Throughout the world millions of Christians have been unable to gather for worship as church. There is a great deal of talk about how many of them will return when COVID ends. There are signs that a considerable number of Christians have used the pandemic to detach themselves from church and intend not to reconnect. These people are adding to the growing number of people who have left the church because of disillusionment, disagreement or hurt or a combination of all three. I read a lot on social media of people talking about how they will continue to love and serve Jesus but they will not be part of a church.
It seems like many people of faith, for a variety of reasons, are hitting the delete bottom on church involvement. I wanted to think about why I couldn’t do the same thing, and why I stick with the church despite its faults and flaw. ( and its not just because the church pays my wages.)
I must start by confessing that the biggest gap that exists for me between my head and heart, theology and experience is around the Church. I was taken to church from when I was weeks old and apart from a couple of teenage years have attended all my life and attended lots of churches of “different flavours”, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Baptist and Wesleyan. I have served in the church of the Nazarene as a lay leader, a pastor and denominational leader for nearly 28 years. (I don’t think anyone can accuse me of being a bunny Christian, who hops from church to church) and now serve as the pastor of an international church. All of that to say, that my experience of church has been pretty wide and deep. My academic work also means I have been reading widely and thinking deeply about the church in connection with my doctoral work and church planting.
The conclusion I have reached is that despite all my negative experiences and doubts I am more convinced than ever about the importance of the church, of Christian community. While I understand why many people leave the church and have a great deal of sympathy for them I don’t think you can actively and persistently withdraw from Christian community and remain Christian as the New Testament understands it. Rejection of Christian community is an aberration of Biblical faith. Privatized and individualized Christianity is in fact no Christianity. The Scriptures are pretty clear, God existed in community. The Trinity is a loving community and when God created humanity in his image, it was created in and for community. In Biblical terms, to be human is to be connected to others in authentic loving community.
The stories of Abraham, Moses, David and the others are not stories about individual heroes of the faith but the story of God’s love, grace and power in creating a community, a people through which he could restore his intention for creation. Jesus came not to so much to save individual souls but to create a new people, a Kingdom of people. Christ died not so much for us as individuals but for us “all” as a community. Pentecost wasn’t about people having great individual spiritual experiences; it was God keeping his promise to pour out his Spirit on all His people. It was a community that was baptised with the Spirit and it was a community that was commissioned and empowered as a result. The whole point of Jesus statement about their being “many mansions” in his Father’s house has been totally misunderstood. It should be translated “rooms” and Jesus’ point is not that in heaven we all live the life of the rich and famous, but that there is enough room for everyone, heaven, the Kingdom of God is a communal experience. Jesus is coming back for us as his people.
Despite negative experiences and frustrations with it I personally can’t really do anything but believe in the importance of the church. From what I understand there can be no spiritual maturity out with it. The teaching of the NT as a whole is that the church is indispensable to every believer and every believer is indispensable to the church. As an act of faith I believe that the church is a God created, God directed and God empowered revolution of love before which the gates of Hell cannot stand. I believe that the church has the power to change and transform us so that collectively we grow to be more like Christ. I believe that as we look at the problems of the world, violence, poverty, hunger, injustice and meaninglessness that the Church in the power of the Spirit could change the world.
I believe all of that but to be honest I have a problem and my problem is that I so rarely have experienced it. My experience of church has all too often been one of pettiness and politics. I mean petty in the sense of making small issues hugely important and what should be big issues virtually unimportant. I have encountered people in church leadership with strong opinions about architecture, (don’t move the communion table etc) about singing from hymn books, about whether you wear a tie at worship and about sitting in pews rather than seats. Yet the Bible is silent on all of those matters. Broadly speaking the same people were not involved in any sort of authentic fellowship, ministry or mission and were rarely if ever seen praying, things which seem fairly important to God. In churches like these changing the colour of the carpet in the church building is likely to stir up more passion than God’s call for the church to change the world. I hate the pettiness of the church, why can’t we make what is important to God important to the Church?
And oh the politics, the power plays and even the bullying. I know personally of a church where a women with dementia who was house bound was brought to the annual general meeting of the church to make sure that her vote was made to ensure the family’s seat on the church board remained in their hands. I hate Roberts Rules of Order and all of that stuff, some people think it’s a necessary evil I suspect its just evil because it makes church about wheeling and dealing and knowing how to work a system. Those things to me are against the values of the Kingdom of God. Why does the church have to be more like a human controlled human political institution than a God inspired radical revolution so much of the time?
So I really understand why people make the decision to leave the church but still believe in Jesus. I have experienced the same temptation. Yet I have always resisted the temptation to abandon the church as a hopeless cause for a couple of reasons.
Firstly I know that Scripture says that Jesus loved the church and gave himself for her. If Jesus can embrace the pain of the cross because of his love for the church, I think I can work on liking it a bit more and enduring the times of frustration.
Secondly I also have read enough of the New Testament and Church history to know that there was no real golden era when the church was consistently all it should be and could be. The Corinthians were immoral and cliquish, the Galatians were legalistic, the Ephesians according to Jesus were devoid of passion for him and the Laodeccians were so spiritually apathetic and ineffectual they made Jesus want to throw up. Augustine’s church had other believers persecuted, the Catholics thought up the Spanish Inquisition, Luther encouraged anti-antisemitism in his part of the church and Calvin far from loving his enemies had one burnt alive for disagreeing over theology. Wesley, a hero of mine, could be petty and judgmental as well inspirational. I could go on and on. The church today is worse than some eras in church history and not as bad as others. My position is that if believers in those eras could stick with the church then so can I. I might sometimes feel like someone holding on to a cliff by the tips of my fingers, but if others could hold on, I figure so can I.
I also stay with the church because I have had glimpses, glimpses of what the church can be. Glimpses of what God intends it to be. I have seen glimpses in church history, as the early church spread round the Roman Empire by the power of love; I have seen glimpses in the Methodists as they transformed a nation on the brink of violent revolution. I have seen glimpses in Anglicans who fought the vested interests of the rich and powerful and so killed Atlantic slavery. I have seen glimpses in the German confessing church that refused to bow to Hitler when everyone else did even when it cost them everything. I have seen glimpses in contemporary churches in my country and round the world which are being transformed by the love of God and helping bring the Kingdom of God in here and now. I can’t give up on the church because I have had glimpses and I long to be part of a community that gives others glimpses of the Kingdom of God.
Lastly, I can’t give up on the church because I looked in the mirror this morning and saw that I am not perfect either, yet despite all my imperfections (of which there are many), my wife, children, friends and my church haven’t ever given up on me. If people don’t give up on me despite my imperfections I don’t feel I have any right to give up on Church because of her imperfections
What about you?