I believe in mere church. I have sojourned in denominational and nondenominational churches. I now attend a Church of the Nazarene but am not a member. Once a month I preach at the Presbyterian church. God’s people of every kind are precious to me and have profoundly blessed me. I have come to love what I call, with a nod to C. S. Lewis, mere church.
Mere church is simply people loving God and one another together. That love can be expressed in a variety of ways. I can dance in the aisles with the Pentecostals or worship with the solemn hymns of the Presbyterians, but I am always looking for people who love Jesus and each other.
Mere church is the First Church of the Whole Enchilada. It is a full-service church that refuses to specialize. Mere church seeks to be what Scripture says the church is—not more, and never less. It refuses to choose between the social gospel of helping the poor and spiritual gospel of saving the sinner. It says both/and to the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the fruit of the Holy Spirit. It says both/and to the Word of God and leading of the Holy Spirit. It seeks social justice and the justification of the sinner through faith in Jesus. It welcomes every spiritual crisis experience while helping believers grow daily through spiritual disciplines.
Mere church defines itself in relationship to Jesus. It takes courage for a denomination not to define itself according to some special revelation or experience. Before the Church of the Nazarene was a denomination, most future members were part of the Holiness Movement of the 19th century. The hymn “Called unto Holiness” was the denomination’s anthem. The denomination’s distinctive appeal was the doctrine of sanctification—sometimes called the second blessing or perfect love. Because the denomination saw itself as preserving the holiness teaching and experience of John Wesley, it was sometimes slow to embrace all the other biblical truths about being church.
Today, however, even many denominational churches, like the Church of the Nazarene, are becoming mere church. Without forsaking the experience of heart holiness, Nazarene congregations are becoming full-service: helping the poor, disciplining believers, and making more room for the gifts of the Holy Spirit.Most denominations are weaving distinctive core values into the whole tapestry that Scripture calls all churches to be.
Even Charismatic and Pentecostal fellowships are becoming mere church. Many, some after tragic scandals, are embracing an emphasis on holiness and accountability. Like the holiness folks, Pentecostals often defined themselves by a spiritual experience, variously called the baptism of the Holy Spirit or the fullness of the Spirit. Pentecostals, and to a lesser degree, charismatics, saw this as accompanied by speaking in tongues. But Pentecostals have realized, as the old saw goes, “What matters is not how high you jump when the Spirit moves you, but how straight you walk when you come back down.”
Some social gospel groups are becoming mere church. A friend of mine who is a leader in the Quaker denomination (Friends) told me that he enjoyed introducing young Quakers to Jesus—something that would have puzzled my Quaker grandmother. Some Quakers have become so dedicated to social justice and a social gospel that the idea of a personal conversion experience or a relationship with Jesus seems foreign. As Quakers seek to be true their roots in social justice, they are discovering it is the Holy Spirit that first made them quake.
Mere church must be Berean. The Bereans tested everything Paul declared against Scripture. This means not formulating an exegesis to support pet doctrines or to reject an emphasis of another group. If one reads Phineas Bresee’s criticism and rejection of the Azusa Street revival that gave birth to the Pentecostal movement, it is clear that his position was not based on a careful exegesis of Scripture. His disapproval was primarily aesthetic and social. Azusa Street seemed unruly and disordered. He concluded, wrongly it turns out, that it would never amount to anything.
Mere church must be open to movements restoring a neglected truth to the church. In England, the Anglican Church sometimes locked the doors on John Wesley and refused to let him into their pulpits. A century later some Methodist churches locked out holiness preachers—including my great-grandfather, a circuit rider in Kentucky. Sometimes congregations are pushed too far in one direction or another by their culture. A hunger for intellectual or social respectability can tempt the Church to jettison biblical truths—truths that God may use revivals and movements to restore. Too often the church has become a spiritual shadow of the culture and refused to be counter-cultural where faithfulness to Scripture demands it. Mere church always welcomes the restoration of biblical truth and values.
Mere church demands humility. It means Presbyterians must admit they are not the only ones helping the poor. It means the Nazarenes must admit that they are not the only Christians who care about holiness. It means the Pentecostals and Charismatics must admit they are not the only ones who are filled with the Holy Spirit. It means Baptists are not the only ones who seek to honor God’s Word. There is no biblical justification for denominational pride.
Mere church means trusting God. If we don’t proclaim the distinctives of our movements, how are we going to market ourselves? I was once part of a movement focused on intercessory prayer for revival. Out of the movement grew a church, but many drifted away from the church because of its lack of community, discipleship, and shepherding. As I look back, I see that it would have taken a lot of faith for the congregation to be mere church. Could it, or would it, have even existed without its emphasis on intercession and the prophesy of revival? If intercession and the gift of prophecy were integrated into a biblical understanding of mere church, would the leaders have gotten the same following? Can we trust God enough to merely be the church?
Mere church calls for leaders with integrity and no personal ambition. It is hard not to turn a neglected biblical truth into a congregation-building scheme. People will rally to a call to be a praying church, a holy church, or a church that helps the poor. Yes, it is hard to get people excited about balancing good works with good worship, prayer with service, evangelism with discipleship. Embracing mere church means be content simply to pastor those God has entrusted to you. It means a radical faith that the Church is the Body of Christ, the hands and feet of Jesus in the world. Mere church is enough.
One danger of being mere church is that we may lose are reason for not fellow-shipping with other Christians. If Charismatics make the gifts of the Spirit just one truth among many, they might have no reason not to work with others. If holiness denominations admit many other Christians also care about holiness, we might have no reason for not meeting with Baptists or Presbyterians. I live in a small town with many small churches—many that struggle to keep the doors open. Few have enough young people to have a youth group where Christian teens can encourage each other. Having multiple small churches makes little sense. Mere church humbly admits we all need each other.
If not by emphasizing our distinctive callings and doctrines, how then do we market ourselves? First, we stop marketing our congregations to people who are already Christians. Too often church growth is simply the re-arrangement of the believers who get attracted to one congregation then another. Second, we grow by being salt and light in our communities. The light is turned on when we genuinely and sacrificially love one another. By living lives of integrity and kindness in our communities, we draw people to Jesus. Being light and salt is enough.
Mere church is diverse. It has been good for me, a college professor, to fellowship with ranchers, loggers, and mill-workers. It has been good to call ex-addicts and the homeless my brothers in Christ. Mere church refuses to let us just hang out with people like us.
Mere Church is organic; there is no formula for mere church. As we love Christ, we begin to love others. When we love, the fruit of the Holy Spirit grows in us. As we love others, we seek the gifts of the Holy Spirit to help and encourage our brothers and sisters. As we love our community, we seek to feed the hungry and clothe the poor. Love never fails to result in mere church.
Mere church is real. My pastor likes to describe our congregation as “Real people doing real church.” It describes us. There is no pretense. We all know we are a mess being made into something beautiful by God’s grace. We are all in recovery from our addiction to sin and selfishness. We know the love and grace of God is bigger than all our differences. We are merely the church.