The reasons why church is a frustrating experience are numerous. For
many, church can be hard to stomach, and the reasons why are difficult,
complex and not easy to answer. But no one said Christianity was easy,
or that being part of the Church would be a breeze. Despite the fact
that it can be enormously frustrating and maddeningly imperfect, the
Church is what followers of Christ are called to be. The Church is
described in Scripture as nothing less than the body of Christ on earth.
It’s not a slight, optional activity. According to Scriptures like
Romans 12:5 and Ephesians 3:6, it’s the one body with many members, each
an important and crucial piece of the mission of Jesus Christ.
Why should twentysomethings not give up meeting together as the
Church? The short answer is that the Bible says not to (Hebrews 10:25).
But there are plenty of other practical arguments for the necessity—and
ultimate privilege and thrill—of being a part of the Church.
The body is one of the most commonly used metaphors for the Church in
the New Testament. In places like Colossians 1:24, 1 Corinthians 12 and
Ephesians 4-5, Scripture compares the intimate bond between the Church
and Christ to the necessary union of a body with its head.
In their book, Why We Love the Church, Kevin DeYoung and Ted
Kluck describe the attempts to have a church-less Christianity as an act
of what they call “de-corpulation”—not the cutting off of the head
(Jesus), but the cutting off of the body (the Church). They suggest that
to live a Christian faith without the Church is as impossible as trying
to have a head walk around without a body. The Church’s weak sense of
identity in relationship to Christ comes from a misunderstanding of the
body metaphor and the idea of “headship,” Sumner says.
Sumner, who specializes in the theology of marriage, points to
Ephesians 5:21-33 as an area where some have misunderstood “head,”
taking it to be a synonym for “lord” rather than an image of union with a
“Ephesians 5:23 doesn’t say the husband is the head of the house; it
says the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is the head of the
Church, His body. We’ve morphed ‘head’ into a definition that means
‘authority over,’ but it’s not a definition. It’s a picture. The husband
is the head and the wife is the body, and the head plus the body equals
one flesh. A head plus a house doesn’t equal one flesh. And so it’s not
a leader plus an assistant, or two equal colleagues. It’s a head and a
body’s oneness, and that’s what we see with Christ and the Church.
Christ is the head; the Church is the body. There’s a oneness.”
Sarah Sumner, author and dean of A.W. Tozer Theological Seminary,
believes this image of a head and its body is the ultimate invitation
into the Church because it makes clear that participation isn’t meant to
be passive, but rather active, participatory and crucial, like the
various parts of the body that work together so the whole thing can
function well. It means being a Christian cannot be done in isolation.
Believers are called to be connected not just to Jesus, but also to the
living body known as the Church.
“I would argue to young people that if you think you can be connected
to the head without being connected to the elbow and the foot, you need
a basic lesson in anatomy.”
Another argument for the importance of church has to do with
Christian witness in the world. If more Christians start abandoning
churches and living their faith independently, as individuals become
more comfortable on their own or with a small band of like-minded
believers, what sort of message does it send the world about the unified
mission of Christians? On the other hand, if what the world sees is
churches that bring together a diverse cross-section of humanity, people
putting aside differences for the sake of the Gospel, how much stronger
a witness would believers have?
Though many churches are age-segregated or racially segregated, the
promise of the Church is one of boundary-defying unity amidst diversity,
which can be beautiful and profound, says David Kinnaman president of
the Barna Group and co-author of unChristian.
“Church is a place that is meant to be very different from anything
else we may experience—other institutions of family, or workplace or
social clubs—because it connects people across boundaries,” he says.
“It’s a beautiful expression of what human relationships ought to look
like, between people of different age groups, genders, racial and ethnic
backgrounds, vocational arenas. It’s a great example of why we have to
keep pursuing the church in its ideal form.”
The churchgoing experience can often be taken for granted by those
who grew up in places where steepled structures are literally on every
corner. They can become unfamiliar with the persecution Christians face
in other parts of the world, where believers in churches might be gunned
down by terrorists, as was the case with recent Iraqi and Egyptian
church massacres. Young American Christians are so used to church being
easy and accessible they lose sight of how precious a gift it is to be
able to meet together, unafraid, in public.
Kinnaman thinks it’s important that Christians get outside their
comfort zone and, if possible, experience what the Church looks like in
other parts of the world.
“I try to encourage both younger and older believers to find ways of
traveling, both literally and spiritually, to encounter other Christians
in their native environment,” he says. “I think travel can often show
us what the cost of disloyalty can be. What does it mean to be loyal
within a completely different culture or setting where you actually have
to stick together to survive?”
In his classic book on Christian community, Life Together,
Dietrich Bonhoeffer notes that the “unspeakable gift” of fellowshipping
with other believers is often taken for granted and not recognized as
the blessing it is.
“It is by the grace of God that a congregation is permitted to gather
visibly in this world to share in God’s Word and sacrament,” Bonhoeffer
wrote. “Not all Christians receive this blessing. The imprisoned, the
sick, the scattered lonely, the proclaimers of the Gospel in heathen
lands stand alone. They know that visible fellowship is a blessing.”
Bonhoeffer reminds believers it’s “by grace, nothing but grace, that
we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.”
Sure, the Church can be a royal pain. But to abandon it because of
its faults is to miss out on something gargantuan, gorgeous and
Christ-ordained—something way beyond what one person might accomplish on
his or her own, while nevertheless involving each believer in a
paradoxically personal, intimate way.
In the current have-it-your-way, consumer culture, the default choice
is usually the one that seems easier, more convenient or more
preferable to individual whims and fancies. Investing time and energy in
the life of a local church is usually none of those things. Is it easy
to attend a church where there’s always going to be an annoying song,
personality or carpet color? Is it convenient to forgo a few hours a
week to participate in a community that might be at times painful and
awkward? No. It’s much easier to just stay away and not even bother.
But that doesn’t mean twentysomethings shouldn’t still try, says Scot
McKnight, Karl A. Olsson Professor in Religious Studies at North Park
“Part of following Christ is having a rugged commitment to a community of believers, warts and all,” he says.
In his new book, One.Life, McKnight argues that while no local
church is perfect, it is nevertheless the local church in which Jesus
wants His followers’ Kingdom life to take root.
“I owe my primary commitment to my local church, not because it is
what I want and not because it is the ideal place, but because the only
way for Jesus’ dream Kingdom to take root is when local people commit to
one another to strive with one another for a just, loving, peaceful and
wise society, beginning at home, with friends, and at their local
community of faith.”
Part of the difficulty people have with committing to a local church
is that society has for centuries been on an egalitarian trajectory of
asserting individual rights over institutions, Sumner notes. “We’ve been
in a long revolt against authority ever since the Reformation,” she
says. “The whole trajectory is about me and my power. We have authority
It’s an uphill battle to overcome a deeply ingrained consumer
mentality and fickle tendency to abandon a church the minute it becomes
too difficult. But the truth is, no matter how long someone shops for
the perfect church, they’ll never find it. Instead of succumbing to
inclinations that churchgoing is about “me” and it must meet “my” needs,
believers should instead look at churchgoing as a chance to get outside
of self-serving bubbles and join in something bigger and grander.
The Church is this mind-boggling, mystical, relatively new phenomenon
of history in which the God of the universe, through His Son and with
the power of the Holy Spirit, inaugurated a revolutionary new Kingdom on
earth. A Kingdom not of kings ruling by force, but of pockets of people
united by selfless love, charity and a steadfast hope in rejuvenation
and renewal. This Church welcomes everyone into its arms so that,
together, they can join Christ in the bringing of light to a dark world.
It’s a proposal, a partnership, a commitment: to embrace this mission and identity as the bride of Christ, warts and all.
Editor’s note: This article is excerpted from a much longer piece in the 50th issue of RELEVANT.
In the full-length article, Brett McCracken looks at the reasons why
this generation has deserted the church. To read the whole thing, click here.