I recently read a blog written by a young woman whose insight I’ve been following for some time. I like the way she writes and I find a lot of wisdom and clear thinking in a lot of her writing.
One thing, however, kind of stumps me. Although she is a long time believer and a genuine follower of Jesus Christ, she has stopped attending church on a regular basis.
She still travels and speaks before large groups of Christians. She is lauded for her insights by prestigious and progressive Christian organizations, including churches and their pastors. She speaks out about the needs of the church of today and our blind spots that need to be addressed.
But, although she lives in an area that has many Christian congregations of all types, she and her husband have not been able to find one where they can worship without feeling out of place. What’s wrong here?
I’ll be the first to admit that there are LOTS of things that many of our churches need to change. I’ve written and spoken a lot about the need to leave behind the 20th century Christian “clubs” that many congregations have become. I’ve urged many of my Christian friends, including pastors, to look forward to becoming churches that make a difference, churches that can engage the culture around them and do needs-meeting ministries that will open the eyes and hearts of many to the healing presence of Jesus Christ in their lives. I’ve long advocated that we stop answering questions no one has been asking for years and start making connections in the world that really exists here and now.
I understand that many younger would-be believers have lost heart about the church because of destructive attitudes and biases that have no place in the Body of Christ and yet have become identified with the Christian church because of the outspoken proclamations of a few well known Christian leaders. But those are followers who’ve been misled by those in error.
Here’s my real issue. When would-be leaders of the Christian community begin to walk away from the organized church without offering a legitimate alternative, are they actually being leaders at all? Or are they simply dragging down other weaker brothers and sisters because of their own inability to adequately answer the important questions of what it really means to be a follower of Jesus Christ?
I believe that we need to start answering anew the legitimate question, “Why church?” Is there something intrinsically wrong with the whole paradigm of assembling together with likeminded believers, or are we simply doing it wrong?
I think that I believe that this entire issue boils down to a simple process of thinking that begins with re-examining the whole idea of Christ building His church. It’s easy to just say that everyone is doing it wrong today, or that, at least, many are, but what do we actually do with that concern?
In Matthew 16:17-18, Jesus had this to say to Peter:
Jesus came back, “God bless you, Simon, son of Jonah! You didn’t get that answer out of books or from teachers. My Father in heaven, God himself, let you in on this secret of who I really am. And now I’m going to tell you who you are, really are. You are Peter, a rock. This is the rock on which I will put together my church, a church so expansive with energy that not even the gates of hell will be able to keep it out.
Matthew 16:17-18 The Message
There’ve been a lot of interpretations about the way Jesus said this to Peter and what He meant about the rock, but there’s one part of this that is without question. Jesus said that HE would put together His church.
OK, there’s been a lot of human interaction, and some would say interference, since Jesus made that statement in shaping what we call the church today, but this is certainly not the first time in the Christian era that there’s been concern about the current state of that church. Whether it’s the interference of earthly kings and emperors, or the commercialization of the church is more than one period in its history, or any of the other side paths the church has been taken on in its lifetime, the fact remains that we today who call ourselves the followers of Jesus Christ are the heirs and beneficiaries of this plan of Jesus. As such, we become the current recipients of His church and, therefore, the responsible parties for what it is and how it will be passed on from us.
From a theological perspective, we’d believe that if we do the will of the Father, as Jesus did when He “put it together,” He will bless our efforts and empower us to do what He created us to do. Conversely, if we fail to follow His will, He will simply lift up others to carry on His plan. He always has, and, we believe, always will. The choice is ours, as it has been with every generation of believers.
So, we can look at the church today and complain about what it is and how it behaves, or we can step in to be a part of His redemptive plan for His church.
Of course, we understand that the church has many parts and, in our current stewardship of it, those parts can be seen often in the diversity of denominational and aspiring non-denominational versions of the church. Our sometimes trivial theological differences may inform the various parts, but we are all, for better or worse, a part of the whole. We can prefer one part to another for our own worship, and we can follow human leaders who proclaim these differences as being reflective of our personal beliefs, or we can simply refuse to take part in any of the organized permutations of the church of today and worship in our own space.
But, we are all (at least those who want to actually be followers of Jesus Christ) responsible for the difference we make as part of the greater Body. Jesus was pretty clear about this part of the story.
“I am the true grapevine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch of mine that doesn’t produce fruit, and he prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more. You have already been pruned and purified by the message I have given you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me.
“Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing. Anyone who does not remain in me is thrown away like a useless branch and withers. Such branches are gathered into a pile to be burned. But if you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask for anything you want, and it will be granted! When you produce much fruit, you are my true disciples. This brings great glory to my Father.”
John 15:1-8 New Living Translation
This analogy from Jesus in John chapter 15 is an analogy of His Body, the church of which He says, in other places, is His Body and of which He is the Head.
Now understand, this isn’t about being a member of a particular church. No one denomination or theological strain “owns” this designation. But, it’s abundantly clear that Jesus expected those who would be a part of His Body to BE a part of His Body, not just observers and spectators on the sidelines giving critiques of the active players and blogging about what they OUGHT to be doing. Being a part of the Body of Jesus Christ is NOT a spectator sport, it’s very much a participative endeavor.
And, its purpose is to bear fruit. Not build big attendance in a particular congregation, or erect the biggest building or develop a rabid political following. The idea is to actively pass along the stewardship of this fruit bearing Body to newer and newer generations of followers of Jesus Christ. You may be personally responsible for passing that stewardship to many or a few, but you have to be in the process in order to do it.
Sitting at home on Sunday, mourning the fact that the local houses of worship don’t adequately reflect your personal sensitivities, are not sufficiently (or perhaps are too) diverse for your taste, are not inclusive enough of women (or perhaps are too inclusive of them) or just don’t do things the way you think they ought to be done is NOT bearing fruit. Blogging about your complaints, without regard to the number of followers you have, is NOT bearing fruit.
If going to church is merely for something it does for YOU, you’ve already missed the point. I’ve grown weary over these last 60 years hearing those who claim to be followers of Jesus Christ complaining that they aren’t being fed at church.
Listen, who are YOU feeding? The church is not about receiving, receiving, receiving. It IS about receiving and then giving as freely as you received. If you see the church only as a place to meet YOUR needs, you’ve already lost track of half of the equation.
Church, it’s time to get to work, and if you’re not HERE, you’re not part of the work that needs to be done.
One of my great mentors over the years, Pastor Jim Argue, formerly of Santa Rosa, CA, used to always say that the secret to effective Christian ministry was simply showing up. It sounds so simple, and yet it’s the key to having influence for Christ on people around you. When you’re giving yourself to something that is not simply for your own benefit, THEN you begin to bear fruit. You may not always see the completion of that fruit, but it was never about you, anyway.
Paul said it so eloquently in I Corinthians 3:6-7:
I planted the seed, Apollos watered the plants, but God made you grow. It’s not the one who plants or the one who waters who is at the center of this process but God, who makes things grow.
I Corinthians 3:6-7 The Message
Why the church? Because Christ raised it up. It’s not up to us as followers of Jesus Christ to decide WHETHER we’ll be a part of His church, but HOW.
Always praying for you,
Your Older Brother,