Why I’m Thankful For The Church

I’ve seen a bunch of folks on social media attempting to do the “30 Days of Thankfulness.” In case you’ve missed it, the trend is to use your Facebook status update or Twitter feed to post one thing for which you’re thankful for the entire 30 days of November. I’m finding the trend is a neat way to “redeem social media” … You know … Stop using Facebook as a passive aggressive whine-fest.

However, there’s really one thing that sticks in my craw: I have yet to see a single person post that they’re thankful for their church. And I’m not saying this because I’m a paid pastoral staff member and I’m supposed to professionally cheerlead the church. My concern is the growing number of “lone ranger” Christians who claim to love God but have no church affiliation or participation.

Over the past few decades, an increasing number of Christians are deciding to be “spiritual but not religious,” declaring that church is non-essential to their lives. Among the “nonaffiliated” Christian crowd, loving Jesus but not the church is a perfectly viable option. Whether it means watching a podcast sermon at Starbucks, staying in your jammies and tuning in to Charles Stanley or sitting in a tree stand and communing with nature on an early Sunday morning, there have become many societally acceptable alternatives to worship at church. That means that Jesus remains hot … But church is not.

Much of the blame for this trend gets pinned squarely on the traditional church: “The church is too fundamental, contemporary, traditional, boring, hypocritical, sexist, exclusivist, homophobic, political, sheltered, judgmental and flat-out weird.” The conundrum of church decline has been boiled down to a Mad Lib: “I would go to church if the church weren’t (insert derogatory comment).” Therefore, the chicken littles claim that the sky is falling on the traditional church, and the end will come soon if the church doesn’t radically change grievous offensiveness. Admittedly, there are many thoughtful critics who justifiably point out where the church has drifted from solid Biblical ground, establishing viable points for evangelical churches to address (but not in the course of this particular blog post).

Unfortunately, blaming church decline squarely on churches reflects an obsession with consumerism. The notion that the church must cow-tow and pander to every suggestion from the peanut gallery reflects a Burger King slogan rather than Biblical principles. Jesus is not a product that the church is hawking on the cheap. The Bible is not a business plan. And in the arena of the Biblical authority, the customer is not always right – God is. In the face of decline, evangelical churches may have some soul searching to do but cannot genuflect to every public policy poll, comment card or nasty letter/e-mail. If a choice is necessary to be made between Christ and cultural accommodation, the church must follow after Christ as its authority. In terms of the church, the Rolling Stones had it right: “You can’t always get what you want.”

Lost in the rush to blame the church over its woes is the other side of the equation: “Spiritual but not religious” has become a cleverly code-worded but convenient excuse. Often, the concept of “church membership” is considered to be an obsolete relic that inhibits believers from true freedom in Christ. Others don’t really see what the fuss is all about with church membership. Still others see divisiveness in denominationalism and want to play the neutral Switzerland. In these circles, being “spiritual but not religious” is a “get out of jail free” card that affirms that Christians really don’t need to have any association with the church. Most often, this excuse gets pulled out as the ultimate deflection against Ned Flanders-type neighbors:

Church-Goer: “Would you like to go to church with me sometime?”

“Spiritual But Not Religious” Neighbor: “Well … I don’t think that you have to go to church to be a Christian.”

Church-Goer: “Well … I guess that’s true. Hunh.”

Deflection accomplished.

The notion that Christians can flourish without the church is essentially good theology gone horribly awry. It is 100% true that the only thing that makes you a Christ-follower is repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. There is no chapter on “Church Membership” requirements found within the New Testament. And admission into Heaven will not be determined upon how many Sunday School classes and potluck dinners that you have attended. Sheerly on its technical merits, you can become a Christian and never step foot in a church (Evidence #1: The thief on the cross in Luke 23:43).

But there ARE many New Testament passages that indicate that the early church considered that being a part of a fellowship of believers was critically important. The early church carefully delineated who was (or was not) a part of their community of faith (Matthew 18:15-17; 1 Corinthians 5; 2 Corinthians 2:6; 1 Timothy 5:9). The early church were also careful to establish leadership over these communities of faith (1 Timothy 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9; Hebrews 13:17). There are no Lone Ranger Christians found in the early church described in Acts. The model given in Acts is a close-knit community of believers that submitted to teaching, shared all their possessions and prayed for the advance of the Gospel (Acts 2:42-47). Even Paul had companionship and accountability in Barnabas, Silas, Mark, Luke and many others on the perilous early missionary journeys. And Paul sought to establish viable local gatherings of believers in every community that he visited, and made efforts to support and sustain those gatherings over the long run.

Of greater importance, Jesus repeats throughout His “farewell discourse” that the mark of the believer is sacrificial love – particularly for one another. Jesus declares John 13:34-35: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” The visible love that believers have for one another should point the world towards the beauty of the cross. Similarly, the author of Hebrews urges believers to gather together for encouragement as a direct response to the mercy of God. Hebrews 10:24-25 states: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” The question is begged: What does it state about your faith if you can’t love other believers? Or even gather together with other believers? Surely, the Christian life is severely impoverished – if not stunted – without the iron-sharpening and the “stirring up” found within the church. True spiritual growth cannot come simply by reading books, listening to podcasts or surfing the net … It comes from meaningful fellowship with other believers.

I am thankful for the church because I have found these truths to be consistently true. I went through my own “spiritual but not religious” phase in college. In hindsight, the issue was my inability to love others and not some pretentious theological issue that I hid behind. Since that time, I’ve been a part of a vibrant New England church where I was encouraged to step out in faith and serve in worship and youth ministry. I’ve been called out way past my comfort zone to spiritual leadership in a coastal Virginia church. My experience in Texas churches has taught me about the daily challenges of ministry and the need for spiritual fellowship. In every church where I’ve meaningfully invested, beautiful children of God have taught me and encouraged me … Cried alongside of me in sorrow … Rejoiced alongside of me in joy.

But I am most thankful for the church because of what Christ has done for the church. Ephesians 5:25-27 states: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” What’s awesome about church? It’s full of people loved by God who love God in reply. It’s a bunch of sinners washed clean in the redemptive blood of Jesus Christ. It’s full of hurt and broken people who have lovingly stitched together by the skillful hands of the Great Physician. It’s full of people who marvel at the amazing sacrificial love of God.

I am thankful for my local church. We not be the coolest bunch with our styrofoam coffee cups, pot-luck dinners full of crock pots and our unhealthy affinity for Southern Gospel music. But we are a bunch of broken people beloved by the King of Kings … And that’s more than enough reason for me to love my church.

Thank you, Jesus, for the church.

A Post-Election Survival Guide For Christians

There are three things I have learned never to discuss with people: religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin.” – Linus

So I’ve been at home today recuperating from tonsillitis and an ear infection, and I’ve been robocalled and push polled 5 times … And it’s only 4PM. Strangely, I keep getting one robocall about the Tarrant County, Texas election on my Indiana home phone, and I haven’t been a registered Texas voter in two years. (Sorry Texas Republicans of Tarrant County!) And it seems like every cable news anchor of every political affiliation is fidgety and twitchy that they actually have to cover one of the greatest natural disasters of all time instead of nitpick and parse every word of the presidential candidates. So instead of throwing random objects at my television screen, I’m going to vent in a more productive manner by breaking the “Linus Rule” by blogging about politics and religion. It’ll be fun.

Here’s the deal: I can’t wait for the election to be over. The insults. The nastiness. The strange e-mail forwards filled with juicy gossip about that candidate who sorta kinda allegedly may be part of a robotic death cult from Mars. The uncomfortable discussions over “types of rape.” The unnecessarily frequent tracking polls that the candidates immediately refute as being contrary to their internal polls. The SuperPAC fueled television ads claiming their political opponent is a incompetent Satanic debt-mongering pervert. And the strange obsession with the state of Ohio (C’mon … The Cincinnati chili isn’t THAT good.).

The only bad thing about this election being over is that the political pundits will start talking about the 2016 election. Oh wait … I think they’ve started already on Meet The Press.

I believe that voting is simultaneously our privilege and our act of submission to the rule of law (Romans 13:1) as well as a means to contend for the faith entrusted to believers by God (Jude 3-4). Our participation in our elections demonstrate that we are responsible temporary citizens of the United States but are also eternally the citizens of Heaven. And our faith should not disappear once the fabric curtain of the voting booth gets pulled. But I also believe that Christians must do their part to eliminate the flat-out nastiness that’s emerged in the political arena. I cringe every time I hear a professing Christian engage in the same low standard of name-calling and buffoonery as the rest of the constant 24-hour election cycle. So here are some thoughts about how Christians can do their part to eliminate the nastiness in our election process:

  1. Don’t Engage In Mass Hysterics: Just because one party wins/loses an election is not a reason to stock up on guns at Wal-Mart and start rereading the Left Behind book series. Don’t put on the sack cloth and roll around in ashes. Don’t turn your Facebook status into a terrorist manifesto. Stay calm. Continue breathing at a normal rate. Don’t make crass and hurtful statements, such as “It’s the end of the world as we know it,” “I’m leaving the country,” “I’m joining a militia,” or “I’m going to drown my sorrows in Cheetos and Jack Daniels.” There’s always another election.
  2. Don’t Gloat: It’s perfectly fine to be happy – even ecstatic – over the outcome of an election. Just remember that there will be heartbroken people that have poured all of their passion into the opposing side and virtually ready to commit seppuku over the whole painful loss. Why are we so ready to stick another verbal dagger into someone so emotionally broken anyway? In 1992, I was dancing on the ceiling with Lionel Richie because my candidate, Bill Clinton, (who I voted for) was going to be president. And I wanted to rub it in the nose of all my loud-mouthed Republican friends in my dorm! So I set my alarm before sunrise (no easy feat for a college freshman), bought multiple copies of the AM newspaper and plastered the “CLINTON WINS” slogans all over my dorm room door. All because I wanted to feel good about myself and rub it in the face of those who disagreed with me. Gloating is essentially hate, pride and malice all wrapped up together and given intentional verbal expression. Gloating only serves to exalt ones’ self and to belittle others. Let’s remember Christ was about the opposite: Humbling self, exalting God and serving others. Exalt God and humble yourself by not gloating.
  3. Don’t Talk Trash: Consider James 3:8-10: “But no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.” The same mouth that believers use to praise God on Sunday should not be used to insult, bully or degrade other people that God loves on Monday. It should probably go without saying, but here goes: We should not be verbally poisoning those that Christ sought to heal and restore. Feel free to debate or engage someone with an opposing viewpoint … Just do it without the cheap insults, race baiting and histrionics.
  4. Stop Gossiping: Let’s face it … Christians are horrible about forwarding unsubstantiated rumors over e-mail and social media. Many of the false rumors and conspiracy theories about our current president being born in another country and being ineligible to serve as president (a/k/a “the birther conspiracy”) have their foundation in Christians hitting the forward button on their e-mail. I know this because I was the recipient of many of these mass e-mail forwards back in 2008. Recently, I had an opportunity to work with a young Christian lady who was sweet, Southern, kind and would never speak ill of anyone … But was Quick Draw McGraw in forwarding to EVERY contact EVERY sleazy, poorly produced e-mail disparaging the president. My point here is not to delve into the ongoing “birther conspiracy.”  My point is that gossip is not just verbal anymore … Gossip can also occur when you hit the keystrokes on your computer, tablet or iphone. So before you forward it or post it, verify and fact check it. And then consider your heart condition: Why is it that you want to forward or post information about someone? If the answer is that you simply don’t like someone and desire to harm them or their reputation, then it’s probably better that you back away from the keyboard instead of pushing “SEND.”
  5. Don’t Lose Perspective: Today, I got push polled by a young Republican lady whose argument began: “The future of all Western civilization depends on how YOU vote in this Tuesday’s election!!!!! All of history is doomed unless YOU vote correctly!!!!!!” Really?!? … Let’s pause and take a deep breath to consider the eternal perspective. Without getting all Sunday School up in here, the quality of our lives now and in the future depends more upon our relationship with Christ rather than our holds a political office. Elections do matter … Elections do have consequences … But the hope and change found in Christ is exceedingly more important than whatever one political candidate or party has to offer. Whoever governs this nation (Democrat or Republican) cannot change the hearts of the people of this country … Only Jesus can do that. Only Jesus has conquered death, rolled away the grave stone and offers us eternal life (1 Corinthians 15:20-22). Only Jesus has lived a sinless life and offers us freedom from sin (Romans 6:18). Only Jesus can transform us into new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17). Only Jesus has the power and ability to consummate every single promise that He has made. Our God is greater … Knowing our God is more important.
  6. Don’t Waste Opportunities To Share Your Faith: Here’s a novel idea … Instead of getting nasty and all “oh no you didn’t!” with others who do not share your religious and political viewpoints, use every opportunity to share the hope that you have in Christ. Invite them into your home. Buy them a cup of coffee. Take the rhetoric and talking points down a couple notches. Share with them the story of how Jesus changed your life. Give an opportunity for the Holy Spirit to speak through you. Build healthy relationships with your neighbor instead of creating enemies. Consider 1 Peter 3:15: “But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.” Gentleness and respect … What a concept!

And the phone is ringing again. HEY! … It’s another robocall from Texas. Sorry, City Counselor from Fort Forth, TX … This Indiana resident won’t be voting for you either!