This is the church, and this is the steeple
Open the doors, but where ‘re all the people?
This is the church and this is the steeple
Open the doors, and here all the people!
As kids we used to say this rhyme along with clasped hands – the first two lines being said with the fingers interlacing above, the index fingers forming the steeple and the thumbs opening up to show… an ‘empty church’. And the 3rd and 4th lines being said with the hands clasped together again, but this time, the digits intertwined and pointing in, so that when the ‘doors’ of the thumbs are opened, a wiggly group of six fingers show folks ‘in church.’
Thank goodness we don’t have many steeples here in Bharat (though the odd cathedral may still have one poking up). But we do have churches in India. Of all shapes and hues. From happy-clappy to somber-hombres, from smells & bells to shouts & yells, from bible-bible-bible to bible-what’s that? All languages (ok, many of them). All ethnicities (at least in a smattering). All classes (no surprise where the largest numbers are now – it’s not by accident that the Lord who did not have a pillow to lay down his head on does not have much of a following in the race-course-set).
One of the reasons why we shifted to the Mumbai area two times seven years ago was to work with local churches. Little did I know how much church would become part and parcel of who we are.
I grew up in a Christian commune in Bombay. My parents were part of a group of young people (giants to me of course) who had forsaken almost all and were living out a life of faith. Church was there – but for most of the folks who were living out revolution of love and balance together – it was a bit of a pale shadow to the intense spirituality and group discipleship that they were experiencing. Church was nice, but OM was the real deal for my parents (and by extension for me too).
Sheba’s growing up was on the other side of the fence. Her family had intense, complete involvement with the local Hebron assembly in Rourkela. Her father had been totally transformed by a conversion experience and had joined and grown in the embrace of the assembly. Church was their life. Every gathering, every service religiously and full-heartedly participated in. Their home was a home for church and their church was home for them.
On shifting to Mumbai we had the privilege of participating in one of the Hebron Assemblies in the suburb where we staying in Borivali (and found our amazing friends John and Nalini Gabriel with their lovely daughters Nikita and Jasper). When we moved over to Thane a year later, a friend of ours suggested a house fellowship within walking distance of our home. Thirteen years later, this particular expression of the global body of Christ has fused into us and vice versa.
Now that we are about to strike out again, perhaps it’s good to think about our experience of being part of the Body… and what church is all about – or at least a what it is a bit about!
Lets start with the basics. I believe that church is intentional, not a given. A decision, not a fate. To me the starting point is to be a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ. Being adopted into His family means that I am no longer alone. I have a new family. Folks like me who are broken-and-being healed. 'Saved'-but-being-made-holy. Spiritual babes but growing in all dimensions as we follow our master together. The key to church is meeting. Meeting together. Spending time and space and love and service with each other - and at the same time in a mysterious way, becoming the very dwelling place of God Himself.
Will there be different flavours? Of course - there had better be, given how varied Christ's followers are. But ultimately the focus of church cannot be on it's members - our eyes should be peering ever more clearly out our Lord, our actions should be shaped ever more dearly by His heart-beat, our very being should be moulded ever more really by His love and power.
And the beauty of it is that it is actually in the doing that it all happens. The first believers in Jesus Christ - a minority both to the Jewish authorities and established sects of the day, as well as to the imperial power in Rome - immersed themselves in this new life. We are told that they devoted themselves to the Apostle's teaching and to fellowship, to breaking bread and to prayer.
That's pretty much what we want to see happen today. And do so in various ways.
Apostle's teaching? Well, we have the Bible which we do well to learn, imbibe, discuss and apply. The bits that are obscure? Well, we can talk about them and wonder a bit. But there is so, so, so much there that is crystal clear and which we would like to sweep away as being not quite up our alley. And so it is vital for all of us to keep learning, keep engaging with God's word.. together.
As fellowship, we meet in homes during the week regularly to study the Bible and learn and grow together.
These studies are opportunities for us to keep placing God in the centre of our lives. And how much we need that - esp. as our own nature likes to take us along other well-worn-grooves.
When we meet on Sundays in Jolly's home, we also make sure that we spend time learning together. Our desire is that God's revealed word will shape us, rather than we shaping it. Which is why we do things together and want all of us to share what they have heard and understood over the course of the week.
Dad gave a short talk the other week, which I had the privilege of translating. I remember hearing Dad sharing when I was small - sitting in the front rows of churches we were visiting when he shared about the work in India.
At the end of the day we want to be saturated with the word. To see Christ transform us through His revelation.
What a privilege to speak the very words of God Himself. And what a privilege - with His help and grace of course - to live these out in our lives...
The first Christians remembered the sacrifice of Christ through the breaking of bread together. We do so too. Every Sunday. In fact, having communion together - taking part in a symbolic but deeply meaningful meal where we remember Jesus' death and resurrection - is at the very core of our Sunday gathering. Everything else spins out of this joyful but reverent obedience of Jesus' command to remember Him when we gather together.
On a recent Sunday, Jolly led us in the Lord's table, with Anil translating for him.
Three generations of Eichers took part in the bread and the wine. What a blessing.
The early Christians devoted themselves to fellowship. Church is not just formal meetings - it is the 24 x 7 living of our lives together. The joy of welcoming a new life into the family - here we are dedicating Anil and Sandhya's second son Ashish to the Lord.
But what happens after the meeting is over is just as important. Our times with each other are so precious. We are all so very different - we have varied mother-tongues, have widely different incomes and education levels - but are all experiencing God's grace together. The joy of fellowship and the hard work of fellowship go hand in hand. The first century church had it. We do to, but have some more way to go of course.
'Every meeting should have some eating' is attributed to a modern day apostle of house churches - or words to a similar effect.
We put this into practice. Not at every meeting - but at many of them. Church does not 'end' with the last prayer. We continue to fellowship - and often over a meal. The opening picture of this blog post is Mum with some of the ladies who we meet with for a Bible study on Tuesday evenings at Shanti's home - and have a meal with afterwards. Every week. Fellowship. Yum.
And then there is the matter of prayer. The first followers of Christ - back in the first century put this way up on their agenda. They grounded their lives with communication with God - just like our Lord Jesus and His nights on the mountain.
At each of our meetings we share and pray. It's part of breathing. Jesus has said to pray continually. Like a bad cough. On and on. Can we do more? Of course, and I look at myself in the mirror as exhibit No. 1. But, oh the blessing of having regular prayer with our brothers and sisters.
Over the last few years we have had the privilege of hosting our fellowship's prayer times every Wednesday. The ladies come from 6-7 PM for prayer. Then the Eichers have supper (Yohan has his food early because he has to take his 9 PM meds on an empty stomache). At 9.30 the men come for their hour of power. We normally see more women than men, but are so very thankful for each person who comes and prays.
But church does not end with our meetings - formal or informal as they may be. We continue to be church in our home too. Each evening the Eicher band gathers to make a joyful noise and live out a bit of church in our family. And yes we normally have some delving into the word and prayer too.