An Elephant Painted White with Zebra Stripes

An Elephant Painted White with Zebra Stripes

I was running errands with Cheri a few days ago and I saw a large billboard containing a distinctive outline or image of an elephant painted white with zebra stripes. This made me wonder what the sign was all about. But as I scanned the entire billboard, I realized that the point of the billboard was to send a message to a potential new customer that they may have insurance but the wrong coverage. It made me smile. I thought it was a very clever way to draw people’s attention. However, as we continued to do errands that day, the thought of the billboard quickly faded as I got distracted with others things. And then, I saw the sign again just yesterday and since then I can’t get the image out of my mind. My dad used to say if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck it’s probably a duck. But, in this case, is it an elephant or a zebra?

This experience led me to ask the question, what does the average person in our community see when they take a gaze at the local church? For that matter, what does the average American perceive as they glance at local churches in their particular community? Do they see the image of an elephant painted white with zebra stripes? In other words, do they see something that they identify as a church from a distance, but the closer they get the more they question what they’re really looking at? Is it a church or a business? Is it a church or a club? Is it a church or a cult? Is it a church or a show?

Even though most people can recognize an elephant the same can’t always be said about people recognizing the church. If you don’t believe me, ask people you come into contact with this question, what is a church? You’ll be surprised to hear that many will give you a description of a building with a steeple or a cross and maybe even add stained glass to their description. If that is the case, maybe we aren’t even starting with the right outline or image in the first place. So never mind that the so-called elephant is painted white with zebra stripes if they can’t identify the outline or image of an elephant.

Without question, there are beautiful buildings all across our nation with signs out front highlighting the name of a church. These structures are often adorned with tall peaks, crosses and stained glass windows. And, of course, we often call these marvelous structures a church. But some of these edifices stand empty and serve more as a museum than a place of worship. Even more of these structures are only moderately occupied maybe 1 to 2 hours per week. What then? Think of it this way. Just like a family has a home, Christians have community property with buildings. However, you wouldn’t look at a home and say, there is the Smith family or the Jones family. You might say the Smith’s or Jones’s live at that address and in that home but you wouldn’t equate the property and home with the people themselves. In fact, the Smith’s and Jones’s exist as a family regardless of where they live and even if they don’t have a place to live.

In the same way, the community property and the buildings owned by a particular group of Christians is not the church. Instead, the church is a community of believers on mission for Jesus Christ. We are a family of Christ followers connected by a common faith and mission. A structure may facilitate certain activities of God’s people, but the structure does not fulfill the role of the church. Even when a so-called church building is filled with people and busy with activity the fact remains. The church is a community of Christ followers. In fact, the early Christian church didn’t have buildings, at least not in the sense of what we would consider a church building today. In reality, a building has no part in defining the church.

Obviously, there are incredible churches made up of loving disciples in every part of our nation and many other nations for that matter. You might say, there are images of elephants that are truly elephants. These churches, although imperfect, not only look like a church from a distance but when you get a closer look you see disciples of Jesus worshipping, witnessing and making disciples. You see them loving one another and serving the needs of their community. It’s never about the building and property, although necessary like a home for a family or a building for a business, it’s about Jesus and His ministry. The biblical ministries of the church are foundational. The key ministries of a New Testament church are worship, fellowship, discipleship, evangelism, service and prayer (ref. Matthew 22:36-40; Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:8; Acts 2:40-47). Further to that, these ministries cannot be confined to a building. Unless Jesus is Lord, the gospel is proclaimed and the people are carrying out the purpose of the church, we have the equivalent of the outline or image of an elephant painted white with zebra stripes. Maybe this is why so many people can’t accurately describe what a church is. Maybe?

I wonder if the majority of Christians are actually engaged in the biblical purpose, message and ministry of the church. I wonder because it appears that so many of us are similar to people having insurance with the wrong coverage. As you know, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck it is probably a duck. But if it has the outline or image of an elephant but painted white with zebra stripes, is it an elephant or a zebra? So where does this leave the church? Maybe it’s high time for the real church to stand out by looking like a church, walking like the church and sounding like the church and then maybe we’ll be recognized as the church and have the power of the church instead of being confused with empty buildings. Ultimately my prayer is that when people see the church, they see the body of Christ in form and function.  EPH 1:20 that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. 22 And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

A Work in Progress,

Pastor Gene