Is Church Worth It?
By Brett McCracken
March 25, 2011
Editor's note: This article is excerpted from a much longer piece in the 50th issue of RELEVANT. In the full-length article, Brett McCracken looks at the reasons why this generation has deserted the church. To read the whole thing, click here.
The reasons why church is a frustrating experience are numerous. For many, church can be hard to stomach, and the reasons why are difficult, complex and not easy to answer. But no one said Christianity was easy, or that being part of the Church would be a breeze. Despite the fact that it can be enormously frustrating and maddeningly imperfect, the Church is what followers of Christ are called to be. The Church is described in Scripture as nothing less than the body of Christ on earth. It’s not a slight, optional activity. According to Scriptures like Romans 12:5 and Ephesians 3:6, it’s the one body with many members, each an important and crucial piece of the mission of Jesus Christ.
Why should twentysomethings not give up meeting together as the Church? The short answer is that the Bible says not to (Hebrews 10:25). But there are plenty of other practical arguments for the necessity—and ultimate privilege and thrill—of being a part of the Church.
A Head Must Have a Body
The body is one of the most commonly used metaphors for the Church in the New Testament. In places like Colossians 1:24, 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4-5, Scripture compares the intimate bond between the Church and Christ to the necessary union of a body with its head.
In their book, Why We Love the Church, Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck describe the attempts to have a church-less Christianity as an act of what they call “de-corpulation”—not the cutting off of the head (Jesus), but the cutting off of the body (the Church). They suggest that to live a Christian faith without the Church is as impossible as trying to have a head walk around without a body. The Church’s weak sense of identity in relationship to Christ comes from a misunderstanding of the body metaphor and the idea of “headship,” Sumner says.
Sumner, who specializes in the theology of marriage, points to Ephesians 5:21-33 as an area where some have misunderstood “head,” taking it to be a synonym for “lord” rather than an image of union with a body.
“Ephesians 5:23 doesn’t say the husband is the head of the house; it says the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is the head of the Church, His body. We’ve morphed ‘head’ into a definition that means ‘authority over,’ but it’s not a definition. It’s a picture. The husband is the head and the wife is the body, and the head plus the body equals one flesh. A head plus a house doesn’t equal one flesh. And so it’s not a leader plus an assistant, or two equal colleagues. It’s a head and a body’s oneness, and that’s what we see with Christ and the Church. Christ is the head; the Church is the body. There’s a oneness.”
Sarah Sumner, author and dean of A.W. Tozer Theological Seminary, believes this image of a head and its body is the ultimate invitation into the Church because it makes clear that participation isn’t meant to be passive, but rather active, participatory and crucial, like the various parts of the body that work together so the whole thing can function well. It means being a Christian cannot be done in isolation. Believers are called to be connected not just to Jesus, but also to the living body known as the Church.
“I would argue to young people that if you think you can be connected to the head without being connected to the elbow and the foot, you need a basic lesson in anatomy.”
Unity and Mission
Another argument for the importance of church has to do with Christian witness in the world. If more Christians start abandoning churches and living their faith independently, as individuals become more comfortable on their own or with a small band of like-minded believers, what sort of message does it send the world about the unified mission of Christians? On the other hand, if what the world sees is churches that bring together a diverse cross-section of humanity, people putting aside differences for the sake of the Gospel, how much stronger a witness would believers have?
Though many churches are age-segregated or racially segregated, the promise of the Church is one of boundary-defying unity amidst diversity, which can be beautiful and profound, says David Kinnaman president of the Barna Group and co-author of unChristian.
“Church is a place that is meant to be very different from anything else we may experience—other institutions of family, or workplace or social clubs—because it connects people across boundaries,” he says. “It’s a beautiful expression of what human relationships ought to look like, between people of different age groups, genders, racial and ethnic backgrounds, vocational arenas. It’s a great example of why we have to keep pursuing the church in its ideal form.”
Church Is a Gift
The churchgoing experience can often be taken for granted by those who grew up in places where steepled structures are literally on every corner. They can become unfamiliar with the persecution Christians face in other parts of the world, where believers in churches might be gunned down by terrorists, as was the case with recent Iraqi and Egyptian church massacres. Young American Christians are so used to church being easy and accessible they lose sight of how precious a gift it is to be able to meet together, unafraid, in public.
Kinnaman thinks it’s important that Christians get outside their comfort zone and, if possible, experience what the Church looks like in other parts of the world.
“I try to encourage both younger and older believers to find ways of traveling, both literally and spiritually, to encounter other Christians in their native environment,” he says. “I think travel can often show us what the cost of disloyalty can be. What does it mean to be loyal within a completely different culture or setting where you actually have to stick together to survive?”
In his classic book on Christian community, Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer notes that the “unspeakable gift” of fellowshipping with other believers is often taken for granted and not recognized as the blessing it is.
“It is by the grace of God that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly in this world to share in God’s Word and sacrament,” Bonhoeffer wrote. “Not all Christians receive this blessing. The imprisoned, the sick, the scattered lonely, the proclaimers of the Gospel in heathen lands stand alone. They know that visible fellowship is a blessing.”
Bonhoeffer reminds believers it’s “by grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.”
It’s An Invitation Into Something Bigger, Something Beautiful
Sure, the Church can be a royal pain. But to abandon it because of its faults is to miss out on something gargantuan, gorgeous and Christ-ordained—something way beyond what one person might accomplish on his or her own, while nevertheless involving each believer in a paradoxically personal, intimate way.
In the current have-it-your-way, consumer culture, the default choice is usually the one that seems easier, more convenient or more preferable to individual whims and fancies. Investing time and energy in the life of a local church is usually none of those things. Is it easy to attend a church where there’s always going to be an annoying song, personality or carpet color? Is it convenient to forgo a few hours a week to participate in a community that might be at times painful and awkward? No. It’s much easier to just stay away and not even bother.
But that doesn’t mean twentysomethings shouldn’t still try, says Scot McKnight, Karl A. Olsson Professor in Religious Studies at North Park University.
“Part of following Christ is having a rugged commitment to a community of believers, warts and all,” he says.
In his new book, One.Life, McKnight argues that while no local church is perfect, it is nevertheless the local church in which Jesus wants His followers’ Kingdom life to take root.
“I owe my primary commitment to my local church, not because it is what I want and not because it is the ideal place, but because the only way for Jesus’ dream Kingdom to take root is when local people commit to one another to strive with one another for a just, loving, peaceful and wise society, beginning at home, with friends, and at their local community of faith.”
Part of the difficulty people have with committing to a local church is that society has for centuries been on an egalitarian trajectory of asserting individual rights over institutions, Sumner notes. “We’ve been in a long revolt against authority ever since the Reformation,” she says. “The whole trajectory is about me and my power. We have authority problems.”
It’s an uphill battle to overcome a deeply ingrained consumer mentality and fickle tendency to abandon a church the minute it becomes too difficult. But the truth is, no matter how long someone shops for the perfect church, they’ll never find it. Instead of succumbing to inclinations that churchgoing is about “me” and it must meet “my” needs, believers should instead look at churchgoing as a chance to get outside of self-serving bubbles and join in something bigger and grander.
The Church is this mind-boggling, mystical, relatively new phenomenon of history in which the God of the universe, through His Son and with the power of the Holy Spirit, inaugurated a revolutionary new Kingdom on earth. A Kingdom not of kings ruling by force, but of pockets of people united by selfless love, charity and a steadfast hope in rejuvenation and renewal. This Church welcomes everyone into its arms so that, together, they can join Christ in the bringing of light to a dark world.
It’s a proposal, a partnership, a commitment: to embrace this mission and identity as the bride of Christ, warts and all.