The Reformers distinguished between the visible church: the organized institution as it appeared on earth, from the invisible church: the whole number of the elect known only to God.
In our modern day, with its ‘scientific’ worldview, the visible or tangible seems more ‘real’ than the invisible, which seems ephemeral or mystical.
However, to a postmodern the spiritual and relational has a strong appeal, and anything with a structure which might support a power base is viewed with grave suspicion. The organized chuch is unappealing, while a fellowship with a loose, unorganized, non-institutional appearance stands a chance of attracting, or at least not frightening them. I think Jesus would probably find more of a welcome among such a group as well.
In the world of the organized church, loose ‘home group’ churches become invisible. Beth Tephillah, even though it is more like a home group in its functioning, and is thus often relatively invisible, is still a constituted Baptist Church. Thus it can bridge this postmodern version of the visibility divide.
I just reread David Kosoff’s story, as told by ‘Jethro’, an old Temple worker, of the discovery of the child Jesus by Simeon and Anna. Here, in the midst of the central symbol of organized Jewry, right at the focus of their religious world, God was doing something which was about to change forever the whole of history and the entire universe. And only a handful of people: a disgraced virgin, a kind hearted young man, a bunch of common shepherds, a few astrologers, an old priest, and a widowed prophetess, had any idea that it was happening.
The temple was the most visible expression of Jewish religious life. The Messiah was the great hope for salvation eagerly awaited by all of God’s people. Yet hardly anyone noticed his arrival in that place. As this obviously poor couple brought their baby to be recognized in the Temple and dedicated to God, the world changed forever, but ‘Church’ life continued unchanged!
Is God still doing this today? Is it really in the great church institutions and denominations, and with the powerful and recognized religious leaders that Jesus is bringing in the Kingdom of God?
Or, is it advancing, virtually unnoticed, among those who are considered to be nothing in the world’s and the church’s eyes; those who struggle to fit in to a system that spends so much energy upon itself and so little on those God most cares about – those who give up on the great ideas of man and return again to ask of Jesus what he really wants of them?
Could the ‘church in the cracks’, as I have fondly called it for years, be today a more accurate expression of the small band of nervous risk takers that Jesus gathered around him for a few years, and then sent out to win the world. He sent them out, not with great systems and organizations, but by telling one or two friends the story of Jesus and his salvation, around a fire, or over a meal, or at a roadside stop, or in a prison, or beside a sickbed, or during a break at work, or just over the back fence!
How much evidence do we find in the Bible for the large institution being what Jesus had in mind? I don’t see much. I do see the group of friends, sharing everything they had, suffering persecution together, and fearlessly confronting the fallen world around them with a message of hope:
“The Messiah has come – God is with us! Emmanuel! Hallelujah!”