There are two ecclesiological extremes people are going to today in evangelicalism. The first extreme is when people place an unnecessary emphasis on the Church and its role and function in the body of Christ. Many ultra-conservative church leaders urge members to have perfect attendance on Sunday and be dressed appropriately, which means they better be donning a suit and tie, or at least a button-down for crying out loud. It’s easy for millennials to tag-team together on this one. We bring our skinny jeans and Chacos into church without shame, because we know it ultimately doesn’t matter what we’re wearing. We don’t live in Israelite culture where only certain garb is permissible. Wearing our “Sunday best” is not clothes, but an attitude of worshipping the King through song, the Word, and service.
I’m certainly concerned about the first extreme. It is sadly still a part of our culture to some degree, though I personally feel it won’t be much of an issue eventually. It’s the other extreme that concerns me perhaps even greater. The other extreme is when people place an unnecessary triviality on the Church and its role and function in the body of Christ. Perhaps the only thing more dangerous than a church that says “shape up” is a church that says “don’t bother.”
This series of posts is here to combat common objections that minimize our perception of the universal Church and the local church. In this first installment, we’ll address some of the most prevalent “blanket statements” made about the universal Church.
“I’ve been burned by the Church.”
One of the main reasons people don’t go to church is because they have had a bad experience inside of it. Some will justify their churchless-ness by saying they’ve been “burned by the Church.” This not only fuels the blogs of snooty evangelicals, but worse, it is often a decisive factor for the non-believer who has turned from the gospel. This is always a sad story for the victim; even in the cases where the victim may be mistaking the offense of the gospel with the offense of sin, churches should always be asking, “What are we doing to welcome hurting patients into the hospital?” To borrow one of the great lines from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Church is a hospital for sinners, not a country club for saints.”*
The truth is, we’re all patients hooked up to the nourishment of God’s Word. If we’re looking for a place to go to where we will be comforted and not be burned, let us run without abandon to God’s house of grace, where it is on full display week in and week out.
If you have been “burned” by a church, there is much good news. Church was designed to be a place where even in self-inflicted wounds, we can make room for grace and forgiveness to be bigger than pains. The greatest news is that Christ covers “a multitude of sins” (1 Pet. 4:8), even in His holy church. We all need the redemption He has offered with gladness; let us in turn become partakers of grace with one another (Phil. 1:7).
“Church is a man-made institution that only cares about its gain.”
You don’t hear many people explicitly bring this charge against the Church, but it’s a subtle killer that persuades society to view Church as a business instead of a ministry. Rightfully so, the primary weapon Satan is using in this fight against the Church is churches themselves. How easy it is today to see evangelical-professing churches being given over to the thrill of network marketing-esque schemes instead of a gospel-centered approach. So many churches have thrown out the Bible’s plan for disciple-making and have tried to discover their own way; they turn to cool lighting and smoke machine effects, simulated baptism revivals, and “seeker-sensitive” strategies. Such church behavior is harmful to the gospel message itself, but mostly those trying to understand what the Church is supposed to be, and therefore should be avoided.
But to make such a statement about all churches is likely the result of a previous negative experience inside a particular church, as discussed above. This is why it is fundamental and necessary that we must begin with infallible, inerrant Scripture before we enter into fallible, errant churches. If we start with Scripture, we learn first-hand God’s plan for His church, and from there we can go find what churches are adopting such patterns.
An important thing to remember in the search for a church is that while the Church is a divine institution and governed by God, people cannot and will not be perfect inside of your church, or mine, or anyone else’s. This doesn’t make God unholy, nor does it discredit the church’s ability to minister. It is a beautiful reflection of our humanity, and God’s deep and long-suffering grace.
“Church isn’t relevant to today’s culture.”
According to many, church is an “outdated” institution, unable to “keep up with the times” if you will. This is a common argument for those who lean progressive/liberal in their values. For example, they see a place in which gay marriage is not supported on the basis of a 2,000 year-old manuscript, and cannot wrap their heads around how such a text can speak to our cultural debates of today. They walk into a service and hear a sermon about Joshua and the Israelites in Jericho and wonder, “Why does that even matter today?”
Many evangelical conservatives surprisingly view the Church in a very similar light; they see its practices as outdated. I mean, who wants to sit through a year-long study of Exodus every Sunday morning, learning about chronologies and sacrifices and ancient festivals? Why do we bother talking about so many miracles and doctrinal issues that seem so impractical to our daily life?
Culture cannot define the Church, but the Church can define culture. Culture changes on a whim. 50 years ago, a flash mob on a train would have been extremely bizarre, even taboo; now it’s click-worthy media. Imagine Hardee’s commercials for a 1930’s audience. I hope you’re seeing my point. The institution of the Church has not only survived, but grown in spite of the various culture shifts of the past 2,000 years. Ironically, despite the increase in ethnic, political, social, and denomentational borders, the Church continues to increase and grow outside of it. To say that Church is submissive to the culture is to overestimate culture’s importance. Therefore, we must long to be a part of such an institution, a body that literally has the key to shaping and molding culture itself. Christ has built His church on a rock, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it (Mt. 16:18); neither will the danger of irrelevancy.
These are just a few of the major themes we see in the attack on the Church today; there are plenty of other reasons why some have made church a trivial matter. In the next post, we’ll look at some of the more personal, local reasons why some have trivialized church, and how to approach those hard places. Stay tuned.
- – I’ve heard this quote attributed to many people. Probably not a quote originated from Dietrich himself, but nonetheless the guy formatted his whole ministry around this idea.