Here is a post I just posted in the new Yahoo group I just started called “The Reformed Coffeeshop” which you can check out at:

http://groups.yahoo.com/group/thereformedcoffeeshop/

A few years ago, my wife and I were forced to leave a youth ministry

inside a church that we were members of due to doctrinal

differences. We subsequently left the church. Shortly thereafter,

I experienced a lack of trust with the church. I felt like Tom

Cruise’s character, Maverick, in the movie Top Gun after he lost his

best friend and copilot. I had a great unwillingness to engage.

Throughout my time at that church, which was semi-Pelagian in its

view of Scripture, I grew spiritually as I studied reformed

theology. It took almost a year for us to find a new church, and

when we did, it was not reformed, but rather more seeker-sensitive

in its approach to the church. At the time, I was happy that I was

at least free to express my theological views in the church, but my

busy schedule with school held be back from getting as involved as

I’d like. I began to feel uncomfortable at church, not because they

were doing something wrong or sinful, but that uncomfortableness you

get when God is preparing change in your life. My wife soon

confessed to me that she was not growing spiritually in the church.

I made the decision for us to look for another church.

One of my young employees at work invited me to his church. As soon

as we walked in the doors, there was a great feeling of comfort,

like the comfort of coming home after a long trip. We have been

attending this church now for about a month and really enjoy it.

Although it would bill itself as nondenominational, it is more

Baptist that embraces the spiritual gifts. Such a strange mix for

such a theological mutt as myself seems to be what the doctor

ordered, Dr. God that is.

Going through such a difficult season of being without a church has

helped me realize just how important a church is and has brought to

life, in particular, the Pauline passages that talk about the body

of Christ and its members. What follows is an interesting article I

found on Christianity Today’s website about church. I hope you

enjoy.

Dave M.

The Church—Why Bother?

There is no healthy relationship with Jesus without a relationship

to the church.

by Tim Stafford posted 01/06/2005 9:00 a.m.

The Barna Research Group reports that in the United States about 10

million self-proclaimed, born-again Christians have not been to

church in the last six months, apart from Christmas or Easter.

(Barna defines “born-again” as those who say they have made a

personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important today,

and believe they will “go to heaven because I have confessed my sins

and have accepted Jesus Christ as my Savior.”)

Nearly all born-agains say their spiritual life is very important,

but for 10 million of them, spiritual life has nothing to do with

church.

About a third of Americans are unchurched, according to Barna’s

national data. Approximately 23 million of those—35 percent of the

unchurched—claim they have made a personal commitment to Jesus

Christ that is still important in their lives today.

I can easily put a face on that number. I think of Duncan (not his

real name), a guy I got to know through coaching kids’ basketball.

When Duncan found out I was a Christian, he quietly let me know he

was one too.

“Julie and I met the Lord through a Bible study,” he said. At the

time, he and Julie attended a Lutheran church. He stopped going when

they got divorced. I was invited to the service when he got

remarried, to Rene, in a lovely outdoor ceremony. I don’t think the

Lutherans quite connected with Rene, though. It’s been years since

the two of them have attended church.

Is Duncan a Christian? He thinks he is. He would even say that faith

is important to him. But like 23 million other Americans, faith

doesn’t necessarily involve church.

Duncan is not a new phenomenon. We have always had people who kept

their distance from the church, even though they professed faith. We

have never, however, had them in such astonishing numbers. They

represent a significant trend, one that almost defines U.S.

religion.

I would call it Gnostic faith. For them the spirit is completely

separated from the body. They think your spirit can be with Jesus

Christ while your body goes its own way.

Not Funny to Luther

A joke: A man is rescued after 20 years on a desert island. His

rescuer is astonished to find that the castaway has built several

imposing structures.

“Wow!” the rescuer says. “What’s that beautiful stone building

overlooking the bay?”

“That is my home,” the castaway says.

“And what about that building over there, with the spires?”

“That,” the castaway says, “is my church.”

“But wait!” the rescuer says. “That building over there, with the

bell tower. What is that?”

“That is the church I used to belong to.”

The joke expresses a certain spirit of U.S. church life. We

build ’em, and we quit ’em. Somebody will leave a church even if he

is the only member.

Until Martin Luther, the church was the immovable center of gravity.

The church had authority over individual Christians: to accept them

as they approached the church, to baptize them, teach them, and

provide them the means of grace.

In the third century, Cyprian, a North African bishop, wrote about a

doctrinally orthodox but schismatic bishop named Novatian. “We are

not interested in what he teaches, since he teaches outside the

Church. Whatever and whatsoever kind of man he is, he is not a

Christian who is not in Christ’s Church. … He cannot have God for

his Father who has not the Church for his mother.”

Cyprian’s view—summed up in the slogan “No salvation outside the

church”—gathered strength in subsequent centuries as the church

countered heresies and divisions. It became the universal standard.

You were either inside the Catholic Church, Christ’s body—or outside

of Christ.

Luther never intended to move that center of gravity. He wanted to

purify the church, not defy its authority. Nevertheless, his

protests led to schism. Lutheranism was followed by Calvinism, and

Anabaptists were not far behind. Methodists and Baptists appeared.

Once people started judging for themselves, it was hard to put an

end to it. The next thing you know we had 20,000 denominations

worldwide—and counting.

Consider three important steps in the transition.

1. In America’s God, historian Mark Noll shows that colonial

ministers by and large supported the American Revolution, and with

it the republican political creed—opposition to inherited authority

and confidence in commonsense philosophy over tradition. (“We hold

these truths to be self-evident.”)

This political philosophy has shaped American theology, Noll says.

Creeds and tradition became suspect, and commonsense reasoning—a man

and his Bible without deference to experts—could settle any

question.

As denominations sprouted up, they each argued that they had the

best understanding of the gospel, implicitly appealing to the

individual Christian to join them. Soon, the poles of power had

reversed. Once the individual hoped for acceptance by the church.

Now the church hoped for acceptance by the individual.

Funny thing is, many of those denominations today complain that

people aren’t loyal to the church. Fuller Seminary president Richard

Mouw mentioned a Christian Reformed Church publication

criticizing “consumer religion.” Yet the CRC, he pointed out, began

with a group of Reformed ministers who attracted people from other

parishes with their strict Calvinist orthodoxy. Mouw says, “It’s

pretty odd for people in the CRC to say, ‘We don’t want people

shopping around.'”

2. The post-WWII generation saw an explosion of parachurch groups

like InterVarsity, Youth for Christ, and Campus Crusade. Many young

believers experienced their deepest fellowship, nurture, and mission

in organizations that said openly that they were not churches. Tod

Bolsinger, author of It Takes a Church to Raise a Christian, recalls

his days as a youth evangelist.

“I can remember saying to kids, ‘There’s no church to join, there’s

nothing to commit to, this is only about a relationship with Jesus.’

Paul wouldn’t preach that message. And the early church didn’t.”

3. Seeker-sensitive churches took up parachurch methodology and

applied it to church itself. A good church was judged, in part, by

whether it appealed to the tastes of those who did not belong to it.

I admire the evangelistic spirit behind this. It has attracted many

people into a church building who would probably not otherwise

attend. But I think it has exaggerated a sense that the church must

adapt to the general public, not the other way around. And thus many

unchurched people feel justified in believing that they are fine,

that it is the churches that have failed.

If 23 million Americans who claim Jesus as their Savior have no

discernible church connection, they are joined by many more who

attend church (between 40 percent and 50 percent of Americans do in

a given week, according to Barna) but sit loose in their commitment.

A good sermon, a moving worship experience, a helpful recovery group—

these they look at to find “a good church.”

When they become dissatisfied, they move on. Their salvation, they

believe, is between them and God. The church is only one possible

resource.

The Bono Effect

In February 2003, Christianity Today featured Bono, lead singer for

the rock group U2, and his campaign for the church to become more

involved in the fight against AIDS. Bono emerged as a star example

of the unchurched Christian.

Having once been involved in a loosely structured Irish fellowship,

Bono now seldom goes to church. He does pray. He likes to say grace

at meals. He has a favorite Bible translation. But he doesn’t want

to be pinned down.

“I just go where the life is, you know? Where I feel the Holy

Spirit,” Bono told Christianity Today’s reporter, Cathleen

Falsani. “If it’s in the back of a Roman Catholic cathedral, in the

quietness and the incense, which suggest the mystery of God, of

God’s presence, or in the bright lights of the revival tent, I just

go where I find life. I don’t see denomination. I generally think

religion gets in the way of God.”

In an editorial, “Bono’s Thin Ecclesiology,” CT appreciated Bono’s

thirst for social justice, yet criticized his lack of churchly

commitment. Bono had voiced sharp criticisms of the church,

suggesting it was in danger of irrelevance if it failed to act on

AIDS. Wrote CT, “Any person can stand outside the church and

critique its obedience to the gospel. Part of God’s call on a

Christian’s life is to walk inside and die to self by relating to

other human beings, both in their fallenness and in their redeemed

glory.”

Letters to the editor fiercely defended Bono. One pointed out that

U2 travels with a chaplain—isn’t that equivalent to church? Another

suggested that Bono avoided church out of respect for other

Christians, since his fame would disrupt worship. A reader

complained that white evangelical churches were to blame for Bono’s

alienation, since they have become more Republican than Christian.

Another reader whose lifelong illness kept her from church wrote, “I

do not believe not attending a regular church service … takes away a

person’s beliefs, Christianity, or their salvation … . I have faith

that Jesus Christ is more fair than that.”

All good points, as far as they go, except that Bono is not too sick

to attend church, could find an unpoliticized church if he tried,

and doesn’t mention respect for worshipers as a reason for staying

away.

Clearly, Bono has chosen to keep his distance from the church, or at

least to stay in the shallow margins of the pond, where he can dash

for the shore at need.

He has plenty of company.

Wounded by the Church

I don’t want to be hard on Bono and other unchurched Christians.

Churches are not always nice places. Some of the church fathers

used “No salvation outside the church” to stifle dissent and

maintain a monopoly on power. Even today a demand for church

commitment can be the basis for abusing people, using fear and

conformity to rule.

A significant minority of Christians feel wounded by the church,

perhaps by abuse that anyone would recognize, perhaps by abuse so

subtle others can’t see it [see “The Church’s Walking Wounded,”

March 2003]. Some find any institution difficult—they’re habitual

loners. My friend Duncan is like that—an engineer who relates better

to machines than to people. His divorce left him groping for

handholds in church.

Philip Yancey’s Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church

credits a diverse list of figures—from G.K. Chesterton to Martin

Luther King Jr.—with keeping his faith alive. Since all but one,

Mahatma Gandhi, are Christians, and the vast majority are loyal

church members, one might ask, “So the church enabled your faith to

survive the church?”

But Yancey’s problem was not with the church defined as the sum

total of Christians. He struggled with what he experienced in actual

congregations. He needed another set of Christians to help him

redefine his faith, enabling it to survive the church so that he

could re-engage the church.

We do not need to condemn those alienated from the institutional

church, but to help them reconsider. By keeping away from church

commitments, they miss out on life essential.

What’s missing

The hard questions come next: Just what do they miss?

They need not lack the Word of God. The Bible is available through

Barnes & Noble, and will undoubtedly continue to be published at a

profit even if all the Christians get raptured away. Radio and TV

offer excellent Bible teaching. So do books and magazines.

Fellowship? The internet offers chat rooms and Bible study groups.

Friends have told me their internet prayer support group reaches

more depth and is more dependable than anything they encounter in

the flesh.

Worship? Some people find that music CDs provide what they need.

Others find great inspiration watching Robert Schuller’s Hour of

Power. Anyway, if you need a worship fix you can slip into any big

church and leave without bothering a soul.

Granted, you need a church to get baptized and to receive Communion.

Let’s admit, though, that in many churches the sacraments are a

devalued commodity. The same for church discipline, only more so. If

you expect church to provide the bracing rule that purifies souls,

forget it in most places.

All that admitted, there still remain overwhelmingly strong reasons

for believing that committed participation in a local congregation

is essential to becoming what God wants us to be.

The sacraments or ordinances are not optional. They may not make

sense to 21st-century sensibilities—but so much the more reason to

pay attention to them. The sacraments are not a human tradition.

They began with Jesus himself. He himself was baptized, saying it

was proper “to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15).

Offering bread and wine, he told his disciples, “Take and eat; this

is my body” (26:26). Churches may have devalued the sacraments, but

they still offer them. Nobody else does. How can you follow Jesus

and then … not follow him?

We need the regular rhythm of public worship, which began with the

disciples’ gathering on the first day of the week. D.G. Hart,

referring to the Reformed liturgical tradition, says, “Being

reassured weekly that your sins are forgiven is a great comfort.” He

suggests that anything less is too trivial to sustain us through the

great crises of life.

Business has found that the teleconference is no substitute for the

face-to-face meeting. Neither does singing along to a CD replace

singing in a choir of fellow worshipers. Whether we listen or pray

or sing, nothing substitutes for human presence in the public

performance of worship. The lively, physical reality of others

touches our nature as body-persons.

The author of Hebrews had something like this in mind when he

wrote, “And let us consider how we may spur one another one toward

love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together are some

are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another” (Heb.

10:24-25). Encouragement needs a face; it needs a body.

The church is the body of Christ, the tangible representation of

Jesus’ life on earth. As the apostle Paul wrote to the quarreling

Corinthians (1 Cor. 12:21), “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I

don’t need you!'” You could sum up his message this way: “If you

miss connecting to the body of Christ, you miss Christ.”

Paul allows no vague representation of the church as the sum of all

Christians. The body analogy expresses Paul’s belief that Christ is

available on earth in tangible form. These various gifts come in

human packages. To be “in Christ” we cannot stand off distant from

this body. We absolutely must serve other Christians—parts of his

body—in a continuous relationship. A body part detached from other

parts is clearly useless, and soon dead. It cannot experience

Christ, the head of the body.

We offer perilous advice when we urge people to “find Christ”

anywhere but in a local congregation. Can you imagine Paul arriving

in a city, finding the local congregation not to his taste and

simply staying away? For Paul, a Christian without his church is as

unthinkable as a human being with no relatives. A person may quarrel

with his kin, but he cannot leave them—they are his own flesh and

blood. So it is with the church. And furthermore, they are Jesus’

flesh and blood.

People need people. God’s people need God’s people in order to know

God. Life in Christ is a corporate affair. All God’s promises were

made to God’s people—plural. All the New Testament epistles address

Christians in churches. The Bible simply does not know of the

existence of an individual, isolated Christian.

Disappointment with Church

Yet it often happens that people go to church and get disappointed.

Sometimes the crisis seems petty—”The people weren’t friendly”—and

sometimes horrific—”The pastor was sleeping with the organist.”

Failing to find happiness, they move on, sometimes to another church

and sometimes to no church. Looking to find Christ, they meet

disappointment. The effort looks like a complete failure.

But this is a perspective Paul strongly contradicts in 2

Corinthians. He had been through a horrific, unnamed experience in

Asia—one bad enough to take him to the edge of death. Meanwhile he

is almost equally distressed by turmoil in the Corinth church.

Everything seems to go wrong. Yet Paul urgently explains that the

resurrection power of Jesus is experienced only in “death”—little

deaths and big deaths.

In our troubles, we experience God actually comforting us (1:4).

When we are weak and broken, the treasure we carry grows more

apparent (4:7). “For we who are alive are always being given over to

death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our

mortal body” (4:11).

Furthermore, sorrow brings repentance. The Corinthians felt sorrow

because of friction with Paul. Yet Paul sees it producing much good

in their lives. “See what this godly sorrow has produced in you:

what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what

indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness

to see justice done” (7:11).

2 Corinthians completely repudiates the American doctrine of the

pursuit of happiness. Instead Paul teaches as Jesus did: The way to

find your life is to lose it. The way to experience the life of

Jesus is to experience human weakness. You can, of course,

experience human weakness anywhere. When you experience it in

church, however, you are close to Christ himself—his resurrection

power showing in his own body.

A Mundane Story

A friend of mine (I’ll call her Lillian) joined an ordinary church.

She felt comfortable there because the people were friendly. It was

a good fit for her and her family. Except for the pastor.

The pastor was not a bad man—in fact, he was a good man—but Lillian

realized that he held back the church. Early in his ministry he had

experienced an ugly split in a church he led. The incident had

marked him. At bottom he was afraid. He had to keep control, he

thought—and so he stifled any initiative. He feared putting himself

on the point, so he operated by manipulation.

A consistent pattern showed itself: a new lay leader would appear,

would optimistically rally the church toward new ministry, and then

eventually—worn out by the pastor’s style of indirection and

manipulation—would quit the church and go elsewhere.

Whenever Lillian’s out-of-town friends came to visit, they were

struck by the church’s attractiveness. “We learned to hate what we

called the p word,” Lillian says. “People were always telling us how

much potential the church showed.”

Lillian sometimes thought that if the pastor had been a bad man, had

acted in an obviously sinful way, they might have gotten rid of him.

As it was, she realized he would never leave. He had at least a

decade before retirement. That began to seem like a life sentence.

She realized how bad her attitude had become when one Sunday the

pastor said he had an important personal announcement to make. She

sat up straight. Her heart began to beat hard, and her face flushed.

Was he going to announce that he was leaving for another church? She

could hardly breathe.

“The wonderful news I have to share with you,” the pastor said with

unfeigned excitement, “is that thanks to the generosity of this

congregation I have a new carpet in my office.”

Lillian wanted to cry.

But Lillian does not leave churches, unless it is for a much better

reason than frustration with a pastor’s leadership style. She

stayed. She worked. She found places where she could make a

difference. And she suffered. She felt deeply the gap between what

her church should be and what it actually was. It took, indeed,

almost 20 long years before the pastor finally sank into retirement.

Looking back now, many years later still, Lillian finds that she

cannot think a negative thought about those years and her choice to

stay. It was like having a baby, she thinks. However difficult, she

would not trade the experience or the result. Something died in her,

but something also came to life. That something was Christ.

Somehow long-suffering is appropriate to a place and a people who

worship Jesus. “How could we experience him in his death,” Lillian

wants to know, “if we could not tolerate some little deaths

ourselves?”

What We Must Preach

The church is the body of Christ, and it carries his wounds. To know

Christ is to share in the fellowship of his sufferings—even if the

suffering comes at the hands of the sinners who sit in the pews or

preach from the pulpit.

How can we communicate this to unchurched Christians? The only way I

know is to preach it. We need to tell them, even if it goes against

the grain of our culture. We need to tell them, even if talking so

frankly goes against our philosophy of outreach.

If people commit themselves to the church, they will undoubtedly

suffer. The church will fail them and frustrate them, because it is

a human institution. Yet it will also bless them, even as it fails.

A living, breathing congregation is the only place to live in a

healthy relationship to God. That is because it is the only place on

earth where Jesus has chosen to dwell. How can you enjoy the

benefits of Christ if you detach yourself from the living Christ?

Tim Stafford is a CT senior writer.

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