The Local Church-
I hear it all the time. “I don’t mind Jesus, but I don’t like the church. Jesus is ok, but I can’t stand organized religion.” Have you heard this before? I understand the pain and angst behind many of these statements. I have the privilege of teaching students ranging in age from 19-85. It is fascinating to hear their stories. As I meet these persons I often ask them to tell me about their spiritual journey. Each journey is as unique as the person. But one theme that I have heard often is the idea that persons “do not have a problem with Jesus, but the church is corrupt.” Because of that many people have chosen to have a “personal religion,” which means they do not gather regularly with believers. “I can be a Christian and not go to church.”
So let’s begin with some of my basic assumptions. First the church is not a building or a space, but a people. The Greek word for church ekklesia- literally means the called out ones. This calling out is not really out of the world, but being called out to participate in God’s mission for the world. So at a baseline, the church is the gathered people of God. In some sense if one is not participating in a gathering of believers that is grounded in public communal worship that includes singing, praying, preaching, reading Scripture, and the sacraments one is not part of the church. We all know that for some people it is easier in life to avoid conflict by simply choosing to isolate yourself from other people. Or at a minimum to only surround yourself with people who agree, act, and think like you. Unfortunately that is not what God intended for creation. In fact I often tell my students, heaven is going to be like church. If you do not like church then you can always choose hell. I am confident, just like in a local church setting where there are persons with whom you do not agree with, there will be people in heaven that you may not like.
It is important to note that God created us to be in relationships with other persons. We read in the beginning chapters of Genesis that it was not good that Adam was alone, even though Adam had lots of other animals God created humans with a need and desire for companionship with other humans. Of course all of us have different personalities from introverts to extroverts, not one is right, but it is clear that when persons are not in fellowship with other humans some part of being human is being lost.
So back to the local church. The reason local churches have problems is because people are in them. I do not know of any organization that does not have flaws or problems, all groups eventually have conflicts and issues. This is not to ignore, celebrate, or give local churches an excuse when problems arise. In fact in the Gospel of John, Jesus asserts that the best evangelical/missional strategy for the church is for Christians to love other Christians. Of course Christians are to love those who are not Christians, but if we just started with loving each other that would be a good start. Part of our problem is that we have lost sight of what Paul described in I Corinthians, with the Church as the body of Christ, diversity in unity is celebrated. Too often uniformity is confused with unity. While Christians must be united in love that does not mean that all persons will agree on all issues and be completely homogenous. The key is can we love others with whom we do not fully agree. Of course Jesus amps this up for Christians by commanding that true Christians who love Him will love enemies (which actually means Christians do not have enemies-but we will save that for a different time).
So what about the “personal Jesus.” This is really problematic. The reality is apart from the Church no person would have ever heard of Jesus Christ. All people who love and know Jesus can only do so through the Holy Spirit in the ministry of the local church (a gathered body). The Bible itself only exists because of God and the Church. Furthermore, too often such personal Jesus theology too easily ends up creating a god in my own image. And such a god rarely challenges how I am living, but easily condemns my enemies and rivals.
Within all of this, the church is not some legalistic burden that God places on people. The invitation to be initiated into the church is a gift of life, a gift to become more fully human. In my book, “Created to Worship: God’s Invitation to Become Fully Human” I explore how God created us to worship, and worship as the church is a primary place for God’s continual healing to help make us more fully what God created us to be. The local church is part of the Church Universal (catholic) and yet each local church is charged with loving, caring, serving, and sharing the Good News of Christ.
Being a part of a local body does require time and commitment. I often find that some people have been deeply hurt by people who have called themselves Christians. The wounds and pain are real. Within such pain, I hope that persons do not suffer a lifetime journeying on their own, but do find healing. Moreover, many people are just lazy, morally and physically. They would rather sleep in on Sunday and not be told how to live their life. With such persons they really think they are smarter than God. “I know what is best for me.” The body of Christ is the place where God is healing the world, where God is bringing the kingdom. I know some local churches can be cancerous and should go away, but many local churches are faithfully this outpost of the kingdom. They are a people who are being healed to love, serve, and care for their world, which is hurting and broken.
My hope here is not to bash people who have given up on finding a local church. I know it is not easy to find a church that is a perfect fit, in fact I doubt you will find it. But a local church, fellowship with the body of believers, is what God intended for you to become fully human, in order that all of creation can also be redeemed.
So if you are not a part of a local body, let me encourage you to try again. They need you as much as you need them. If the church is like a body, when part of the body is missing the body will not be as strong as it could be.
All local churches are in continual need of repentance and healing. Let us not bash local churches for their areas of weakness, but let us work to help make them stronger.
Brent is an ordained elder in the Church of the Nazarene and Associate Professor of Theology at Northwest Nazarene University. He has a wonderful wife, Anne, and two great kids Noah and Alexis. His penance in life is cheering for all Seattle sports teams. Check out his latest book, Created to Worship: God's Invitation to Become Fully Human. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org