“I believe in God, but not the church.”
It wasn’t the first time I’d heard a sentiment like that. I’ve been a minister for over 20 years — I’ve heard them all, believe me: spiritual, but not religious, Jesus, but not Christians, and that old favorite about how the church is responsible for most of the violence and bloodshed in history. (As Jonathan Storment puts it: “You have one Crusade, and suddenly that’s all everyone wants to talk about.”) I’m fairly well-versed in the historical wrongs of the church, both because I’ve read the history and also because folks who want nothing to do with the church have kept me well informed. So it wasn’t the first time I’d heard someone say that the church was something they wanted no part of.
This time, though, the words came from someone whose faith I knew about, someone I knew loved the Lord and wanted to be a part of his mission in the world. And I felt far away from him at that moment, because I don't know how a person separates concern for the mission of God in the world from being a part of the community of faith.
The difference may be generational. Believers younger than me tend to think of the community of faith, if they think of it at all, in less rigid terms. Being a community of faith, they reason, has little to do with where you spend your Sunday mornings. They reason that it has more to do with feeding the hungry than with sharing communion, more to do with helping the sick than praying for them from a comfortable distance, more to do with conversing over coffee with someone who’s lonely than with sitting in a big room listening to a sermon. The “community of faith,” younger Christians sometimes argue, is wherever people of faith are doing works of faith. The community of faith, to them, isn’t found at a church of any denomination as much as it’s found with those who join them in handing out sandwiches to the homeless under an overpass, or who move with them into an economically depressed neighborhood and plant gardens, or who march with them for justice for immigrants, or who dig wells with them in Africa.
In fairness, the church hasn’t been good about recognizing those communities of faith. Concerned sometimes with safeguarding the gospel, or biblical inerrancy, or moral purity, or our own interests, we have sometimes looked with suspicion on anything outside our walls or budget that some might call the work of God. We’ve groused that we shouldn’t feed the hungry or help the homeless in just any old way, that it isn’t a work of faith if it doesn’t happen in a church building or the name of Jesus isn’t pronounced. And then somewhere we started handing off kingdom work to government, to the health care industry, to social service and para-church organizations.
Church, in the meantime, became the place where we went to learn the self-help secrets of the Bible, to improve our marriages, make us better parents, and learn to be more successful in our careers. Church has become all about us. Stripped of their reason for being, local churches have become obsessed with creating an experience that will win members from an increasingly shallow pool. While some of these churches grow explosively, the communities around them remain largely untouched by the gospel of Jesus.
The fact is, though, that our kids are starting to notice. They may not be able to articulate it, or even notice it consciously. But they hear us say God is concerned about the poor and the marginalized, and they notice some other folks somewhere doing some good work among the poor and marginalized, and they see us sitting in our worship centers sipping coffee and talking about how much stress our careers are causing us, and they can be forgiven for starting to wonder why they need the church at all.
Truthfully, I would have to say they probably don’t. Not that kind of church, anyway.
But I would also say that the church is not supposed to be that. It isn’t supposed to sanctify our self-centeredness. It isn’t supposed to cater to our every whim like some ecclesiastical Wal-Mart. (“Self-Esteem, Aisle 7. Complaining About How Much Better Things Used to Be, Aisle 4”) Prior to the last century, no Christian ever wondered why the church didn't offer better child care during the Sunday services. (They were too busy caring for orphans, like, all week.) The church isn’t supposed to reflect our prejudices and opinions back to us. It isn’t supposed to be comfortable, or easy, or convenient, and please, God, it isn’t supposed to be some experience created with music and lighting and atmosphere, like a low-budget U2 show.
I don’t mean to step on any toes. We’ve come by it honestly. The church has simply absorbed our cultural values, until it’s become just another reflection of a shallow society heavy on instant gratification and excitement and light on allegiance, commitment, and sacrifice.
So I would remind the church — and those who prefer to turn away rather than do what their spiritual ancestors have done and make the church more what she should be — Jesus calls us salt and light. We’re those who call ourselves “blessed” even when we’re hurting and mourning and penniless and hungry for a taste of justice. We’re those who believe that we’re God’s children and will see him, that there’s a new world coming in Jesus, and that we’re its heralds, its vanguard.
Our work is to show what that new world looks like in the way we work, live, parent, and serve. On the one hand, we don’t have the right to define that new world as we want to, by making it all about our personal forgiveness and self-realization. On the other hand, neither do we have the right to serve the fruits of that new world without acknowledging and naming the One through whom it’s coming into being. If the church many younger believers are turning from is empty of the works to which the good news of the kingdom calls us, then what they’re turning to are those works emptied of the presence of the kingdom. The gospel doesn’t proclaim that if we all band together and try really hard, we can end hunger or sex trafficking or gun violence or AIDS. It proclaims a kingdom where those things don’t exist. Our small efforts are just a taste of the grace, love, forgiveness, and peace that God is bringing about in Jesus — but it is essential that we witness to our faith in the coming kingdom through those small efforts.
That’s why every believer needs the church, even though the church has often been and will often be less than we should. And it’s also why the church needs every believer, especially those who will call us to be more than we are. I believe in God, and I believe in the church. And I believe that God is even now renewing the church.