Why bother with church?

Pastoral Messages | January 1, 2015

Belonging to a church is an increasingly unfashionable idea. Just look at the larger culture. Check out the statistics on churchgoing habits. Observe what much of America does on a Sunday morning.

With the possible exception of government, few institutions receive more criticism than the church. It has been an easy target from the beginning.

With its ambitious mission and its many failures, a dismissive attitude is easy to come by. Viewed as irrelevant, out of touch, and full of wishful thinkers, many critics think of church as a useless enterprise. To them, it’s an antique way of life, an inefficient use of time.

Who in their right mind would gather to gaze at a cross and declare things that cannot be proved?

Well, here is a partial list, in no particular order, of why many of us elect to bother with church.

1. We choose to be a part of something that is larger than our own little lives, protected opinions, and self-important ways. We join a family that is bigger than the one we were born into. For me, it’s about following a light that is brighter than my own candle.

Stay away from church and you’re apt to make God into your own image – an attractive Lord who loves exactly the same things you love. Insert yourself into Christian community, directly into the company of people who don’t think exactly as you think, and God is apt to start molding you into God’s image.

2. Church is that community of significance where you get to come as you are and, by the power of God’s word and the impact of other people, be loved into the person you get to become. No qualifications are required.

Practically everything else we encounter has requirements: Voting. Job applications. Medicare. Even public schools have requirements (e.g. vaccinations). Church, in its best expression at least, is a no-qualifications home where unconditional love reigns supreme.

3. It is impossible to have Christ apart from the church. This isn’t my word but the apostle Paul’s word. As wonderful as it would be to have Christ apart from the hypocrisies and distractions of other people who believe, Christ is embedded in the church. Sounds foolish, but we are his body.

Plenty of people opt out, preferring to worship nature instead. Yet the most gorgeous sunset does not pass an offering plate to help feed the hungry, clothe the poor, or meet the needs of cholera-stricken refugees. The grandeur of the Grand Canyon offers no clue that Jesus suffered on a cross as an act of love.

No Ponderosa Pine tree will tell you to “love your neighbor as yourself.” I’ve never met a mountain stream that will declare the forgiveness of your sins.

4. Church means stopping your week long enough to give thanks to the one who gave you your week. Read Luke 17:11-19. The ratio in that story is sobering. Only one in ten people find God worth the gratitude for the good life they enjoy.

The tenth leper who bows down at the feet of Jesus IS the church.

5. Worship in a congregation is radical stuff. No self-improvement technique can ever compare. Worship is one moment in a week where we cannot customize or program the world to our preferences.

Singing together, praying collectively for the sake of others, and subjecting oneself to hearing God’s word (which is very different from choosing what one wants to read) are disciplines that make a life. They free us from ad-hoc spirituality that requires us to make up faith every day.

6. In a nation steeped in rugged individualism, joining a community of Christians is about believing more in God and in each other than in oneself. It’s about marching to a beat more beautiful than one’s own drum.

Joys and sorrows get shared in a Christ-centered community. Once you’ve experienced this shared life, you know its magnificence and the strength it provides.

7. Church is for those who know their need for God. It is a hospital for sinners – one sinner unashamed of his or her need for God, standing alongside all kinds of other people in the same condition.

That’s enough for today. More on our moral imagination growing through life in Christian community another day.

Peter Marty, senior pastor

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