Over the last week, my understanding of ekklēsia (church) has expanded. In four instances, I discovered the concept of ekklēsia in traditional and nontraditional settings: (1) a traditional church, (2) a lecture with a bunch of Baptists about LGBTQ+ inclusion and equality, (3) a conference with parents of LGBTQ+ children, and (4) a gay bar.

Before I tell you about those experiences, let’s define the term ekklēsia.  In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus declared after Peter’s bold proclamation that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, “and on this rock I will build my church” (16:18).

The term Jesus uses is ekklēsia, which means “an assembly, congregation, or church.” Further study reveals the word means more precisely “a people called out from the world and to God.” In other words, Jesus called his “church” a movement set apart from the world – or worldly systems – to create a new world filled with love, inclusion, justice and equality for all.

With that definition of the church in mind, I want to tell you about my four experiences, beginning with the traditional experiences.

Last Sunday, I attended my local church, NorthHaven Church, where Missy and I are members. I was the pastor for over a decade, and we still have many dear friends we love to see and worship with when we are in town.

The local church experience is like no other, as a group comes together for worship, discipleship and mission. There is nothing more moving than singing inspiring songs with your friends, listening to motivational messages, and embracing a life of advocacy to make the world a better place.

I know the church has not been a welcoming place for many people, but I was reminded last Sunday that some churches are doing “church” right. Some churches still advocate for inclusion, equality and justice for all of God’s children without the burden of guilt and condemnation.

Walking into the sanctuary last Sunday, the pastor’s daughter sprinted towards me, smiling ear-to-ear. Throwing her arms around my neck, she quietly whispered, “I’ve missed you, Doc.”

In that one little phrase uttered by a small child, I experienced the full grace, love and inclusion of a genuine ekklēsia. While there is much to criticize about the institutional church, there are still some Christians teaching children a better way to live out faith.

In another traditional setting, I attended a lecture conducted by the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists (AWAB), hosted by Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas. I know, I know: My non-Baptist friends are perplexed right now but let me explain.

AWAB has been around for 50 years, standing up, speaking out and stepping forward for the inclusion and equality of LGBTQIA+ people. Rev. Dr. Susan Shaw’s lecture was titled “Truth and Lies at the Foot of the Cross: The Church and God’s LGBTQ Children.”

For an hour, I listened to Dr. Shaw’s prophetic message calling the church to confess the mistruths regarding LGBTQ people and embrace an incarnational faith that frees everyone from the tomb to live their authentic selves. It was challenging, inspirational and the church at its best.

Now, let’s talk about the nontraditional ways I experienced ekklēsia.

Missy and I attended the “Love Revolution Conference” hosted by Free Mom Hugs. Sara Cunningham launched Free Mom Hugs after her son came out, and she was looking for a positive way to express her love to the LGBTQ+ community.  She showed up at a PRIDE parade in 2015 wearing a homemade button that simply said, “Free Mom Hugs.” The rest, as they say, is history.

At the conference, I was still uncertain what to expect from speakers and breakout session leaders.  I was asked to lead a breakout session of inclusive pastors, but I had no idea how prevalent faith would be throughout the conference.

Person after person spoke about how the church had hurt them, but many still maintained their faith.  Some found affirming churches to attend while others chose nontraditional communities.

During the conversation, no one condemned the church. It was just the opposite, in fact.

They expressed sorrow, grace and hope that the church would come around one day. In talking about faith and the church, participants were being the church to each other, even as those outside its walls were often critical of them.

Finally, after the conference, Missy and I attended an afterparty at a local gay club. As we sat outside in the club’s courtyard on a fantastic evening listening to music, testimonies and enjoying fellowship, I was captured with this thought: “Is there any difference in what this community was doing from the traditional churches I have been a part of all my life?”

In all honesty, no.

Both communities—the traditional and nontraditional ideals of ekklēsia — are set apart by a divine presence to bring love, inclusivity, justice and hope to the world. This world is suffering from unjust systems and evil practices. Instead of squabbling about what the church looks like and its proper definition, why don’t we embrace a larger expansion of ekklēsia?

The world needs more love and less doctrine. The world craves belonging and grows tired of conformity.

The world desires justice while rejecting the growing disparities between each other. The world needs more church—not less— but church done right.

So, whether you follow the example of my pastor’s daughter or celebrate at your local gay club, remember ekklēsia is more about a movement than an institution.

“And on this rock,” Jesus said, “I will build my church!”

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