“I can worship God out here in the woods. I don’t need the church.” Each year approximately 2.7 million people in America cease to be active church members. I wonder if we have come to define Christianity almost exclusively as a privatized spirituality that either ignores the central role of the church in the life of every Jesus-follower or pushes it to one-side, utilized only when convenient. However, as Dr. Smiley recently affirmed in his sermon on the Holy Spirit, spiritual gifts only make sense in the midst of a community. Likewise, spiritual fruit (i.e., love, kindness, faithfulness, patience, etc.) only make sense in the midst of a community.
I have chosen to deepen my relationship with God in the midst of His community: the church. Community gives both meaning and meaningful context to the church’s gifts and fruit. From a New Testament perspective, there is no room for individualism in the church. In fact, individualism and the church lie at opposite ends of the biblical spectrum. The gathered community of the church is a fellowship of people called and enabled by God, through Christ, by the Spirit to actively identify and participate together in God’s kingdom dream for and to the world.
Jesus came to inaugurate and build his kingdom, and the church lies at the center of this work. He did not come to establish a new privatized spirituality that separates people from one another but a new community (Jew and Gentile) called together for the sake of the world, showcasing to the world as it currently is what it one day can become—a fellowship of differents (Scot McKnight). We would all do well to remember that the church is God’s idea.
And, I wonder if we have allowed our contemporary definition, understanding and experience of the church to be shaped more by the post-modern impulse of individualism and self-centeredness, than by Christ’s and Paul’s emphasis on the gathered community from every race, tribe and tongue. If so, we need to re-listen to the biblical story that finds its fulfillment in Jesus and re-orient our focus from ourselves to the “other”; a focus taught and emulated in Jesus’s entire life and witness, and furthered by Paul’s ministry to and for the church of his day. Since the church is God’s idea, who are we to dismantle it?
So, let me come right out and wave this flag: I love the church. I love the church because I love Jesus. As long as the world needs Jesus, it will need the church. And, the church needs you and me to do our part. So, even if someday I retire and am no longer an employee of the church, I’ll always remain a church member. I’ll support the church. I’ll be there on Sundays. I’ll give to help keep the church financially viable. I’ll encourage the pastor. I’ll strive to preserve the unity of the church. To do these things is pleasing to God and good for my soul.
Nothing grieves the Holy Spirit more than when the unity he works to create and sustain is jeopardized. We need to join with the Spirit’s gathering initiative, rather than work against it. We can do this by re-emphasizing the community focus of the New Testament witness in our own lives and in the church he came to establish.