So What is the Natural Church?

Organic church. Simple church. New Testament church. House church. These are all terms that are increasingly being used to refer to an expression of church life that is completely different to the one that most of us grew up with. What is usually implied by them is that the church is not an institution but an organism, not a corporation but a family, not a well rehearsed show led by a religious professional but a spontaneous and corporate expression of the resurrection life of Jesus Christ.

And so an exodus of majestic proportions is taking place as a multitude of believers are swapping church pews for living room couches. It is no longer a radical thing to meet in a house with other Christians on a Sunday morning, or any other day for that matter, without the semblance of a clergyman in the vicinity. What was regarded as revolutionary and subversive in the eighties has now become mainstream.

I like the term “natural church”, although I must emphasise that adjectives are terrible instruments to employ when trying to describe something as glorious as the resurrection life of the Lord Jesus Christ. As Gerrit Kouwenaar noted:

“In a poem one is ultimately interested, not in naming things, but in invalidating the names which have taken the place of the things themselves – the abstract cliches which block the perception to the real… Words, names and stereotyped expressions can deafen us to the voices of the things themselves, so that for the deaf the things have died – a personal and original relationship with them has become impossible. One can’t tell a thing to a person who knows the words, he is no longer receptive.”

However, Kouwenaar also adds “For the sake of description we have no choice but to work with descriptive works.” And so I don’t mind using the word “natural”, although I realise that it, too, may become an empty word before too long.

Why natural? For a number of reasons, but mostly because it is derived from the word “nature”. Nature, and here I am referring to the natural world in its self-sustaining magnificence and beauty, is alive, and it is so because God breathed his life into it. And so nature testifies to the life and being of God, so much so that “men are without excuse”, as we read in Romans 1. That is exactly what I think the church of Jesus Christ was intended to be from the beginning: A glorious expression and manifestation of the life that exists in God alone, of the divine nature. And so rich is this life that no human being can add to it, or manage it, or steer it, or capture it, or make it more appealing. No, it functions all by itself, which explains why Jesus said “I will build my church.” The natural church is the church without add-ons. It is the church stripped to its bare essentials. It is the church dependent on nothing but the resurrection life of its members. It is the body of Christ functioning under the headship of Christ.

Years ago, as a denominational pastor, I began to see this, but as my salary depended on me not seeing it, it took a real long time for the penny to drop. Nevertheless, during that time I wrote a piece for a column in a local newspaper, and perhaps it is worth quoting here.

The Gospel is Most Powerful When it is Most Pure

A recent article in Time magazine reported on the Dogme 95 movement that shook up filmmaking a decade ago, and whose influence has finally gone mainstream. Put simply: Dogme is about stripping cinema down to its barest essentials. Movies are shot with handheld cameras, on location with no additional props, no soundtrack and no extra lighting.

Dogme filmmakers explain their motives by reminding us that cinema is essentially about telling a story and telling it well, not just about “thrills, spills and special effects”. For this reason everything that comes between the actor, the pure product and audience is removed (such as makeup, mood-music and effects) and a sense of “realism and immediacy” is preserved.

The fact that these films are remarkably popular puzzles even their creators, and is attributed to audiences who “want more substance, less Star Wars.”

Reading the above article, I could not help but be reminded of a woman who spoke to me a while ago about her final resignation from the church world after many years of passionate commitment. “I want to get back to the basics of Christianity”, she said. It struck me as a tragic irony that she felt she had to leave the church to rediscover the gospel. Somehow the myriad of programs, mediations and add-ons of ecclesiastical Christianity obscured its true message for her.

My experience of late tells me that this woman is no oddball, but strongly representative of a new kind of Christian who craves authenticity and realism in their walk with Christ. Their quest is for more substance, less special effect; more product, less packaging.

The Dogme 95 movement is a powerful modern parable that illustrates Christianity’s greatest current challenge: To strip the gospel down to its bare powerful essentials and to proclaim it for what it really is.