MAY 30, 2006

By Pastor George Van Alstine

I was thinking of how church life changes in the summer time. People are more casual about many things, including church attendance. This has led to a predictable “summer slumpâ€? in many churches. In fact, in some parts of the country churches cancel Sunday School and most other functions beyond the morning worship service.

At ABC, we’ve always resisted the notion that this is inevitable. We purposely plan extra summer activities to demonstrate that our commitment to the Lord is year-round—Church Camp, Vacation Bible School, Church-on-the Lawn. But the fact that we all take vacations, visit relatives, and go on occasional Sunday outings means that we can anticipate more empty pews during the next few months.

The church began with Jesus, and it was something brand new, unlike temples and shrines of other religious groups, and distinct from the synagogues (“gathering placesâ€?) of the Jews. To describe this new kind of worshiping community, Jesus’ followers borrowed a word from Greek political life—ecclesia, literally meaning “a calling out.â€?

Some Christian teachers have used this word as a pattern for an extreme kind of separation. The church is the group of the “called out ones,â€? as in “come out from them and be separate from them, and touch nothing uncleanâ€? (2 Corinthians 6:17).

But in the Greek world before Christianity ecclesia had a different meaning. It was not used for religious gatherings at all. Rather, it was used in the Greek city-states for the gathering of all qualified citizens into the market place or arena to make decisions about important issues. These city-states were the first great experiment in democracy. There was no king to make pronouncements from his throne. Instead, the whole body of citizens were “kingâ€? together. Pronouncements could not come from one individual, but were made only after the people had gathered, discussed, debated and decided. The meeting to do the community’s business was called the ecclesia—the “calling out.â€?

As long as Jesus was in the world, he was Lord, and he led his followers directly. But when he left this earth, the believers were without a Head; there was no resident “kingâ€? to make pronouncements. They saw themselves as a practicing democracy. They had a King in heaven, but his leadership came to them, not individually, but when they were gathered together in a group. When they looked for a word to describe this, they ignored the common terms for religious associations and chose instead the Greek political term ecclesia. When they came together, it was not only to worship and fellowship, but also to perceive what was on the mind and heart of their King Jesus. This happened in a unique way when they were called out as the ecclesia.

When you meet with the congregation on a Sunday morning, you are being edified and inspired, and you are expressing yourself to God in worship. But you are also part of the ecclesia to which and through which God reveals himself in a unique way. The community of believers have the clearest picture of God’s will when they are all present. With each one who is missing, an important perspective is lost. The congregation’s understanding of God’s will is not quite complete.

In the church, the pronouncements come from the King on high, but the reception of his messages comes through the ecclesia, the gathered church. In one sense, Christianity is a monarchy, since it is ruled by a King. But in practice on earth, Christianity should operate as a democracy, where the direction and planning are decided by the ecclesia.

In our case, the ecclesia is “called outâ€? weekly to absorb what God is saying. The more of us who are gathered, the more accurately we can sense what he is saying. Be in your place whenever possible, or we might miss something important he wants us to know.