For most of my life, ‘the Church’ meant first, the local congregation that I am a member of, in this case, a Greek Orthodox parish, and second, the worldwide community of Christians that confess the historic faith of (at least) the first ecumenical synod of Nicæa (AD 325), whether or not they know the ‘symbol’ of that synod (called by non-Orthodox, the ‘Nicene Creed’).
As a Greek Orthodox, I express my understanding of ‘the Church’ in the second sense by identifying myself as exactly that—Greek Orthodox—but that does not stop me from associating and even praying with non-Orthodox Christians. Though this has helped me to be ‘numbered with the transgressors’ by some of my co-religionists, I hope those that tolerate my lack of discretion are doing it for the right reason—because they too love the Truth—and not out of mere niceness.
Now, the Church, visible and invisible: how it ‘appears’ to me.
The Church visible, this is the institutional Church in all of its forms. I only know this Church visible as it is in America, but I'm guessing it’s the same in most places. The Church visible has form, has rules, has systems, has an inside and an outside, has an architectural presence, has a distinctive culture, has professionals and laymen.
The Church visible operates very much like a business, far more than one would expect from simply reading the gospels and epistles. Its hierarchy operates pretty much like that of any secular institution, and its employees, the clergy, find themselves pigeonholed both by themselves and by the laity as a professional caste whose success or failure rides on management skills and devising programs to keep their people busy.
In the churches that are run by laymen, such as my own, those selected to parish councils and similar structures are generally the wealthy and those with business savvy and connexions. And why not? They’re needed if the Church is to have a successful building program and stewardship campaign. The Church visible gives glory to God by investing its money with great acumen. After all, it doesn't want to be classified with the steward in the parable of the Talents, who hid the one talent in the ground to turn it over to the Master without interest, and got cast into the outer darkness.
In the last building program at my Church, for example, the emphasis was giving glory to God by expanding our facilities. Just like a big business. It’s a good thing God’s our boss! And we sure showed Him we were worthy! People were encouraged during that campaign to reveal what they gave and challenge others to outgive them! We were talked to by wealthy patrons during breaks in the liturgy and encouraged by them ‘to give till it feels good.’ Our loquacious presbyter at that time even confessed publicly that he hadn’t paid his pledge as much as he’d thought, but that he made up for it by prepaying the rest of his pledge through year’s end ahead of time. His advice to us was to do the same and, what’s more, to tell at least one other person that you had paid up your pledge ahead of time, and encourage them to do the same! That was the core message of his Sunday homily. This was the ‘Church visible’ where I live. How about you?
What I have come to see and participate in at least a little in the intervening years is the ‘Church invisible.’ The visible Church at regular intervals pays its respects to this invisible Church by calling them ‘unsung heroes, uncanonised, unknown saints,’ and the like. Sometimes they even drag out a story or a legend about one of these cross-bearers and extols them. But to what effect? Hearing a priest rattle off in perfect koiné Greek at the end of liturgy a half dozen or more names of saints being commemorated, lickedy-split, wow! I'm always so impressed! How can he do that?
The Church invisible. How do you know when you’re approaching the borderlands of the invisible Church? You begin to take on the state of invisibility yourself.
The best thing to do when you sense this happening is… to run even faster after Jesus! Don’t look back! Strain ahead for what is still to come. Accept the loss of everything and look on all the advantages you have in the world and even in the visible Church as so much rubbish. Why? Because all these things are really disadvantages, as holy apostle Paul declares in his letter to the Church at Philippi (Philippians 3:2-16). Decide now and every day to follow the call of Jesus Christ, decide once and for all that ‘all I want is to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and to share His sufferings by reproducing the pattern of His death’ (Philippians 3:10 JB).
How do you enter the ranks of the invisible Church? By paying your tithe with more than money, by not looking to be thanked, by announcing the Word of God without charge, fear or praise, by emptying yourself to assume the conditions of a slave, by putting yourself in places where faith is not only possible but inevitable, by serving those whom the world considers unworthy, because by doing so you turn tables on the world—the Word of God calls people like this, those ‘of whom the world was not worthy’ (Hebrews 11:38). The author of Hebrews continues giving good instructions for those who are willing to enter the ranks of the Church invisible…
‘With so many witnesses in a great cloud on every side of us, we too, then, should throw off everything that hinders us, especially the sin that clings so easily, and keep running steadily in the race we have started. Let us not lose sight of Jesus, who leads us in our faith and brings it to perfection’ (Hebrews 12:1-2).
‘Three times Jesus encourages His disciples by saying, “Fear not.” (Matthew 10:26-39) Although their sufferings are now secret [invisible], they will not always be so: some day they will be manifest before God and man. However secret these sufferings are at present, they have their Lord's promise that they will be eventually brought to the light of day. … Those who are still afraid of men have no fear of God, and those who have fear of God have ceased to be afraid of men. All preachers of the gospel will do well to recollect this saying daily. … We are in God's hands. Therefore, “Fear not.” ’
— Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, “The Decision”
One final thought. Yes, in the Orthodox Church, the visible Church is plastered with icons, that is, images of the saints, to remind us of what the author of Hebrews wrote, ‘With so many witnesses in a great cloud on every side of us…’ When we worship there, we are visibly present and the icons are visibly present, to incite us to look beyond them to the invisible presence of the saints. I almost wrote, ‘What if we took seriously…’ but instead, I want to say, Just take God at His Word and ‘throw off everything that hinders’ you, ‘especially the sin that clings so easily…’
What sin is that? The sin of being satisfied with the externals, with what can be seen, heard, smelled, tasted and touched in the Church visible. Stand up, stand up for Jesus! Then, follow Him, no looking back! The visible Church with its visible icons fades out as the Church invisible with its living icons invisible to the world reveals itself—and you among them, a living icon.
Yes, go with Jesus.