These posts are summaries of the messages on Sunday and are put here mainly for the benefit of our regulars who either missed the service, or would appreciate the chance to review the big ideas.
I don’t think the people of London are crying out for more churches. Many people would view church as an irrelevancy, or worse, something dangerous.
As we are seeking to start a new church we’re doing something surprising and even odd. But we’re pouring our hearts into this, and believe the church is so vital and imtportant. Why?
This passage from Solomon’s prayer at the commissioning of the Temple can help.
“Likewise, when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a far country for your name's sake (for they shall hear of your great name and your mighty hand, and of your outstretched arm), when he comes and prays toward this house, hear in heaven your dwelling place and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to you, in order that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and that they may know that this house that I have built is called by your name.”
I want to offer three reasons why I think London needs more churches. (And just to be clear, while the passage is about the Temple that Solomon built, the New Testament speaks about the church as God’s temple.)
1. THE CHURCH IS A SHOPFRONT DISPLAY OF GOD’S GLORY
I’m conscious that using a word like ‘glory’ is a very typically Christian thing to do. But what does it mean? Perhaps most simply it could be thought of as the character and reality of the invisible God made visible.
The Temple was a place where God (who is invisible) could in some way display his glory. This was partly through the magnificence of the building itself, and partly because God’s presence was in the building like a cloud so that the priests could not stand to minister (1 Kings 8.10–11). But Solomon does not anticipate that either of these things will be the primary draw for foreigners.
Instead, he anticipates something else. Listen to Solomon’s prayer; “Likewise, when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a far country for your name’s sake (for they shall hear of your great name and your mighty hand, and of your outstretched arm)…” Solomon is saying that foreigners would see how great God is by seeing his goodness towards his people and his power in helping them. Solomon was the greatest king alive and the nation was happy and well-governed. They (unlike some Scots) did not want to go their own way, they wanted to bask under the greatness of their king. It was natural for foreigners to wonder about the God Israel worshipped.
Now, if we take this idea and apply it to the church, what do I mean by calling the church the shopfront display of God’s glory? We’re not talking about church buildings, or even about the presence of God with his people. Instead, the first thing the world sees is the lives of God’s people, which ought to bring God glory.
Jesus wants mended lives to be put on display for all the world to see. He told his followers “You are the light of the world” and “the salt of the earth”. The light has to be put in a public space, the salt has to stay salty. This was all about his desire that his power be shown to the world when they look at his people and see changed lives. That is how the world sees something of God’s glory in his church.
2. THE CHURCH IS A PLACE OF ENCOUNTER WITH GOD
Ancient people expected to meet their gods in particular places; altars, hills, and temples. And so the concept of pilgrimage was hugely important. If you wanted to know something about a god you would go to that god’s temple, and make sacrifices there, and pray there, even if the journey took you half-way across the world. Why? In the hope that you would procure a blessing from that god.
Solomon expects people to make the journey to this Temple because (as we’ve seen) they will hear about how great the God of Israel is. They will say to themselves, “I need to know this God.” They will naturally assume that the place they needed to get to is the Temple in Jerusalem.
And so Solomon wants God to show himself to them, to show that he’s real. He prays, “…when he comes and prays toward this house, hear in heaven your dwelling place and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to you…” (v.42–43).
Fast forward there millennia, and some things are the same.
First, there are still many people who are spiritual seekers, people who feel a need for God. They may not fully understand what they’re feeling, and different people have described this in different ways. It can be a sense of emptiness, of hunger, of awareness there’s more, of longing, of loneliness, of fear about death, or of guilt and awareness of your sin.
And second, people who are seekers still go on pilgrimages. They might trek to Nepal. They might go on an intellectual pilgrimage reading philosophers. They might dabble with different forms of spirituality. They might experiment with different lifestyles. They might try and fill the aching void with different pleasures. But the pursuit is basically the same: to find something that’s real.
However, we can no longer point people to a temple where they’ll discover if God’s real, but rather they’re directed to God’s people, the church. Christians are called “jars of clay” — they aren’t much in themselves, but they contain something precious beyond words in the message of the Gospel.
The church is the guardian and keeper of the Gospel story — the story of Jesus’ death on the cross as the atoning sacrifice for our sins. A true church is a church where that story is told again and again and again, and where the people in that church believe it. It is only through the Gospel that the church can introduce the world to a true encounter with God.
3. THE CHURCH IS A PLACE WHERE YOU FIND BELONGING
Paul Mason wrote an article in the Guardian a month ago describing the perfect city, but the one thing he didn’t mention was churches. The church is vital for cities because, as it has been said, “The church is by far the most integrated institution across all social grades.”
If the church is such a powerfully integrated organisation, is this an accident? Actually, that’s one of the main purposes the church exists at all. Whereas the Temple had been fixed in one place so that people had to make pilgrimages to get there, Jesus turned things around by sending his followers into all the world. The pilgrimage was reversed, and God’s people were sent out with a mission to invite everyone into the family.
In 1 Peter 2.9–10, Peter (a Jew) is writing to Christians (mostly non-Jews) about what it means to become part of the church. He says that belonging to the church redefines your family (“you are a chosen race”), your status and purpose (“a royal priesthood”), and your nationality (“a holy nation”). This means that all the natural barriers we encounter in life – race, class, nationality – are overcome in the church.
Admittedly, many churches are not diverse, and in some cases that it because these churches may be broken. As humans we have a tendency towards tribalism. Churches become tribal when everyone is from the same race, class, or age. But that is far, far from God’s ideal for his church, which is “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb…” (Rev. 7.9). This is what the church is supposed to be.
And so this means that the church, when it’s working well, becomes a place where anyone can find family. It means you are welcome.
Why does London need more churches? Because the church displays God’s glory in the world, provides the opportunity for people to encounter him through Jesus, and welcomes everyone into the family.