I’m Part of the Universal Church. Do I Need the Local Church?
Consider this great story by Warren Wiersbe:
A free-lance missionary visited a pastor friend of mine asking for financial support. “What group are you associated with?” my friend asked.
The man replied, “I belong to the invisible church.”
My friend then asked, “Well, what church are you a member of!”
Again, he got the answer, “I belong to the invisible church!”
Getting a bit suspicious, my friend asked, “When does this invisible church meet? Who pastors it?”
The missionary then became incensed and said, “Well, your church here isn’t the true church. I belong to the invisible church!”
My friend replied, “Well, here’s some invisible money to help you minister to the invisible church!”
The Local and the Universal Church
We were not born again just to have a personal relationship with God; we also were saved to have a relationship with God’s family—with one another. If I only focus on God’s love for me as an individual and neglect the importance of the local church, I am going to miss a huge part of God’s overall plan. As a result, we should not be surprised that Jesus demonstrates tremendous interest and concern for local churches in the first three chapters of the Revelation.
Some like to emphasize what is called the universal church, the worldwide church, or the invisible church. This is what Paul spoke of when he said, “There is one body” (Ephesians 4:4), referring to every born-again person on the planet. The members don’t meet together regularly because that is a logistical impossibility. God certainly knows each of His children on the planet and He values each one. However, it is still important that people relate to one another tangibly and practically—on a grassroots level—in their own communities.
I have heard people say, “I’m a member of the universal church, but I don’t think it’s really important to be a part of a local body of believers.” Such thinking is alien to the New Testament. In the first century, believers clearly met, worshipped, prayed, and received the Word of God together in local assemblies. In the Revelation we see that Jesus cares about each and every local church, not just the church-at-large. This is also clearly modeled in the book of Acts and taught consistently throughout the epistles.
We can illustrate the significance of the local church by drawing an analogy from marriage. I have been married to my wife since 1979, and we have journeyed together through life, sharing in both the good and the challenging times. Can you imagine me or any married person saying something like this? “I believe in the institution of marriage—the overall concept of marriage—but I’m not all that committed to my own spouse.” That wouldn’t work very well, would it? A person can have all kinds of lofty, philosophical ideas about the concept of marriage, but it doesn’t really matter if that person is not loving, caring, and being kind to his or her own spouse. Likewise, it’s a bit odd to speak glowingly of the universal church and then to display a dismissive attitude toward the local church.
If we truly desire to understand God’s priorities and attitudes, we need to pay particular attention to how devoted Jesus is to specific, local congregations in the first three chapters of the book of Revelation. For example, when John heard Jesus’ magnificent voice on the island of Patmos and turned, he first saw “seven gold lampstands” and the Lord was standing in the middle of those lampstands (Revelation 1:12-13, NLT). The symbolism here is no mystery and is promptly explained in Revelation 1:20, “the seven lampstands are the seven churches” (NLT).
Jesus’ attitude and devotion toward these local congregations should make a huge impression on us. Surprisingly, there are people who claim they love Jesus but want little to do with His church. How can that be? If people are truly devoted to Jesus, they should love what He loves and be committed to what He is committed to. Jesus doesn’t just love the universal church—all believers everywhere—but He specifically loves local assemblies of believers as well. This is the reason why Jesus was so focused on these seven specific congregations when he appeared to John on the island of Patmos. He acknowledges the tremendous value of individual assemblies and is even seen walking in their midst.
This article is excerpted from my book, What Would Jesus Say? Lessons from the Letters to the Seven Churches of Revelation.