Listening to this generation of Christians, you get the impression that church is a complete waste of time. We love to comment on the negative aspects of church life: Hymns are silly, the preaching is shallow and boring, the fellowship lacks life. The Church is unorganized, tepid, more interested in numbers than in real growth.
So why do we go back to church? We encounter so much unchristian sentiment in the Church: hypocrisy, judgmental attitudes, cultural bigotry and pride. Why do we go back? The Church is irrelevant, it fails to make an impact in real world problems, it doesn’t equip us with the answers we need to talk to our non-Christian friends, co-workers and fellow students.
Why do we go back?
Is it because our Judeo-Christian values demand regular church attendance? Do we go out of guilt, knowing that Mom will chew us out if we skip? Are we in search of some spiritual booster shot that can only be found in a pew? Or do we go back because we’d like to land a date with the cute girl in the college/career class?
Hopefully we attend church because we hope for an encounter with God. We wish to be built up by the music and the preaching. We want to get to know Jesus better, we want to grow, and we want to learn more about who God is.
So what happens when we don’t get what we want? We live in a commercially driven, consumerist society, and when we are not satisfied with our product (whether it be a hamburger, new tires or computer software), we complain to the great problem solver of our day: customer service. We apply the same expectations to our church experience: If we are not completely satisfied, we take it upon ourselves to express our disappointment. No wonder there is so much criticism of the Church!
Complaining about the Church is a hip activity these days, but we forget that we are complaining about the bride of Christ. Could it be that the perceived problems with church are not inherent in the Church, but in us, the people?
If we truly wish to impact the Church, we first need to adjust our own perspective on church—we’re not external critics. Here are four areas we need to examine personally before we can assert objective criticism of the Church.
If we are going to explore the forces that draw us to church, we must ask some basic questions about the nature of this thing we call “church.” It is frequently unclear what exactly we are complaining about.
What is church? The word evokes three meanings: the Church universal, the church local, and the Church in practice. The universal Church (with a capital “C”) is the body of believers that makes up the Bride of Christ. It transcends time and space in that it is made up of all believers throughout history. The local church (lowercase “c”) is the gathering of Christians who worship together. Church practice includes the customs of the individual local church: the service, the liturgy, the ministry programs, etc.
Most of our criticism is at the local church level. The problem with this is that we become so focused on the concrete functions of the Church that we are distracted from the fundamental nature of the Bride of Christ.
We have to understand the ontological realities of the Church—that church is not merely something that we do, it is part of our identity. It is not procedure, but a living Body. It is WHO we are, not merely what we do.
Scripture identifies the Church as the bride of Christ. Jesus has wooed us, loved us, poured Himself out for us and now claims us for His own. A bride is not identified primarily by anything she does, but by who she is. It is her essence, her being, as a bride that determines what she does—not the other way around.
Another picture is the Church as the body of Christ. The Church, like a body, has many working parts—many members—all with unique functions and callings. It takes the totality of the parts to create the Body. Paul uses this image in 1 Corinthians 12.
Even if a body part decided that it could not stand some other part of the body, it is still of the body. Complaining about the other body part does not change the fact that both parts are members of the body. Before complaining about our disappointment with the Church, we have to remember this difference between being and doing. If church is just a place we go, like the movie theater, or a thing we do, such as mowing the lawn, then complaints about church are understandable. But it is much more than that. We are the Church. Individual Christians make up the Body of Christ, the Church. Understanding that church is not what we do but part of who we are should cause us to change ourselves.
Loss of Community
There is a significant emphasis in the Church on personal belief, personal understanding and private acquisition of information. We believe in private interpretation of Scripture and freedom from any spiritual authority. Individuals are encouraged to accept Jesus “as your personal Lord and Savior.” Sermons are scattered with “I believe” statements.
The emphasis is on the individual, but there is a problem here. In a Christian world populated by multiple denominations, fueled by instant communication and advanced technology, and educated in the science of the human physical and psychological condition, our predicament is not the shortage of information or personal belief, but a loss of community.
We have elevated the individual over the Body. As a result, we have lost the “unity of the Spirit.” (Ephesians 4:1-6). Complaining about the Church because it fails to meet our individual approval only perpetuates this loss of community.
The lack of fellowship and community with other Christians flows out of our ecclesiastical identity crisis. If church is something that you merely do, rather than who you are, there is no potential for community. How many times have you walked out of a new church saying, “I just don’t fit in there, it doesn’t feel like home.” What you may be saying, really, is that you didn’t like the form of worship, the preacher’s personality, the people or the padding on the chairs. These are all lowercase church criticisms.
The problem is that we go back out into the marketplace of churches and shop around to find the exact brand that fits our taste. Finding this perfect church is nearly impossible, and in the meantime we alienate ourselves from the Body of Christ. We fail to connect with the majority of other believers, and we are uncomfortable unless surrounded by similarly situated Christians who think alike, have the same interests and are from similar backgrounds.
One of the beautiful aspects of the Trinity, as Ravi Zacharias points out, is the idea of community. God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, existing in three persons and existing in one community. The Church is a reflection of this Trinitarian community: God’s communion with us and our communion with each other. We are many individuals, joining together in many assemblies, all part of the universal Bride of Christ. But the one thing that holds us together is Christ. The early church Fathers used to say that the Church is like the moon, all its light reflected from the sun. Our bond is much more permanent than sports interests or music preferences. Our bond is Christ.
The problem is in our perspective: We approach church as a social activity to see other Christians, as a spiritual gas station, or a glorified classroom where we receive sacred instruction. We’ve lost this idea of community.
Community can be illustrated through the analogy of Christ and His bride. What would we say about a couple who only operated out of a duty toward each other? Imagine the marriage with no passion, where the couple gets together for the obligatory once a week date, during which they did not interact and the husband dozes at the table. This is a marriage of duty, not a relationship. Sadly, our attitude toward the Church can often be characterized by languid obligation rather than joyous intimacy.
Community is lost when love is not present. When we view our place in the Church as duty-bound rather than a position of love, we rob ourselves of the ability to commune with both God and other believers. We are the Church, and the Church cannot function as the bride of Christ without community.
To be continued …[Michael Reitz is a law school graduate seeking to grow in his faith and pass the bar exam. He lives with his wife in Virginia.]
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