Finding Church

In the past 25 years, it’s reported that 40,000,000 Americans have stopped attending a church.

I’ve seen statistics like this at an increasing frequency over the last decade, often paired with fear or frustration.  With the former, the response tends to be, “How do we fix this?!  How do we get people back?!”; with the latter, it tends to veer towards accusations and dismissiveness.

If the statistic is true, how should we respond?

How would Jesus respond?

Religious discontentment is not limited to 21st century America; in fact, part of Jesus’ ministry was to meet with those who wrestled with religion, while equipping listeners to discover and live into his invitation to be the church (we will come back to that phrase.)  It’s interesting that despite Jesus’ efforts to cast a vision for the Church, we struggle to grasp and cultivate it 2000 years later; in fact, I’m writing this because of multiple conversations on this topic in just the last week.  I’ve come to find a common thread:

We don’t know what the Church is.

We may think we do, and can give the correct Sunday-school-answer, but realistically our actions reveal we function more from a mindset of “going to church” than “being the Church.”

As I prayed for an analogy, the Spirit brought to mind a similar dynamic of “going to a wedding” and “being part of the wedding”:

Going to a wedding:  Over my four decades of life, I’ve been to many weddings, some less enthusiastically than others.  The most challenging were those I was forced to attend in my youth; instead of playing at home, I had to dress up, be around people I barely knew, and sit through churchy-music, boring monologues, and forced socialization.  As a young adult, I became less critical, but still had moments where I weighed the pros and cons of attending; “I care about this person, but is the effort worth it?”

I understood the importance of the wedding, but was unsure my presence was needed.  I cared, but felt there were more valuable ways to use my time.  I recognized the purpose of the structure, I just didn’t enjoy it.

But sometimes I did!  The right combination of people, atmosphere, and food could make it a great night out!  In my adulthood I attended many weddings joyfully.

In both scenarios, I engaged weddings as an event; if I wanted to go, they were enjoyable, but otherwise it could feel like a chore.

Being part of the wedding:  What I mean by this is not simply having a role in the ceremony, though that can indeed make the wedding into more than an event.  With many weddings, I don’t think about it much until it’s time to get dressed; when I’ve been best man, I had an awareness of and excitement for it well before the day; in fact, the day was but one part of a longer journey together.  When you are close to those getting married — whether you have a role or not — you know the singular moment carries with it all of the past, and all of the future, and all of the emotions, and all of the hopes.  You may know exactly what the pastor will say, yet you are focused on the look on the groom’s face as his bride comes down the aisle, or smile at the backstory that one line in the vows carried.  You know that what happens those few hours is only part of your lifelong interaction.

There is a unique unity that occurs; beyond the bride and groom, people who may not know each other experience a meaningful connection.  In that moment, their shared relationship with the couple binds them in a shared experience, and guests can find themselves conversing, laughing, and dancing with people who would otherwise be strangers.  They may not know each other, but because they know the happy couple, they are connected in that space.

Here, the wedding is not simply an event; it represents something deeper, and the structure simply offers a framework to a moment of profound unity.

How we view the Church will impact how we engage with it.

If “church” is primarily a Sunday-event, we will relate with it accordingly.  If we like the people or the music, we may be happy to go; if that changes, we can attend begrudgingly, if at all.  Instead of getting things done at home, we have to dress up, be around people we barely know, and sit through churchy-music, boring sermons, and forced socialization. In those moments, we understand the importance, but are unsure our presence is needed; we care, but feel there are more valuable ways to use our time; we recognize the purpose of the structure, but struggle to enjoy it.

All of this is just hitting on preference; it’s a different story when wounds are involved.  There are plenty of weddings we may choose to avoid because someone present has hurt us; or, perhaps the ramifications of divorce in your life make you resistant to the concept as a whole.  In the same way, “church hurt” can make the idea of engaging a service triggering.  In this case the issue may not be in viewing church as an “event”, but in the ways people have misrepresented, or even misused, the Body; to re-engage feels risky and foolish.

When Jesus laid the framework for his Church, he did not pull out building blueprints, program overviews, and strategic plans; to him, Church was not an event, but the Spirit-led representation of his Body.

Jesus did not want us to go to churchbut to be the church, and to do so with integrity.

He invites us to be his ἐκκλησία — ekklesia — which

is a compound of two segments: “ek”, a preposition meaning “out of”, and a verb, “kaleo”, signifying “to call” – together, literally, “to call out.” (Wikipedia)

In other words, Church is “the called out ones”; it is the connection of those called out of the world to together be disciples of Jesus.  This is not a building, or an event, or collection of programs, nor is it simply acting like Jesus; it is authentically being Christ-representatives as one, even in opposition to our human logic.  When we invite the Spirit to move in this way, a unique unity occurs; people who would otherwise be strangers feel as though they are close.  In fact, this can happen beyond the bounds of geography; just as Paul’s letters united early believers, technology can bind us with brothers and sisters in Christ around the world.  Two can be separated by distance and life-experience, but because they know Jesus, they become one.

This is the spiritual Body Jesus created, and often it is not that which people are leaving, but our poor imitation of it.

I believe Jesus would not be afraid of that 40,000,000 statistic, because he knows his Body will not die.  As he tells Peter in Matthew 16:18, “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.

He also knows our poor attempts to create versions of his Church; we tend to see ourselves as a collection of bodies, not one Body called to be united-no-matter-what.  The Apostle Paul called this out often:

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.  For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.  For the body does not consist of one member but of many.  (1 Corinthians 12:12-14)

For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.  (Romans 12:4-5)

From whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.  (Ephesians 4:16)

And he is the head of the body, the church. (Colossians 1:18)

Jesus would not be afraid that so many have left versions of the church, but he may lament:

And when he drew near and saw [Jerusalem], he wept over it,  saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” (Luke 19:41-42)

Ultimately, Jesus knows the full life that comes from being the Body, and understands that we will struggle to do so.  He understands that we will miss or dismiss it frequently.  His response is to continue to extend the invitation to BE THE CHURCH.  He knows that until we grasp the difference between a Sunday-event and a unified Body, between shallow-community and sacrificial oneness, we will strive in vain to replicate or avoid a reality we were created for, because it is in our DNA to be his Body, and we cannot achieve it but through him.

So what does this mean for the 40,000,000, and the millions more that are on the cusp of walking away church as they know it?

  • Your frustration, fatigue, or fear may be valid.  Being the Body of Christ while still fallible humans can be challenging even when we’re operating in healthy and loving ways; imagine the confusion and harm that occurs when we aren’t!  Many people have left specific church bodies for legitimate reasons, because bodies of believers have frequently failed to “love God and love others.”  We have to own this reality: people who represent the church have caused harm.
    • For the person wounded, the invitation is to choose to believe that a fulfilling Body of Christ does exist, and to become open to being an active part of it,
    • For bodies of believers, the invitation is to practice regular introspection to discern and address ways we are not operating in Love, and thus failing to accurately represent the Body of Christ.
  • Finding Church feels more impossible than it is (even if it is still difficult.)   Notice this isn’t titled “Finding a church.”  That is indeed a difficult task, because there are many factors that must be met (location, time, worship style, theology, potluck frequency, children’s ministry, etc.)  Finding a recurring gathering that meshes well with your current life could actually be impossible from a human standpoint; parents with multiple young kids know this reality well.  “Finding Church”, however, can’t be impossible, or else it would be cruel for Jesus to call for it!  There are two important factors that create possibility:
    • The Body of Christ does not need to look like the “ideal” church service, and Jesus can solidify your place in the Body no matter your life situation.
    • Even when life makes things functionally impossible, “with man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:26)  Choosing to trust God’s power can keep us open to His solutions.
  • The Body of Christ may look different than you expect.  Perhaps “church” has always looked a specific way; what if God wants to introduce the Body in an unexpected way?  This was certainly the case for the disciples, who would never have expected to find spiritual family in a random collection of fisherman, tax collectors, and zealots, nor in the Spirit-inspired uniting of thousands in Acts 2.  Church found them… but how?
    • When presented, they were open to the unexpected.  They left the life they knew for the new life Jesus offered; if Church finds us, will we do the same?
    • They prayed in advance of the Spirit forming the beautiful Church-body in Acts; what role does prayer play in our pursuit of spiritual family?
  • Keeping a Body alive takes intentionality, time, and commitment.  I’m a father of three, and keeping my kids alive can be exhausting work; my love for them keeps me from stopping.  Keeping the Body of Christ alive can feel like exhausting work as well; we will eventually struggle to do this for an event, but may just endeavor intentionality, time, and commitment out of love for a spiritual family.  Right after Paul’s description of being the Body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12, do you recall what he says is ” the most excellent way?”  Love.
    • 1 Corinthians 13 is our recipe for how love maintains the Body of Christ, a reality reiterated throughout scripture.
    • Fortunately for us, this is not based on our capacity to love: “We love because He first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)

 

Obviously, this is not a definitive “How to” or collection of answers for the 40,000,000 or the Church, but is a challenge for us to consider our starting point in our understanding of Church.

My heart breaks for the many I have known who have tried seemingly in vain to find Church in their contexts and situations.  I have witnessed people writing off the 40,000,000, but this number actually includes genuine Christ-followers whose previous engagement with “church” missed the mark despite their efforts.  Many don’t want to leave Church, but the current expressions around them are problematic.   Cultivating the Body of Christ is not just on those leaving, but on all of us, and can only be realized through the Spirit.

How we understand Church will impact how we engage with it, or if we do at all.  No matter what our experience or perspective of Church is, Jesus seems to indicate that there is something vital and fulfilling available to us; perhaps the first step is choosing to believe that is true.

All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them.

Acts 4:32-34

Thanks to Johnathan Drayton of “The Truth of the Matter Is” podcast for the topic recommendation!

 

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