Hey Church, What Are We Building?

6 min. to read.

Standing on a broad, grassy hill in central Türkiye, I had a revelation. The hill was thick with thistles, periodically broken through by irregular bleached stones. It lay about a mile south of a rural highway, surrounded by farmland. If you stumbled on the site accidentally, you’d have no idea what you were looking at unless you saw the small roadside sign, lettered with a single word: Colossae.

Note: This article was first published at Plain Truth Ministries on their blog, Christianity Without Religion, along with a video reflection by Dr. Bradley Jersak who was also on this trip.

Historians think there’s been a city in this location for over thirty-five hundred years. By the 5th century BCE, the city that had come to be called Colossae was an economic center known for its wool—particularly for the red wool that was unique to the area.1The color came to be called colossinus after its place of origin. Herodotus called the city one of the great cities of Phrygia. Xenophon would describe it as a “populous city, wealthy and of considerable magnitude.” The city was so wealthy that when an earthquake destroyed it in the middle of the 1st century, they rejected Emperor Nero’s assistance and rebuilt at their own cost.2Some decent and accessible sources on this history: https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-sites-places/biblical-archaeology-sites/where-is-biblical-colossae/ & https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colossae Even with this incredible history, today the name Colossae is mainly familiar because sometime in the mid to late first century, a small group of Christians who lived in this city received a letter from the Apostle Paul.

Our group spent about thirty minutes on the hill that marks the resting place of a once-great city. I read their letter while I stood there. As the sun set, we hiked back down, ready to head to more important sites. I thought about what lies hidden under the earth. There would be a wide north-to-south avenue lined with shops. There would undoubtedly be a gymnasium and a bathhouse. The topography still clearly shows where the open-air theater lies. There would also be a temple to the patron god, built during the Roman era, maybe more than one. Nearby, or maybe on the same sites, there would be a couple of Christian churches built hundreds of years later by the Byzantines. Perhaps there would be shrines or tombs for politicians and heroes. Surrounding the acropolis would be the remnants of homes and workshops, hiding the pottery and detritus of everyday life.

One of those homes, possibly one of the larger peristyle homes with a central courtyard, would be where the original gathering of Christians met to hear the letter Paul had written them. All of that, and who knows what else, is buried inside an out-of-the-way hill. With many more important sites in the region, archeological interest seems aimed elsewhere.3Laodicea and Hierapolis are in the same valley and have long-term, active projects. Apparently, there are some plans to start excavating the site, but besides the recently mowed top of the hill, there was no evidence of any human activity when I was there. https://www.biola.edu/blogs/good-book-blog/2022/plans-underway-to-excavate-colossae

What will remain of our work?

Trudging down the steep path between the thistles, my mind stayed with the Colossian Christians and their letter that finally made its way into scripture. The letter doesn’t affirm them for heroic deeds or chastise them for some terrible failure. If Paul’s writing gives us any indication, these were ordinary Christians sorting out what it meant to follow the way of Jesus in the world they found themselves in. They had questions about prayer, how to relate to their family members, and how they ought to talk to one another. Just like me, they had trouble “stripping off the old life” with its habits and insecurities built on self-protection rather than love. Like my kids, they needed to be encouraged to behave with compassion, humility, and patience. Some of them were enamored by the certainty of legalistic religious practices. Others were captivated by philosophical metaphysics. Like Christians of every age, they needed to be reminded that while the world they lived in was filled with leaders and power structures that would demand their allegiance, there was only One in whom the fullness of God truly dwelt. In short, they seem not to have been much different than most Christians I’ve met.

The Colossian church, made famous by its biblical letter, has nothing visible to show for itself. There is no pilgrimage site to visit. No archeologist’s reconstruction to help you imagine what once was. You can’t even see the broken foundation walls that hint at shops and homes. The cultures and empires they were part of are all gone. Their language is now unspoken. Nothing they made remains. No art, no scrolls, no church building. If we didn’t have Paul’s letter, we would likely know nothing about them at all.

What they did that had lasting value happened entirely in the realm of relationships—and there is no visible memorial to that. Their lasting impact came from how they cared for each other, met the needs of those around them, included people not included elsewhere, and tried in stumbling ways to live out Jesus’s other-centered, co-suffering way.

How are we spending our time?

I spent a significant part of my ministry life intent on building something great. I felt called to it. I was sure building a significant church was the best way I could honor God and impact the world for good. I wanted to leave a mark. But here, I was in the very place where a Biblical church once stood, a church mentioned in scripture, a church Paul knew personally—and there was no visible mark remaining. Realizing this was an odd encouragement to me. It felt like an affirmation of the path I’ve been on for the past decade, letting go of grand plans to build a legacy in favor of a more simple, daily practice of Jesus’ way in a small community. This is a hard path. Our culture is certain that bigger is better and that all problems can be solved by increasing market share or influence. If we’re not careful, we equate outward marks of success with the presence of the Spirit. This thistle-covered hill in central Türkiye invites us to consider a different measure.

We loaded onto our bus and headed back to the rural highway, on our way to the kinds of sites that draw tourists. I sat silently, holding tight to what I had just seen. What matters most for followers of Jesus cannot be seen or measured in the ways we usually measure success. If we are building anything, we are building into each other. Everything else will eventually meet the same fate as Colossae. Perhaps that should guide how we spend our time and resources as Jesus’ followers.

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