The Local Church: Lean In Or Peace Out?
In a recent sermon series called “Worship, Connect, Serve,” we asked our Christ Presbyterian Church members to consider what it would look like to be “all in” in their church involvement — starting with “being fully present with the local church every Sunday,” versus the standard American attendance average of approximately 1.6 times per month. Though we and other churches may have our work cut out for us in persuading people to keep this level of commitment, we still believe that faithful church attendance is important enough to emphasize. The following represents some of my thoughts on this as we begin a new year…
We are told that 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.
Looking for God Elsewhere
Several influential Christians are among this group, including one who is a personal friend of mine. This friend shared candidly on his blog that he did not attend church very often because he connected more with God in other ways, like through nature and through his work.
In a related post, my 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.
Why is my friend’s story becoming less and less rare? Why are so many believers dissatisfied with, and making decisions to say farewell to, the local church?
Sometimes, the disenchantment with the church is justified. Instead of going to church, they 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 welcomed 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.
Where the local church is not fulfilling this vision, the temptation to “look for God elsewhere” is understandable. But is it the best solution? Most importantly, would Jesus, the Bridegroom and Head of the church, favor a churchless Christianity?
Romanticizing the Early Church
Many who are disillusioned with the church today romanticize the early church, not realizing how broken things were then as well. Take Corinth, for example. As the most prominently represented church in Paul’s letters, 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 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).
But Paul never gave up on Corinth. Instead of walking away, he pressed 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. And he knew that God wanted him to participate in loving this church to life.
Whose Wisdom…Ours or God’s?
At her best and at her worst, Jesus loves his church. He will build his church and nothing will prevail against her (Matthew 16:18). 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 knows nothing about having more of God by having less of the church. To the contrary, Jesus is married to the church. The church is his chosen, beloved Wife.
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, Dietrich 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, will we trust the infinite, perfect wisdom of God or our own finite, fallen instincts?
The wisdom of God says that we need the local church. This is both declared and assumed throughout the Scriptures, which don’t define the church as a free-flowing, self-directed spiritual experience, but as an organized, rooted, local expression of the body of Christ. Within this structure, things like oversight and care from ordained officers (pastors, elders, deacons), participation in the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s supper, weekly Lord’s Day gatherings with Scripture, preaching, singing and prayers, one-anothering and generosity practices, spiritual gift deployment empowering members to serve the body, evangelism, and neighbor love through deeds of mercy and justice, are assumed.
Jesus’ Bride…Also Our Mother
Tony Campolo once 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.”
A Family, Not a Club
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. When another is difficult, the others confront him. When another is leading on mission, the others join, support, pray, and cheer her on.
Strength in Diversity
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, locals and internationals, 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.
This isn’t merely a written description. It is an actual representation of our local church body. It is sometimes messy. In its messiness, it is always awesome.
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.
A School for Learning 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 stunted 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, redeeming differences, and building unity.
The Church Needs You…and You Need Her
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, don’t leave it. If the church stinks to you, then change its diapers. Make it better. Pray for it. Bless it. Serve it. Love it to life.
In the process, you may discover that it’s not only that the local church needs you. You may also discover that you need the local church as well.
This essay is an adaptation from Jesus Outside the Lines: A Way Forward for Those Who are Tired of Taking Sides