“I have more grace for people who have dropped out of church than ever before. Most of what we do on a Sunday morning involves 3-10 people talking, playing instruments, doing something; while everyone else (100-5,000 or so) literally sit and spectate. That's a mess.” ~ Samuel Yoder
“My wife and I have been on a journey to figure out what it means to be the church instead of just going to one.” ~ Chad Estes
“I am also concerned about the drawbacks of not joining with a group of believers on a regular basis.” ~ Ed Cyzewski
These are just a few of the comments from excellent conversation started when Jon Reid posted a thought-provoking piece about learning to love the very church leaders with whom he disagreed. If you are so inclined, you can follow this life-giving discussion by starting with Beautiful People?, Forget it: I’m Going to the Pub, and A Big Question that Matters Every Day.
Over the last two weeks we’ve been discussing the impact of the church on the lives of individual believers. Everyone has opinions about the church. Among Evangelicals these days, most of these opinions are negative. The focus of the Students of Jesus blog is about how an individual becomes a disciple of the Jesus Christ, so the discussion over the past few weeks has not been about the church in general, it’s been about each of us and our ability to follow Jesus--with or without the church.
What impact should the church have on our life with Jesus? In the book of Acts we read about the vibrant spiritual lives of the first believers. We read about incredible fellowship among Christians, testimonies of powerful works, and world-changing faith. It’s clear that the inspired scriptures push us toward an organized community of faith, possessing it’s own singular identity even as it’s comprised of individual Christians. When we look up from our reading and see the 21st century our experiences fall short of the Biblical model. Breathtakingly short. Heartbreakingly short. Nearly everyone agrees that the weekly sit-and-listen mentality is not life-giving, nor does it realize the Biblical ideal.
And yet, here’s my concern: After 40 years of walking with God I have met plenty of unhealthy Christians who belong to a church, but I have never met a healthy Christian who does not belong to a church. What are we to do with this? The currently popular solution is to hang out informally with our believing friends and declare, “This is my church. These people know me and love me. I receive nothing from organized religion.”
I get it. The North American church is desperately sick, and in many cases the church hinders the spiritual growth of believers. But before we all decide have wine and cheese with the cool kids and call it church, I’d like to suggest that God has given us a few clues about what He thinks makes up a church. It’s really a book-length discussion--a life-length discussion, actually--but since we’ve invested four blog posts on the idea, here is one man’s list of at least six church disctinctives:
- The church meets together regularly: Sunday morning isn’t the only possibility. In fact, Acts 2:42-47 suggests they met together far more than North Americans might find comfortable. In a variety of settings, for a multitude of reasons, followers of Jesus meet together regularly and share their lives together.
- The church has a defined structure: Structure is built into God’s order of creation. Single-celled organisms reveal astonishing complexity of function; in the human body there is individualized function. Without the structure of a skeleton, the body cannot stand. These physical realities point toward spiritual truth. Amazingly, the scripture seems to endorse a variety of church structures, but every New Testament church had a recognizable structure. We can disagree on what that structure may look like, but it’s not possible to read Acts or the Espistles without recognizing it’s importance.
- The church provides authority: “Authority.” Just mention the word and people tense up! I feel the need to mention again that this blog site is not about big “ecclesiological” questions. Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant, we all must personally come to terms with passages like, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority.” (Hebrews 13:17) Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus could be considered all about authority! Nearly everyone has a horror-story about abuse of authority in the church. It’s worth noting that authority without compassion and relationship makes a sham of God’s Kingdom, but compassion and relationship without authority misses God’s Kingdom entirely.
- The church is a proving ground for love and forgiveness. “Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” (Colossians 3: 12-14) How can we live these words out apart from our families, or the church--which is the family of God?
- The church equips God’s people. Christian maturity requires a nurturing family atmosphere. Gifts of the Holy Spirit and the development of Christian character thrive in a healthy community. Entertainment apart from equipping is antithetical to God’s plan for the church. If there's no equipping going on, it's not fully the church. It’s lab, not lecture, and it's not recess, either.
- The church provides a unique corporate witness: The have been exceptional individuals throughout history. Saints and geniuses larger than life, and because they are are so exceptional, they are easily dismissed as individuals, even freaks. But who could dismiss an entire community of faith? “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another,” said Jesus in John 13: 34 “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” The early church would either get you healed or care for you until you died. WIdows, orphans and outcasts of the first century knew there was a refuge called “the church.”
Object if you will: it’s easy to do. The church has failed in every area. Today’s post is not a defense of the way things are. The church in North America is desperately sick. Something must change--and I believe the change begins with us as individuals. If you must leave your current church, then go. But where? If you can find a group of believers attempting to fulfill these ideals you will land in a safe place. Leaving a sick church may be the best decision. Ignoring God’s plan for your personal growth as a disciple never is.