A lot of people today claim to be “done with church”. According to Barna Research there is a rising group of religious “Nones”- those Americans who claim no religious affiliation. Many prominent Christians have denied the faith and have now dubbed themselves “Ex-vangelicals” in recent years. Numerous prominent evangelical pastors and churches have been embroiled in controversy and scandal. Add simmering hostility over political views, racial tensions, and the COVID pandemic, and we may wonder, “What is to become of the church in America?”
More than ever, it is important for God’s people to “Be the Church”. As flawed, imperfect, and disorganized as the church may seem, God still works through His people in local churches, big and small. Authors Jonathan Leeman and Colin Hansen address this need for the church to “be the church” as we re-engage with one another and with God after the last 18-20 months of quarantine. Their book, Rediscovering Church, is one we are using for the upcoming membership class.
The summary definition the authors give (over the first three chapters) is that a church is: “a group of Christians who assemble as an earthly embassy of Christ’s heavenly kingdom to proclaim the good news and commands of Christ the King.” Think carefully about these aspects:
- Christians gather on the first day of the week to worship God, pray, and sing together.
- We proclaim the good news of Christ and His teachings, and we give testimony of His goodness.
- We demonstrate to the world that Jesus is more important to us than anything or anyone else.
- We depend upon the Holy Spirit to strengthen us and do things in our lives that are impossible in our own strength.
- We demonstrate care and love for one another and we look for ways to serve one another.
“After all, your understanding of what the church is will shape your life and your living.” (pg. 23)
He then describes his decision to be a member of a church, “In my case, it meant abandoning my life as an unattached, autonomous, individual. It meant joining a family and taking responsibility for that family. It meant inviting other Christians into my life and having embarrassing conversations that included confessing sin or admitting weakness. It involved looking for older men to disciple me and younger men to disciple. It led me to show hospitality to folks who were new and in need. It trained me to rejoice or suffer with those who rejoice or suffer.” (pg. 28)
The church is more than a community of people with a common interest. There are plenty of ways to find that kind of community online, especially with people who are similar to you in many ways. The church is the Body of Christ, where God’s Spirit changes hearts and transforms lives, as people relate to one another face to face and person to person. The church is the family where we are born again and adopted into the family of God. When each of us is humbled by the work of Christ on our behalf, we realize that “no one person in the church is more important than any other, because everyone belongs by grace alone through faith alone.” (pg. 17) He concludes:
What is a church? It is a group of people who have been loved by Christ and they have begun to love one another like that…It’s a love that unbelievers out in the world should not only hear about in our words, but also see in our lives together, leading them to say, “We want some too! Can we join?”
“Ah friend,” we say, “let us first tell you where such love comes from.” (pg. 29)
This is a description of the church at its best as an embassy of heaven. However, we can short circuit the work of God in the church if we view it as a transactional space, instead of seeing it as a transformational body.
Last night my family and I watched the movie Remember the Titans. It highlights the story of the football team at TC Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia, soon after public schools integrated in the early 1970s. After they “survived” training camp, the players on the team realized that they had been transformed into a new team. Some players went into training camp thinking about what they could achieve- a starting position, being voted captain, best player on the offense or defense, etc. But the players who soon realized that they were being formed by the coach and changed by one another—they were the players who truly bonded. They learned to see what different players contributed, how their strengths and weaknesses complemented one another, and how any one of them could accept a less prominent role than what they had hoped for and yet help the team succeed.
If people view the church as consumers, “I contribute X, and as a result I receive Y”, rather than as God’s appointed body for spiritual growth and heart transformation, then they are quickly disappointed when the church does not meet their needs at the moment. Of course, pastors and elders are imperfect, and we disappoint people in many ways. Church leaders should do all we can to understand people’s spiritual needs and help them grow. But the larger spiritual danger is the push to “individualize Christianity”. Leeman points out that this danger was only exacerbated by the necessity of virtual church during the pandemic. Despite good intentions, Leeman warns about the long-term effects:
“It [virtual church] trains Christians to think of their faith in autonomous terms. It teaches them that they can follow Jesus as a member of the ‘family of God’ in an abstract sense, without teaching them what it means to be part of a family and to make sacrifices for a family.” (pg. 53)
I’ve used the picture before of two Ziploc bags. One bag has an assortment of marbles: bright, shiny, solid, of different colors and sizes. The other Ziploc bag has an assortment of grapes: green grapes, red grapes, and deep purple Concord grapes. Some grapes have seeds and some don’t. First you shake the bag of marbles. When the marbles in the bag bump into each other, there is some noise, friction and sliding, but no interaction or exchange. Each marble remains the same. Next you shake the bag of grapes. Some of the grapes get squished, some of them the skin begins to peel off, and other ones might split wide open. The bag of grapes is messier, but there is taste, there is flavor, and there is grape juice! This is a picture of Biblical community in the church. Jesus calls His people together from all walks of life, and He calls them to follow Him and display His love to others. I would argue that a person cannot follow Christ closely and show His love to others effectively without his or her heart and mind being changed in the process! God did not design us to be individual, spiritual nomads.
So let’s rediscover church together! Leeman and Hansen write, “You belong to God and to one another…God wants to show his love to you. It’s the only kind of love that can draw us out of ourselves and into a fellowship that transcends the forces tearing apart our sick world. It’s the only essential way for us to find healing together. Beyond all that, your church is where Christ says he’s present in a unique way. We would even dare to say that your church and ours is where heaven touches down on earth–where our prayers begin to be answered, ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’” (pg. 18)