I don’t remember when I first saw it but Disney’s animated version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame intrigued me. Not because of the rope-swinging hunchback or the story of his confrontation with evil but because of the role the church of Notre Dame itself played. Esmerelda flees an unjust arrest by retreating inside the cathedral and claiming sanctuary. The corrupt judge is powerless and can’t arrest her while she is in the church. It was a special place where God was worshipped, and that made it safe for anyone. It was a place you could go and be protected. That certainly wasn’t my experience with church when I was a kid. Mum would dress me in fancy, uncomfortable clothes and wedge my feet into tiny, shiny shoes. When we arrived, there weren’t many kids my age to play with. Once the service started, time seemed to slow down so that the 40-minute service felt like three hours, and I struggled to understand the preacher. Afterward, Mum would stand in the churchyard, chit-chatting with other women while my brother and I ran amok. The one redeeming feature of going to church was that Grandma was there, and if I behaved, she would give me 20 cents—money for candy! That probably gives you an idea of how long ago it was.
Ultimately, I just didn’t “get” church and as soon as I left home, I stopped attending and did other things with my weekends.
The church is not the building
It turns out I made a classic mistake: I thought the church was a structure. If you ask most people to draw a church, they will sketch a big building with a cross on top.
But in the first century AD, they didn’t have nice sanctuaries to meet in. In fact, the Greek word used in the New Testament for church is ekklesia, which really means “a congregation of people”. Acts 2:46 describes the newly formed Christian church thus:
“They worshipped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity” (NLT*). It shows that the early church was a community of people that met in many different places to eat and worship together. They were truly united in purpose. What unites the church is a common faith in God, not a building. Many church buildings were shut down during the recent pandemic, but that didn’t mean the church shut down. People kept meeting online, on social media or through their phones. The church carried on without a building. So, if the purpose of a church isn’t just to meet once a week in a building to sing hymns, what is the church actually for?
Hands and feet of God
My wife wanted to start going back to church. We had just moved to Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, and she missed the community. I hadn’t really been since I left home so I was reluctant. One rainy day, she and I were out for a drive exploring the city and she decided she wanted to stop at the store. This is usually an extended stop, and somehow I managed to leave my car’s headlights on while we were inside. By the time we got back to the car, the battery had gone dead. I sat there with a sinking feeling in my stomach, hoping that if I turned the engine over just one more time, the car would start. But it didn’t, and we went from a sad rrrrrr sound to just a useless clicking.
I looked at the rain splashing down and wondered what to do. We had just moved to Brisbane and didn’t know anyone. Before we even thought to call roadside assistance, someone tapped on the car window. I rolled it down, and a smiling man asked if I needed a jump-start. With relief, I accepted his offer and hopped out.
Before you could say “jumper cables” we had the car started. With a friendly wave, my benefactor nodded and headed off. I was grateful for his help and didn’t think any more of it. Fast-forward a few weeks and I eventually caved to my wife’s request to go to church. We picked the one closest to our home and attended on Saturday morning. Many things happened that day that shaped my feelings about church, but the main thing that happened was that I saw someone there whom I already knew! It sounds incredible, but it was the same gentleman who had stopped and given us a jump-start! I realised that he wasn’t just being friendly when he stopped to help us—he was being the hands and feet of Jesus. The body of Christ was active in my life and I hadn’t even realised it.
Unsurprisingly, we began going to that church regularly and that friendly jump-starter became a close friend.
God appointed Jesus to be the “head over everything for the church” (Ephesians 1:22). And what about the believers? He says to them: “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27). Joining a Christian church means becoming part of a community that is led by Christ. And that’s not just a pretty metaphor. The church exists to show the actions of Jesus to others in a real way, whether that’s through a food bank, social activities, Bible studies or a public worship service. The church is called to take an active part in the mission of God in the world.
Some things are better together
You may not have a set of jumper cables, but the Bible says that everyone brings something distinctive to a church that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Ephesians 4 goes on to say we have been given gifts “to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (verses 12,13). So, the purpose of the church is not only to do good for others but also to support and lift one another.
As I’m sure you already know, some things are just better with other people involved. I learned this when I was young. Dad is a football fan and he loves watching games over the weekend. However, I didn’t understand the attraction, and the games left me cold. Sure, the players were skilled and it was interesting to watch, but I felt a certain detachment. That was until Dad took me to my first live game. Walking onto the grounds and finding our seats in the stands, I could feel the atmosphere building. Once play had started, the roar of the crowd would rise and fall as though we were all speaking with one voice. I felt connected to the people around me in a way I hadn’t experienced before. There was something unseen happening at the game that drew us together, united in one common cause.
It was a surprise to me that church could be exactly the same way because when a community comes together, united by their faith in God, that same sense of connection is there. I started looking at church with new eyes.
In one of CS Lewis’s more popular books, The Screwtape Letters, one of the devil’s tempters speaks to his nephew about the church and tells him that humans often look at church in the same way that I used to when I was a kid, seeing only people, hymns and a building. But he explained that the tempters see the church as “spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners” (chapter 2).
Because the church was founded by God, it is a force for good in the world—a place of sanctuary. Is it perfect? Not at all, but it is led by One who is, and so for me, it is a safe place where I unite with others in one faith, one Spirit and one baptism. I sense that God dwells in our midst. I’m taking this opportunity to invite you to church—not the building, but the community, a place where you can meet with “glad and sincere hearts” (Acts 2:46).
Justin Bone is Victorian Conference ministerial secretary. He is passionate about helping people understand the Bible better.
This article appeared in the December issue of Signs of the Times Australia/New Zealand. To read more articles like this, to subscribe or to help share hope with others through donations, visit signsofthetimes.org.au.