"I like this tune," I said to my translator above the noise of the choir, "What are they singing?" He almost had to yell: "This is a very popular hymn in Malawi. It's called Just because you go to church doesn't mean you're going to heaven." "Oh" I said, watching the choir dance up and down the aisle, singing the chorus for the 50th time. Someone slid into church late, hoping to go unnoticed. He failed. Perhaps I'm imagining it, but some of the singers seemed to direct their words pointedly at the late-comer:
Just because you go to church doesn't mean you're going to heaven.
Well, it's true. And certainly you can understand the urge to sing it where nominal church attendance abounds. But it doesn't really capture the dominant note of the Bible. You see the Bible, more often than not, speaks of church as heaven.
"You have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly,to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven." (Hebrews 12:22-23)
Because you're going to church you are going to heaven. You see that's also a biblical truth - a central one. I don't mean that every church-goer is guaranteed paradise, I mean that - right now - church is paradise. Forget the final reckoning for a moment, church is heavenly - that's the overwhelming witness of the Bible.
Daniel Rowlands, one of Wales' mightiest preachers, would watch his congregation walking to church on a Sunday and remark: "Here they come, bringing heaven with them."
That's the emphasis in the Bible. And yes, some who came to Rowlands church may be in hell right now. But not because they didn't taste heaven in church, they did (Heb 6:4-8). Everyone did - that's what church is.
There can be an unhealthy preoccupation among evangelicals with distinguishing the visible church from the invisible elect. We're always looking past the tangible concreteness of our actual brothers and sisters, gathered around the word, the bread and the wine. We want to say "Yeah, whatever, those are just externals. The real issue is down deep in your soul." And so we encourage the spiritually serious among us to be deep-soul-divers, trying desperately to plumb their own depths. All the while it's church - in all its ordinariness - which actually does the deep work in us. The word exposes and heals us, the bread and wine nourish us "deep down", our brothers and sisters en-courage us in ways that nothing else can.
Church is heavenly. Whatever heaven we seek which is not intimately tied to church might just turn out to be a false spirituality. I fear that - in that false sense - there are some people so heavenly minded they're of no churchly use.