Icons in my favorite church building transport me beyond church. It’s an Orthodox church near Franklin, Tennessee. Icons are images dedicated, set apart, and anointed to reflect the glory of the living, resurrected Jesus Christ. Icons, unlike ordinary religious art, don’t just teach about Christianity. They create encounters with the living, risen Jesus. Gazing at those icons somehow moves my heart deeply, sometimes to tears, with a mystical stirring deep inside that makes Jesus, the angels, the saints, and the spiritual world imminently (almost tangibly) present.
The move of God that began with the birth of Jesus, His life, His death on the cross, His bodily resurrection and ascension into the spiritual dimension, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on 120 Christ-followers, swept the Roman world of the 1st Century stirring up both religious and political persecution. As the first and second generations of Christ-followers died and the power began to fade away; later generations felt the need to structure and institutionalize the movement by setting up liturgies, offices, titles, creeds, etc. Over the centuries those structures grew until even the concept of the present day power and movement of God became became a mostly forgotten idea. Being a member of the institution was enough. There was little or no sense of any need to actually encounter, interact with, and obey the living, risen Jesus.
Christianity as an institution is not enough! In the 21st Century, people no longer feel obligated to serve religious institutions. They long for life-changing power, not structured, spoon-fed, religious performances.
Christianity was founded, not as an institution, but as a deliberative body animated and led by the presence and power of the living Jesus. Jesus called it His ekklesia, which was the Greek word for the interactive, participatory city councils in Greek city-states.
Icons help me break out of the institutional format and enter into the presence of the risen Lord. Aware of His presence, He begins to speak to my heart. However, no icons are required to go beyond church and into ekklesia. All you need to do is be still, focus on Christ, be aware of His presence in your heart, and listen to His stirrings in your soul.
To learn more about ekklesia, check out the book Beyond Church available here.