Sunday, April 23, 2006

What is 'church' anyway?

I'm enthusing everywhere about Jake Colsen's book (available from his site as an e-book, free to download) ' So you don't want to go to church anymore?'

It's not preachy, and it doesn't tell us what to do. Instead it uses a fictional setting to guide someone through what church really is. Or rather, what it could be, what it was intended to be, and what it means. We all know the Church is not a building, or even an individual congregation, but the Body of Christ worldwide. We know that the local church really consists of all believers in a neighbourhood. And we know that the most important part of the church is each individual's relationship with Jesus.

Of course we know that, deep down.

So why are so many congregations all over the world struggling with building programmes, hearing long and boring sermons that inspire few if any, singing trite songs, or - at the other extreme - following ancient rituals that most of them don't understand? Why do so many Christians spend time worrying about minor ethical issues (drinking, smoking, dancing, eating, what to wear, what to see, what to read.... ) and judging those who think differently? Why are there so many doctrinal differences and arguments, leading to splitting congregations and gossip and strife?

What did Jesus say?

Love God with all your heart, soul and mind. That's the greatest commandment.

Love your neighbour. All the law is summed up in that phrase.

Basically, that's it. Christianity isn't an ethical system. It shouldn't be boring or trite. Nor should it be incomprehensible or mindless. It's an exciting way of life, following a radical Saviour. We have no need for three-point sermons or five-purpose churches or seven laws for success. Oh, there may be some value in reading such books, but they all miss the point. God loves us more than we can possibly imagine, and Jesus wants us to live for and with him in every way, every moment of every day.

Nothing else matters. When we are following Godly principles, by the leading of the Holy Spirit, then the ethics will fall into place.

Does that make it wrong to belong to a local congregation? Of course not. So long as it doesn't come between us and God. So long as we don't spend so much time and energy keeping the programmes and buildings going that we lose sight of what really matters. So long as we remember that we're only a small part of the worldwide Body of Christ, and that God is a great deal bigger than any one denomination or doctrinal standpoint.

Some people find a church service a good place to worship God corporately, and that's great. Whether it's in ancient chanting, a capella psalms, charismatic choruses or organ-led hymns, God loves our praise, and many people draw closer to him through such times. Worship is about giving God his worth, about offering ourselves to him in our entirety, in adoring him for who and what he is.

But at the same time, worship needs to be an attitude of life. A church service isn't for getting a spiritual high to keep us going during the week. If we can't praise God on our own, and give him his worth in every aspect of our lives, then even the most thrilling and moving church service becomes a distraction, not a bonus.

Some find sermons inspiring, and learn more of the Bible through teaching in church services. But not everyone is created to be an auditory learner, and unless a congregation is small and not at all diverse, it's impossible for any one sermon to teach - or minister in any way - to everyone. Or even the majority. Short testimonies may be more encouraging, if they're genuine. But it's all too easy for the same people to share, week by week, without specifics, and without empathy towards those who don't feel so blessed.

Besides, if a sermon is the only teaching and inspiration someone is receiving, then there's something wrong. There are a wealth of Christian books available, or (for those who don't read much) tapes, CDs and DVDs of teaching. Not to mention the Internet. We live in a multi-media world. God is proclaimed and the Bible explained in a multitude of ways. If we think we can gain all we need from a weekly sermon, then that too has become a distraction - an excuse. If the things of God are important, we need to consider them daily, moment by moment.

Church can also be a good place for networking: for meeting new people, for chatting with friends. It's important to get together with other believers, to talk of the things of God. For many, the coffee-and-biscuits after the church service is more important than the service itself. For someone new to the area, a church is an obvious place to find other believers.

But once again, if the coffee time after a service is our only contact with other believers, if we don't meet any of them through the week, then it's another thing that becomes a distraction. Or a sop to our guilty feelings that we 'ought' to be spending more time with other Christians.

What of outreach programmes? Children's ministry? Youth groups? Soup kitchens? Mother-and-toddler groups? Day Centres? House groups?

All can be valuable, of course. They are tools, which may be used or may be misused. If the leaders are enthusiastic, sure that they are doing what God wants them to do, and if those attending are doing so because they want to be there, then that's great. But if the leaders are over-stretched, under-funded, constantly stressed and never appreciated, then something is going awry. If people are turning up out of a sense of obligation, and thankful when they've finished, then there's little point their being there at all.

Perhaps more significantly, it's quite possible to be involved in some of these ministries without attending the Sunday morning services.

Where does that leave us?

If someone is happy in his or her local congregation, with a positive reason for being there, and with their relationship to Jesus taking first place, then there's no reason to leave unless God clearly tells them to do so. Local churches can be wonderful, with a sense of real community. If people really love each other, then they'll choose to see each other mid-week and help each other out when necessary. They'll pray for each other, and care for each other, and there won't be any hint of judgementalism or gossip, because Jesus is put first. Not politics, or ethics, or preconceived ideas of what Christians are like, but the Son of God who loved us and died for our sins.

But if - as is happening with so many people in the 21st century - the local church is making you feel jaded, or depressed, or if you find it boring or incomprehensible, or even if it's the high focal point of your week (thus potentially an idol) maybe God is calling you out of it, at least for a while. Not to find another congregation immediately, or to start a new one, but to reconsider your relationship with him. To find how to worship without church services. To find sources of teaching that aren't sermons. To meet with other believers without structure or obligation.

If this all sounds wacky, even heretical, I encourage you to read Jake Colsen's book and consider the implications. You might not agree - but then he doesn't tell us what to do, or how to live. His fictional guide just asks some questions, and points out places where many Christians have lost sight of what really matters.


Amanda said...

"Basically, that's it. Christianity isn't an ethical system. It shouldn't be boring or trite. Nor should it be incomprehensible or mindless. It's an exciting way of life, following a radical Saviour. We have no need for three-point sermons or five-purpose churches or seven laws for success. Oh, there may be some value in reading such books, but they all miss the point. God loves us more than we can possibly imagine, and Jesus wants us to live for and with him in every way, every moment of every day."

Yes, yes, yes! Great post!

Susan L. Prince said...

This was a timely post for me to read as I am currently struggling with my personal membership/committment in my local church.

I believe being surrounded by a body of believers is of great importance, but lately I feel church is draining me. It is as though God is moving me in one spiritual direction, and my church is either being moved in another, or they are not submitting to God's Will, but rather human programs.

My heart is breaking as I feel more and more distance between my brothers and sisters in this congregation, and myself.

I want to be exactly where God wants me. I don't believe He is calling me to leave my church at this moment, but my relationship is obviously suffering.

This book may be something I need to read. Thanks for sharing the info.

Jeremy Pierce said...

I agree that loving God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving your neighbor as yourself sum up the law.

I also think that deliberately forsaking the gathering together with other believers that God commands through the book of Hebrews demonstrates a failure in loving God and loving one's neighbor. You make it sound as if you can do those two things without living a godly life, but you can't pretend godliness is some abstract quality that you can have simply by being an isolated lone ranger.

I'm not sure how it should justify breaking a commandment of God simply because you feel bad about the local church. I suppose we might as well say that we can break all the other commands of God that the two great commandments sum up, as long as we're being drained by the difficult task of following God and loving those God has placed in our lives. Living a godly life in the church is very difficult, but that's the point. Fleeing from the difficult task of treating difficult people with love is not the answer.

Sue said...

Jeremy - I wasn't at all suggesting we should forsake meeting with believers. Merely that a 'church service' as we understand it in the Protestant West is not necessarily the best place to meet other believers. As I said in the article, and as is said even more in the book I was recommending, there are many ways to meet with believers. The writer to the Hebrews doesn't mention a weekly service, as far as I know. He was assuming that Christians met each other in the community, daily. That's the model of 'church' I see as most significant.

Of course we need to spend time with other believers. In our homes, in coffee bars, at the beach, and so on. Maybe also in church meetings or other activities - I wasn't decrying them at all. And of course it's often hard to live with other Christians.

The point is not to give up on our brothers and sisters in Christ - quite the reverse. Instead it's to recognise that we ARE the body of Christ, we do belong to each other - and merely attending a function on a Sunday morning does nothing for community. As I said, the coffee and chat after the service may be more helpful than the service itself. And all too many people think they've done their duty, or even fulfilled the command in Hebrews, by attending a church service once a week.

Nor did I recommend everyone leaves their church - far from it. We must each follow where God leads. For some, that's to stay within their local congregation. For others, it's to move on, or out.