The Church: Love It, Don’t Leave It
There is a trend, especially among younger generations, of people who are saying goodbye to the local church. We’ve heard statistics of those who leave because they no longer believe. But, surprisingly, others leave because they say they want more of God in their lives and the church just isn’t doing it for them.
Several influential Christians have weighed in. They include one who is a personal friend of mine. Though we may see things differently re: the church, I like him a whole lot and I love Christ more because he is part of my life. Several years ago in a blog post, he shared candidly that he did not attend church very often because he connected more with God in other ways, like through nature and through his work. Even though my life’s work is in the local church, I must confess that some of the things he said made sense to me, namely that we as the church often fail to live up to the potential God has placed in us with the work of Jesus, the love of the Father, and the presence of the Holy Spirit.
In a follow-up essay, the same friend added:
“I’d say half of the most impactful people I know, who love Jesus and tear up at the mention of His name, who reach out to the poor and lonely and are fundamentally sound in their theology, who create institutions that feed hundreds of thousands, do not attend a traditional church service. Many of them even speak at churches, but they have no home church and don’t long for one.”
For people like me whose life centers around the local church, this raises a very important question. Why are so many believers—people who love Jesus—showing less interest in being part of the church?
Often, the disenchantment is warranted. Instead of “going” to church, these men and women are eager to be the Church. Instead of being a face in the crowd, they are eager to be a known and needed member of a community. Instead of being passive observers of an event, they are eager to be active contributors to a shared mission. Instead of listening to a preacher pontificate and tell stories, they are eager to be swept up into a Story that is bigger than the preacher. Instead of being around people who “accept” Jesus but who seem bored with him, they want to be around people who come alive at the mention of his name.
So what would Jesus, the Head of the Church, say about churchless Christianity?
Many who are disillusioned with the Church today romanticize the early church, not realizing how broken things were then as well. “If only we could get back to the way they did things in the New Testament,” the sentiment goes, “then I would want to join a church.”
Take Corinth, for example. As the most prominently represented New Testament church, Corinth was also a dysfunctional mess. Factions, harshness, divisions, adultery, lawsuits, divorce, elitism, classism, and neglect of the poor were just some of their issues. The famous “love chapter” in 1 Corinthians 13 was written less as an inspiration and more as a rebuke, because each love attribute was something that the Corinthians were not. They had trampled on the ideal of what Jesus’ church should be—an infectious community of prayer, truth, love, justice, and mission (Acts 2:42-47).
Shockingly, Paul never gave up on Corinth. Instead of walking away, he leaned in. As he sharply corrected them, he also encouraged, affirmed, loved, prayed for, and thanked God for them. Like Jesus, he saw a broken church and envisioned beauty. He saw a sinful church and envisioned sainthood. He saw a band of misfits but envisioned a radiant, perfected bride. He saw a caterpillar and envisioned a butterfly. And he knew that God wanted him to participate in loving this church to life.
At her best and at her worst, Jesus loves his Church.
He laid down his life for her (John 10:11). He will never leave or forsake her (Hebrews 13:5). He will complete the work he started in her (Philippians 1:6). In other words, Jesus never looked for more of God by having less of the Church. Instead, he married her. The Church is the chosen, beloved Bride of Christ. What does it say about us if the church is good enough for the Father to adopt, for the Spirit to inhabit, and for Jesus to marry … but not good enough for us to join?
In Life Together, Bonhoeffer said that those who love their dream of Christian community more than the Christian Community itself become destroyers of Christian community. He also said that the Church, which may at times seem weak and trifling to us, is great and magnificent to God. Do we believe this? When tempted to hit eject on the local church long term, we should be careful. There are always good reasons, I hope to convince you, why it is better to stay with Christ’s church than it is to leave her.
Here are some of those reasons:
1. The Church is Jesus’ Bride
Tony Campolo said, “…you dare not decide that you don’t need the church. Christ’s church is his bride…and his love for her makes him faithful to her even when she is not faithful to him.”
The Church was God’s idea, God’s plan for His Kingdom on earth. As St. Cyprian said, “One cannot have God as his Father who does not have the church as his Mother,” and as Saint Augustine once said, “The church may be a whore, but she is still my mother.”
2. The Church is Family
Family is the chief metaphor the Bible uses when it talks about the Church.
The Church isn’t an exclusive, monolithic club. It’s a gathering of wonderfully and sometimes irritatingly diverse, divinely-selected brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, grandmas and grandpas. A dysfunctional family at times indeed, but a family nonetheless.
Family stays together. When one member is weak, the others lift her up. Where another is difficult, the others confront him. Where another is leading on mission, the others join, support, pray, and cheer him on.
3. The Church is a Diverse Community
By design, God chose the Church to be as diverse as possible. At Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, we have described our community this way:
We are builders and baby boomers, gen-xers and millennials, conservatives and progressives, educators and athletes, struggling doubters and committed believers, engineers and artists, introverts and extroverts, healers and addicts, CEO’s and homemakers, affluent and bankrupt, single and married, happy and hurting, lonely and connected, stressed-out and carefree, private and public schoolers, PhD’s and people with special needs, experts and students, saints and sinners.
We want to celebrate and learn from differences instead of dividing over them. We believe the best expressions of community happen when people come together with varying perspectives, personalities, cultures, and experiences.
The Church Teaches Us to Love
Part of the Christian experience is learning to love people who are not like us. In the Church, we are given a community of complicated, beloved-by-God, always in process, fearfully and wonderfully made, sometimes faltering and inefficient people we are called to love.
Reconciliation, peacemaking, relational perseverance, and loving the unlovely are difficult but necessary steps of discipleship. Without these things, we remain stagnant in our spiritual growth.
Our goal in Christian community is not just tolerance of others, but authentic love and relationship. In order to learn to truly love, we must stay in the Christian community and do the hard work of resolving conflict and building unity.
The Church Needs You
As it is a family, the Church is also a body. Without you, the Church is missing an eye or an ear or a hand. Without you, the church is not whole.
Each of us is made in the image of God. As we live in community with one another, we grow in knowledge and experience of God by being with others who bear his image. As we learn from and rub off on one another we become better, more whole, more Christ-like, and ultimately better-for-the-world versions of ourselves.
If you are dissatisfied or disillusioned with the local church, even if you need to take a temporary break from her, please don’t leave her. If the church stinks to you, then change her diapers. Make her better. Pray for her. Bless her. Serve her. Love her to life.
In the process, you may discover that it’s not only that the church needs you. You need the church as well.