Church As the True Local

God created the world to communicate his wonders. Everything around us can be traced back to this fundamental resolve. God has shown himself through his mighty acts in history, through his prophets who spoke and the Scripture he inspired, and then preeminently through his Son, Jesus the Messiah, who said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).

The glory of God is the glory of Jesus, and that glory, when it glares the brightest, is redeeming grace that dies for a sinful people, conquers our greatest enemy, and secures a new humanity through the auspices of an eternal Spirit who calls and conforms once-rebels to be like Jesus where they live. In a word, the glory of Jesus is the reality of his church — “the real circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh” (Philippians 3:3).

The mission of God is a mission through his people, the church, who communicate his wonders by advancing his gospel. This community of “little Christs” who advance his gospel, as we’ve seen, do so as the on-the-ground expression of Jesus’s supremacy. And the scope of this advance, with all its historical freight, happens in both distance and depth.

Here to There

Our first mental association with “church” should be her local manifestations. It’s not for nothing that the predominant concept of the church in the New Testament is local. The original word behind “church” is ekklesia, which is literally “assembly” or “gathering.” To be sure, there is the church universal, those “called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:2). But as Paul puts it, the universal church is comprised of those who call on Jesus from a place. First and foremost, she is local. As one writer puts it, “The church is thus a concrete reality, not an abstract ideal” (Vanhoozer, Faith Speaking Understanding, 172).

The implications of this local nature are vast and glorious, and sometimes a reality-check. The concreteness of the local church will be far messier than the idealistic visions in our heads — the visions that we keep believing must exist somewhere. Local isn’t processed, you know. It’s dug up from the dirt, not conceived in a laboratory.

Another implication of the church local, and the focus here, is the scope of her mission. The advance of the gospel isn’t a nice tagline for our websites, it’s what we are supposed to do in space and time. There is real ground to be covered here. The advance of the gospel inherently requires that we work in the bounds of distance — distances to which we submit and inescapably must cross.

We speak the good news of Jesus to the people who live on our street, Muslim students in Benghazi, colleagues who work a few desks down, and unreached animists in the jungles of Papua New Guinea. These are people of places, and the gospel must go to them. And the aim of the gospel going to them — the aim of discipleship — isn’t to sign people up for an amorphous club that shares theology and faith, but to welcome them into the local church, either an established assembly or one that must be started.

Waking Up to the Where

Sometimes, though, we forget about lines and geography. If you’ve got a wifi connection, pretty much anything you want to know is only a click away. If you’ve got the plastic, global transportation is a piece of cake. If you’ve got a car, the freeways invite you to zip through whole metros like a sidewalk stroll.

Hyper-accessibility and hyper-mobility, for all its good, has sort of lifted us off the ground a little. Rather than feel tethered to a certain place, rooted in the here and now, our sense of geographical belonging has grown discombobulated. Rather than walk our actual streets, it’s easier to drive pretend hovercrafts through the make-believe neighborhoods of twittersphere.

All this leaves us with what we might call a locale anemia. “To feel at home in a place,” writes Wendell Berry, “you have to have some prospect of staying there” — which explains part of our problem. It’s hard to feel committed to any here because it’s so insanely easy to go there, or there or there or there. And many of us have. Some estimates claim, one author says, that the average American moves fourteen times throughout his or her life. We’re homesick then. We’re suffering from a loss of headquarters, and without doubt, it’s hard to calculate the “what” and “how” of mission if we lack a sense of where we are.

Bridge the Gap

The local church doesn’t need to outsource its help here, though; we just need to understand who we are. It’s the church’s local nature that tells us that people, place, and distance matter, and it’s the church’s local nature that bails us out of our distance-defying mindsets.

The church is the true local, the place of the better wine and Spirit (Isaiah 55:1; Acts 2:11–13) — the overlap of the ages where God reaches into our world where two or three are gathered, and works miracles. Recovering this reality will revitalize our mission because it puts some contours on our calling. It reminds us that we can’t simply do nothing and fulfill this task. We must be where we are and we must go where there’s need.

That is what distance means, after all. It is the space between two things: knowing God and living in ignorance, tasting his goodness and glutting on trifles. The advance of the gospel means stepping right into the middle of this and determining, God help us, to bridge the gap.