I don’t see the point of church,” said a man I’d just been introduced to. “I just prefer my independent Bible study. Organized religion just doesn’t make sense to me.”
As we stood in my church school’s parking lot, several questions entered my head. I didn’t ask these questions because this gentleman’s body language and vocal inflection indicated that if there was a point to the church and organized religion, he had no desire to hear about it. He would probably start an extended debate with me that I couldn’t possibly win.
Besides, I had been introduced to him as a church pastor. This fact made it odd that his first choice for a greeting was to question the entire purpose of my career and the organization that sponsored the event we were attending—an annual auto show fundraiser—that he seemed to be enjoying.
a messed-up church?
The Bible says, “Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing” (Hebrews 10:24, 25). Apparently, people skipped out on church during Bible times too! Whatever the reason, people who wanted to follow Jesus created excuses to avoid associating with others who also wanted to follow Him.
The Bible says that Jesus is the Head of the church, and the church is His body (Ephesians 5:23). So why do people who claim to love Jesus not want to be a part of His body? They claim that the church is messed up. It’s hypocritical, political, critical, judgmental, and values religious rituals over relationships.
It’s important to keep in mind that this description doesn’t only apply to modern churches. Churches in New Testament times were like that too. Even a casual perusal of Paul’s letters in the New Testament reveals serious issues such as racism, pride, and sexual promiscuity.
For all the good the church has done (schools, medicine, science, providing relief to the poor), there are indeed examples of grotesque failures (violent crusades and televangelists who are more interested in your finances than your eternal future).
So why not just study the Bible on our own, in our own way, on our own time, and leave it at that?
One reason is that, like the church, each one of us has both good and ugly sides. Another is that, like the church, we are also in need of a Savior. While the church has a high calling, it’s made up of high-maintenance life-forms called human beings. Jesus Himself said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17).
Jesus knew that churches would have problems because of the people in them. In Matthew 13, He told a story about a field in which wheat and weeds grew together. He used this as a metaphor for the kinds of people we find following Jesus. Some are wheat, and some are weeds. And Jesus said that churches will be made up of both good and bad people to the very end of time, until He returns and makes the world over new.
So instead of asking, “Why go to church?” a better question might be, “Why did Jesus design church this way?” What possible purpose does the church serve in my spiritual life when I can read the Bible and pray in the privacy of my own home with no interruptions or obnoxious personalities? Wouldn’t it be easier?
When God created our first parents, one of the first comments He made revealed that He didn’t intend for people to be isolated from each other. He said, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18).
However challenging people may seem to us, and however different their perspectives may be from our own, we need them in order to avoid slipping into a world of our own selfish delusions.
a convenient God?
In online communities and social networks, people can create a personal profile that reveals things they want people to see and hides things they don’t want anyone to know about. We can create surreal pictures of ourselves, which are essentially a graphical representation of the person using the computer. The user gets to select a picture and create a character that doesn’t have to be completely based on genuine reality—only virtual reality. This means that whatever we believe about ourselves is broadcast to others without question. If someone does question us, we can delete them from our “friends” list.
When it comes to our ideas about God and the Bible, we all have presuppositions and spiritual baggage that we bring to the theological table. Unchecked, we will end up simply creating a picture of God that is convenient for our lives. A god who does things just like we do, a god who enjoys the same things we enjoy and gets mad at the same stuff we get mad at. We create a god just like us.
The problem is that we are not God, and we need to be challenged by others who have different experiences and pictures.
I recently saw a bumper sticker on an old, beat-up truck that said, “God can’t be confined to any one religion.” I assume the owner meant to take a jab at organized religion. Still, I would like to think he might simply be in favor of a personal experience. But is God confined to our personal religion, to own our experience? God said it isn’t good for a human being to be alone (Genesis 2:18). So there must be an experience with God that can take place only in an authentic community of people.
The church has both good and bad—just like you and me. People who want to downplay the church as full of hypocrites are merely asking us to believe that they are flawless.
point of difference?
According to Jesus, God calls sick people—those who need help and have the integrity to admit it. Interestingly enough, the Greek word translated “church” is ekklesia, which means “called out ones.” The church is meant to be a community of people called out of a world that specializes in making masks for people to wear. The church is a place for people who don’t want to play games. It’s a collection of people who have admitted they need help. It’s a place where we encounter difficult personalities that will teach us patience and mercy. It’s a place where we are challenged with our own shortcomings so we can experience grace and humility.
The church is God’s antidote to the world’s self-delusion that it’s getting better. It’s a reminder that humanity needs a Savior. It’s a place to have our ideas tempered by the ideas of others, where we have our egos held in check. The church is a real place, full of real sinners in need of a real Savior.
A long time ago, a relative of mine refused to return to church after a painful divorce. This person gave many reasons for the decision. The sermons were boring. The person didn’t get anything out of the music and didn’t know many people. Some of the people were irritating. The list went on and on.
The church isn’t about what you get so much as what you give. It is a community that needs people like you and me to hold them accountable, just as you and I need people to hold us accountable. It’s a place to share all the wisdom God has given us and receive the wisdom He’s given others.
We all need to have a personal experience with God, and we are called to share that experience with others. We can’t do that while we sit at home studying our Bibles alone.
God can’t be confined to one individual experience or to one perspective. We are all flawed with spiritual blind spots. The church is the community Christ created to help us see clearly.
Seth Pierce is an assistant professor of communication at Union College, an institution of higher learning in Lincoln, Nebraska. He is an occasional contributor to Signs of the Times®.