesus community means at our present time and in our present place.
Since we have already looked at what the church is, now I want to turn to one more thing and explore what the church does. To answer this question “what is the church,” I want to look at one more thing that Jesus says. The next thing I want to share about what Jesus has to say about the church is something else that Matthew wrote. If you want to read along, you can find it in Matthew 28:16-20. This is the last thing that Jesus has to say to his followers that Matthew writes down, so it is explicitly directed toward the church. Here’s what Jesus had to say:
16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted. 18 Jesus came near and spoke to them, “I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth. 19 Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.”
In their last in person meeting together, Jesus gets with those in the church, they worship Jesus and then Jesus says, “go.” He says go and makes disciples of all different kinds of people and baptize them into this community we call the church and teach them every I have taught you. You notice, Jesus doesn’t spend a lot of time dealing with their fears or anxieties or their self-doubts, Jesus just tells them to go.
This sounds a lot like what The United Methodist Church has to say about why the church exists. In The United Methodist Church, we have this book called the Discipline. And second to the bible, this book is a guide in helping us live our life together a church. It is our church rule book, but it also tells the story and history The United Methodist Church, and talks about dreams and hopes for the church, the world, for families, and for individuals. In talking about what the church is, this book says something powerful about the purpose of the church. It says: The church of Jesus Christ exists in and for the world. It is primarily at the level of the local church that the church encounters the world. The local church is a strategic base from which Christians move out to the structures of society.
We say, the church, this community of people devoted to the life-giving love of Jesus, does not exist for itself, but instead exists in and for the world. This is a place where Jesus’s love is made know and where Christians go out and work for good in our world. This is what Jesus said to do in Matthew 28: go and make disciples of all nations. Go and spread the life-giving love of Jesus into all our communities, neighborhoods, families, and world.
So as we are working on Defining church, at the very basic level, we can say that the church is the community of Jesus followers build and sustained by Jesus that exists to spread the life-giving love of Jesus into the world. And this is a great place to start; this is foundational to who we are. Right now, I want to pray for you and to pray for this church. I believe very strongly, that when this church lives into this wholistic understanding of who we are and what we are supposed to do, God will bless us and bless those we serve.
Decatur United Methodist Church
Our hope is that these messages will be relevant in your life and encourage you in faith.