The good news of community: Why do we dislike the church?
People dislike the church.
I am not talking about people who do not claim to be a part of a church. I do not expect people who are not Christians to be satisfied with the church. I expect people who do not profess Christ to have a negative view of the church.
No, I am talking about the church’s members. I am referring to those who profess Christ as their Lord. I am talking about people who fill the pews on Sundays. People in the church are not satisfied with it.
As a matter of fact, this is a common conversation for me. Increasingly, it appears Christians are critical of the church, seeing it as ineffective, outmoded, or broken. And it is precisely this view that causes investment and involvement in the church to decline. It is this view of the church that causes some 85% of students who go off to college to never darken the doors of a church again.
So, what is the problem?
What is this critical flaw in the church that causes such gross inadequacy? Could it be our methods? Or, could it be something deeper still? Has the church exhausted it’s purpose? Is it an institution from days gone by, no longer of any relevance to a post-modern society?
To the contrary, the problem is not the church, but its members.
In the last post, I shared some thoughts on a deficient view of the gospel. So often, our contemporary proclamation of the gospel focuses so much on the means of salvation that we overlook the purpose of salvation. In other words, we showcase that the gospel offers a salvation for each individual from their sin and hell, but we neglect to inform people that this same individual salvation puts them together into a community. Contrary to popular belief, the purpose of the gospel is not simply saving individuals from hell, but creating a gospel-centered community, namely the church, that will be God’s visible witness on the earth until the return of Christ. This same body will then be the citizens of God’s kingdom in a completely new creation.
Yet, when we warp the message, it inevitably warps the results. A misunderstanding of the gospel preached causes a misappropriation of the gospel in community. In other words, the church can only be as healthy as its understanding of the gospel.
So, how does this individualistic spin on the good news of Christ’s work effect the community that it forms, or more precisely, does not form?
For starters, if we only focus on the means of the gospel and overlook its ultimate purpose, then the results will also overlook that purpose. Specifically, if we draw all of our attention to the individual aspect of redemption and leave off a discussion of the resulting community, then people do not see the community as important. Countless Christians have no understanding of their responsibility to the church, because they were never told of their responsibility.
We proudly proclaim that Christ died for you. We tell people to repent, and then the motivation we give is self-centered, telling them it will keep them out of hell or that they will find joy, peace, happiness, or whatever else they are missing in life. While these things are certainly true, we can subtly make the purpose of salvation individual fulfillment.
This anemic presentation has produced anemic churches. People are never told that their conversion places them inside the church, and that the church is important, and that it is the full purpose of their conversion. The responsibility of the believer to the body is never mentioned, and therefore, never plays into the equation. That critical tie to the church is not announced, and as a result, does not exist.
So, people miss the vital role of the church in their life. What is more, they miss the vital role they play in the life of the church. A church full of people who do not see their responsibility to it cannot be the life-giving community it was created to be. Thus, the church is at best a loosely connected group of individuals whose conversion centered around themselves and not the creation of Christ’s body, and the congregation is dissatisfied with the unhealthy result. This dissatisfaction then results in even less desire to invest in the life of the church. And ironically, the joy, peace, and fulfillment they were promised in the gospel proclamation are never experienced, because those virtues actually come through connection to and service of the body.
Instead of this individual gospel, we must preach something more. We must not stop short of the good news of the community into which people are saved. We must tell of the responsibility that Christians have to Christ’s body, of which they are now a part. We must point them to this vital connection.
Paul, in his letter to the Ephesian church, underscores this great purpose of the gospel. He spills much ink describing the individual change that takes place in the believer, but he never divorces it from the gospel purpose of creating the church. In fact, Paul spends most of the book describing this community that is created by the gospel, and details the individual believer’s responsibility. Every believer, as part of this body, has a responsibility to the whole. So much so that Paul can say “we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, [is] joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped” (Eph. 4:15).
Paul places great significance on the local group of people called a church. The question for Paul is not about whether you should be a member of a local church. In his estimation, there is no such thing as a Christian without a local church. Instead, the question for Paul is whether you are a good church member or a bad one.
We must understand that our personal conversion comes with much more than a “get out of hell free” card, and that it places us squarely into a community of faith, the local church to which we belong. Furthermore, this position inside of this great gospel family comes with great gospel responsibility to those with whom we are connected. As a matter of fact, the health of the church depends on it. Paul reminds us “when each part is working properly, [it] makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Eph. 4:16).
If you are dissatisfied with the church, perhaps you should consider how much you have sacrificed for it lately.