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.”
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.