Growing up, I attended the same church for many years. Full of people who watched me mature and had seen me at my best and worst, that community became home.
Then my family moved, and attended a series of churches while searching for a new one. Then I moved, and repeated the process. While performing with a Christian theater troupe, I attended a score of churches, all different denominations and styles. Traveling in Europe, I went to several churches where I couldn’t understand a word of the service.
These churches were full of strangers, most of whom I’ll never see again, but in many churches as members welcomed me, as they worshipped, and as they opened the word together, the feeling of family surrounded me. I began to wonder, attending church down an alley in Austria, how I shared the heart of these people without sharing their culture or knowing their names. And looking at Scripture, I found what I should have realized before: that the heart of the church is deeper than any of the external trappings. The heart of church is Christ.
All over the world, this is what my brothers and sisters have in common…
They are unified by the work of Christ
There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. –Ephesians 4:4-6
Their unity shows God’s love and glory.
The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. –John 17:22-23
They know no strangers in Christ, but are together His temple, founded on Him.
You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. –Ephesians 2:19-22
They graciously handle their failings, and boast only in Christ.
… not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” –1 Corinthians 1:26-31
They share in each other’s suffering and joy
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If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. –1 Cor. 12:26
They use different gifts, but all serve in Christ and in love
Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? But earnestly desire the higher gifts.
And I will show you a still more excellent way. –1 Corinthians 12:27-31
They walk in humility, obedience, and forgiveness, eager to maintain their bond.
I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. –Ephesians 4:1-3
When a specific church gathering embraces these qualities, it shows. They back up encouraging words with practical support, handle conflict in humility and love, and choose to dig in and love each other in the name of Christ. This kind of unity comes from Christ, not homogenous congregations identical in everything from hobbies to worship style. More likely, a healthy church mixes a whole variety of backgrounds and socioeconomic statuses. It may look like sweet Sunday School dresses, or a group of pals who smoke before church, and it’s probably some blend of both. Radical differences can’t separate a born-again family empowered by Christ to love each other.
In an ancient cathedral or a rented warehouse, my brothers and sisters are unified in the redeeming work of Christ. And when I’m with them, wherever we are, I’m home.
Esther Johnson is a freelance writer, editor, and magic bean buyer with a passion for lemon bars, folk rock, and morning runs. She has written for Piercing Word ministries, CHAP Magazine, and The Rebelution, and recently became a regular contributor to TCB. You can find other writings and updates, and get in touch, on her blog at https://estherjohnsonsite.wordpress.com/