Is Church Worth It?

Many of us have been hurt by church. But what if sticking with it actually matters?

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. 

This article originally appeared in RELEVANT. To read more articles like this, you can subscribe by clicking here.




Derek DeVries commented…

The Orthodox Church has not changed in doctrine and worship since 33 AD.

Mary, the Mother of God, was physically alive when Paul was around. There is nothing wrong with asking your fellow brother or sister in Christ to pray for you is there?

You're probably objecting to praying to saints who have departed this life. But this *is* Biblical. Let me show you.

Christians, while they may temporarily physically die, they are still alive in Christ. In Matt 22:32 we read: "God is not the God of the dead, but of the living." Just like we ask our fellow Christians alive with us to pray for us, we also can pray to those that have departed, since they are still alive in Christ. This is not the equivalent of worship, since when we ask our fellow Christians to pray for us we aren't worshiping them. Also, in Hebrews 12:1 we read that "we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses." In the Greek, "witnesses" is marturon (martyrs). In 2 Timothy 1:16-18 we see Paul making reference to prayer for the dead, namely, Onesiphorus, who passed away. In Revelation 6:9-10 we read: "I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held. And they cried with a loud voice, saying, 'How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?' and then in Revelation 8:2-4 "Then another angel, having a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, ascended before God from the angels hand."

Also, in the 2nd century, in the tomb of the Christian Abercius of Hieropolis in Phrygia has the inscription: "Let every friend who observes this pray for me", i.e. Abercius, who throughout speaks in the first person. The original Septuagint Greek manuscript which the Apostles and Jesus Christ Himself used and quoted from, contains the deutorocanonical books (Proof: http://www.scripturecatholic.c.... In these deutorocanonical books, there are references to prayers to/for those that have departed (Tobit 12:12; 2 Maccabees 12:39-45; 2 Maccabees 15:14). The Orthodox do not consider these books canonical, but they are still part of the Holy Tradition of the Church. As Paul teaches in 2 Thee. 2:15, "So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us."

Finally, let's be fair: I was responding to your claim that "the reality is, that any church can be the right church. Its about how we honor and worship God that matters. If we are doing it with our whole heart and following after him collectively then that church." I focused solely on the exact words you said. I was showing that under your definition of church, even Oprah New Agers and Muslims qualify as Church, since they too honor and worship "God", since you mention nothing about *which* revealed God. Only *now* in your last response do you say "When I said that I believed it is that we trust in Jesus and follow after him -- I still stand by that saying," even though you didn't actually say that before.

You also said, "If you truly follow after Christ, he will reveal himself to you." But which *version* of Jesus are we talking about? Not to be snide but only to make an argument: Do we follow Mark Driscolls Jesus the Pansy Emo Fighter, Jim Wallis Jesus the Progressive Social Activist, Rick Warrens Jesus the All-Purpose Giver, Joel Osteens Jesus the Hater of Negativity or James Dobsons Jesus the Republican Family Values Guy? Which one of these is the correct interpretation of Jesus? Are all of them right? How do we even decide which one of these versions of Jesus is worthy of worship? Do we just believe in whichever Jesus we subjectively *feel* is the right one? Isn't this all-out subjectivism and relativism? How do you know the Jesus you believe is the true one and not one that you have invented to your own liking?

You said "In my personal oppinion, different denominations = different styles of leading worship. As long as those denominations stay true to God's word, then all the power to them!"

The Orthodox Church is not a denomination. It is pre-denominational. Denominations did not come into existence until after the Protestant Reformation. The Orthodox Church has been the same since the very beginning. "Orthodox Church" is a heading to signify the entirety of the historical 2,000 year old churches of Jerusalem, Antioch, Constantinople, Alexandria mentioned in the Bible, and the churches that fall under them, such as the church in Greece and Russia, for example.

Nowhere in the Bible is it taught that Christian worship can be done however one wants. Christian worship (as Christianized liturgical Jewish worship), is revealed to the Apostle John when he is caught up in heaven (Revelation 4-5), with incense and all. He saw with his very eyes liturgical worshipthe worship of which Orthodox Divine Liturgy is based.

In the book of Acts (13:2), the word "ministered" in the original Greek is "leitourgonton." Read it on context: The Apostles were performing the liturgy on to the Lord!

Many evangelical Protestants have difficulty interpreting what they read in the book of Hebrews, especially Chapter 8:1-6, where Jesus Christ is described as the High Priest. Without some background in Jewish liturgical worship it is nearly impossible to really get the gist of those passages. Verse 2 tells us that Jesus Christ as the High Priest has a role besides salvation and reconciliation. He is also the Liturgist of the sanctuary. In the Greek, the word used here is leitourgos. A quick look at an interlinear Bible can clear all doubt! (The word minister in 8:2).

I was evangelical Protestant for 18 years. But after learning and reading more on the history of the Church, I've discovered that many of the problems facing evangelical Protestantism are due to the fact that they have uncharitably mischaracterized and demonized the authentically Apostolic Holy Traditions of the Church, which are good, holy, pure, and can transform all of us to become more and more like Christ Jesus. Evangelical Protestantism faces the problem of trying to do "church" entirely on the Bible. The problem is that, while the Bible may be perfect, its interpretations by individuals aren't. Which is why we need the entire Church as the proper interpretive and stable framework for reading the Bible as it was meant to be read, not individualistically, but as a community.



Johnny commented…

Honestly, I can understand where you are coming from and I can understand your reasoning and such and I will respect you for your own convictions. The fact that you have a personal relationship with Jesus and you are orthodox is absolutely awesome. Keep going! Keep chasing after him in the way that you feel is great for you! Obviously evangelical protestantism was not right for you.

For me, it is. I am sorry but you must respect that. When we are at church, I like to worship God freely and I am so thankful that I am in a congregation that allows me to do such. If I went to a Orthodox ceremony here in Ukraine, I know that there is no chance I would ever be able to raise my hands and dance around if I felt like it because I am praising God. In this country, Orthodox has gotten to the extent of idol-worship. I have talked with countless people who practice the orthodox faith here and the VAST majority do not know what a personal relationship with Jesus is.

The fact that you do gives me hope! It shows that there are those who practice it and do have a personal relationship and that makes me respect the orthodox church much more. Thank you for that!

It still boggles my mind to hear how you think the protestant church has failed us. My you have missed a lot in history (and just in 20th century American history alone!) God has used his church in incredible ways. Have you ever heard of a man named Martin Luther King Jr? Pretty much all of his ministry was birthed out of his background in the Baptist church. Most of his movement was planned in churches and such. What about Billy Graham? Baptist once again! Look at the millions of lives that have been impacted and the millions of people whom have come to know who Jesus is because of him. What about John Newton? The Quakers? Those whom helped stop the slave trade?
How dare you say that the protestant church has failed us? It is as if you are saying God has failed us. God WILL use whomever he likes.

So PLEASE do not DARE say that you have the one true way. I am sorry but that is pure trash. Still, you sound exactly like the disciples did in Mark 9. Do not DARE try to stop others from doing God's work just because you think they belong to the wrong 'denomination'. Lets allow GOD to work. All you are doing is the exact same as all those others have done throughout history -- divide. You think you are trying to prevent division, when in reality you are drawing VERY clear lines in the sand -- Orthodox or nothing. Let us please respect each other as brothers and sisters in Christ... ALL in the same body and learn to work together despite our petty differences. Let us allow Jesus Christ to WORK and stop relying completely on our own strength!


Derek DeVries commented…

In Mark 9:39, "Jesus said. 'For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us. Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.'"

God loves all of us, and uses whoever live righteously and seeks out His will. Even non-believers. This is the most important thing to gather from our brief discussion. So let us both do this, so that we may allow God to do His work in our lives and the lives of others.

But make no mistake: Jesus Christ *promised* in Matthew 16:18 of His Church that "the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it." The Orthodox Church has existed since the 1st century and is in fact still growing even today, including in the U.S. Still teaching the same faith (Jude 1:3) and still in union, expect for the Roman Catholic Church which willingly broke off from it. From which Protestantism grew out and *multiplied* the divisions among Christians with the introduction of denominations.

Jesus Christ did not lie when He said about His Church that "the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it."

Denominational Protestantatism is anti-Biblical because it produces denominational splits. In 1 Cor 1:10 Paul teaches: "Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment."

You accuse me of division just for believing in the One Church that has existed since the Day of Pentecost in the 1st century, that has remained faithful to being :perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment." You accuse me of that just for believing in the One Church that for more than 2,000 years and produced hundreds or thousands of holy saints and martyrs for us to imitate and brought countless to salvation. You accuse me of dividing the Church when in fact Protestantism has splintered the Christian community into more than 20,000 denominations, destroying the possibility of ever coming together to celebrate together Holy Communion.

What you are observing in Ukraine is not Orthodoxy! It is the failure of *human persons* to live up to the Orthodox calling, just like I've seen many Protestant evangelicals live up to Biblical standards by living hypocritical lives. I judge not the people of Protestantism, but the falsity of its teachings and worship practices.

I've seen also many Protestant evangelicals perform beautiful, God-honoring deeds. But this does not make Protestant evangelicalism *the Church*. Since I've also seen atheists perform beautiful, God-honoring deeds, such as helping out and feeding the poor.

In Protestant evangelicalism denominations come and go. Movements come and go. I know about Martin Luther King Jr., Billy Graham, John Newton, and the Quakers. Sure they did many great things, just like many *non-believers* did many great thing. But you have to take more seriously Christ's words when he said of His Church that "the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it."

God uses anyone for His purposes. But there is such a thing as a real, concrete, historical, embodied, unified Church, which began on the Day of Pentecost around 33 AD. And when you reject it, you are rejecting the Church that the Holy Spirit descended. If you secretly or vocally label all the Orthodox in Ukraine Pharisees, go ahead. But ask yourself, if you do that, whether you just made yourself into one. Ask yourself if you really think they are *being* Orthodox.

I've been a Protestant evangelical for too long to have learned many of its problems. I've seen the good and the bad in "free" worship. The problem with "free" worship is that it leads dangerously to the idolatry of worshiping *feelings*, or one's own self-imagined image of God. The emotionalism of Charismatic and Pentecostal and similar denominations is equally dangerous, allowing for the work of demons to be confused as the work of "God" in/during worship services. The other problem is just that it's not Biblical. Any history book that touches on early Christian worship will tell you that the Apostles and earliest Christians worshiped liturgically.

I applaud your love for Jesus and the Bible. I do not question your faith in Jesus. What I question is the truth of Protestant evangelicalism, which centers around the false doctrine of Sola Scriptura: That the Bible is the sole foundation of Christianity. 1 Timothy 3:15 teaches that *the Church* is "the pillar and ground of the truth."

Know that I also love Jesus and the Bible, but I've come to love those two in ways much deeper and powerful after having joined the Orthodox Church. The Ukrainians suffered a lot with the Soviet Union, just like Russia. Protestant evangelicalism may offer psychological relief, since it is an easy faith that requires very little: Say a magic prayer, and bam you're saved. The Orthodox life requires much from us. It is a path of struggle. But wait a little while longer, and with the growth of Orthodoxy in Russia, the true life of Orthodoxy will spread to Ukraine like wildfire and lead many to its healing fold and ancient faith, including perhaps many Protestant evangelicals.


J.J. commented…

BKGA....I've never had trouble with God's Authority, but when man made religion is used to abuse,manipulate and attempt to conform people to the point of them losing their identity and God given creativity, then I'm outta there!!! As far as I can figure out, my walk with God has gotten more Simple over the years...WE are the Church, our focus is Christ centred and we're attempting to Live Loved by God and then share that Love with whoever comes into our lives on a daily basis , wherever that may be...in a park, on a beach, having coffee or at work, wherever 2 or more are gathered together there's Jesus... :)


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