"I don’t see the point of attending church,” said the man to whom I’d just been introduced. “I prefer my independent Bible study. Organised religion just doesn’t make sense to me.”
As we stood in my church school’s carpark after our auto show fundraiser event, several questions entered my head—questions I didn’t ask, since this gentleman’s body language and vocal inflection gave every indication that if there was a point to church and organised religion, he didn’t have any desire to know about it.
Besides, the fact that I had been introduced to him as a church pastor made it odd that his first choice for a greeting was to call into question the entire purpose of my career and the organisation that sponsored the fundraising event that he seemed to be enjoying.
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 in Bible times too! Whatever the reason, people who wanted to follow Jesus created excuses to avoid 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, judgemental and places religious rituals over relationships.
It’s important to keep in mind that this description doesn’t apply just to modern churches. Churches in New Testament times were like that too. Even a casual perusal of Paul’s letters in the Bible reveals serious issues such as racism, pride and rampant sexual promiscuity.
For all the good the church has done (schools, medicine, science, helping the poor), there are indeed examples of grotesque failures (such as the 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?
Because, like the church, we too have both good and ugly sides. Because, like the church, we are in need of a Saviour. While the church has a high calling, it’s also made up of a high-maintenance life form 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 and 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 through to the end of time, until He returns and makes the world 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 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? And wouldn’t it be easier?
When God created human beings, one of the first comments He made revealed that He didn’t intend 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 and however different their perspectives from our own, we need them in order to avoid slipping into a world of our own selfish delusion.
With online communities and social networks, people can create a personal profile that carefully reveals certain things they want people to see and hides things that they don’t want anyone to know.
We have the ability to create “avatars,” 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 (which is often only ever positive) is broadcast to others without question and if someone does question us, we can easily and simply delete them from our list of “friends.”
When it comes to our own 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 gets mad at the same stuff we get mad at, who enjoys our hobbies. 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 organised religion, but I would like to think he might simply be in favour of a personal experience. But is God confined to our personal religion, to our experience? If God created humanity because it’s not good for man to be alone, then there must be a kind of experience with God that can only take place in an authentic community of other people, no matter how different they may be to us.
The church has both the good and bad—just like you and me. People want to downplay the church as full of “hypocrites,” but they’re merely asking us to believe that they themselves are flawless.
According to Jesus, God calls sick people—those who need help and have the integrity to admit it. Interestingly enough, the Greek word for church is ekklesia, which means “called out ones.” Church is meant to be a community of people called out of a world that specialises 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 who 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 humanist self-delusion that it is getting better. It’s a reminder that humanity needs a Saviour. It’s a place to have our ideas tempered by the ideas of others, where we have our egos held in check. Church is a real place, full of real sinners in need of a real Saviour.
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, he or she didn’t get anything out of the music, didn’t know many people and some of the people were irritating. The list went on and on.
Church isn’t about what you get so much as what you give. Church 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 cannot be confined to one individual experience or one lens to look through. We are all flawed with spiritual blind spots. Church is the community Christ created to help us see clearly.