In our time most American Christians do not sense the precarious position of the church in their neo-pagan culture. The world is no longer willing to grant its traditional favors to the church. People will not become Christians by simply living within the country and watching television. In America today Christians are once again aliens, colonists in a foreign land. Under these conditions, communities of faith are absolutely essential for the initiation, nurture and formation of individual Christians. People will neither become nor remain Christians, in the biblical sense of the term, apart from life in the colony.
Bruce Shelley, The Consumer Church1
Is our church a necessity to us or just a necessary evil? During World War II, Hitler and his generals kept their membership in the Catholic Church but, of course, never participated in its function. After he finished with the ‘‘Jewish Problem’’ he intended to solve the ‘‘church problem.’’ He said, ‘‘The point that must be reached is to have the pulpits filled with none but boobs, and the congregations with none but little old women. The healthy young people are with us.’’2 Ironically, it was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who died in a Nazi prison camp who wrote, ‘‘An individual Christian, trying to make it without the support of his or her family, simply makes no sense. Membership in the church, far from being a matter of personal choice, is a spiritual necessity.’’3
It should not be a novelty in any age to hear a thing stated one way when, in fact, just the opposite is the practical result. For example, Gene Veith wrote of our own generation, ‘‘The contemporary stress on community as the focus of church life is another good-sounding emphasis that in practice can become sinister, as the German Christians have shown. . . Too often communalism leads instead to conformity and to the replacement of transcendent values with group values.’’4
Far too often today, talk about the church and its ministry is simply a group value that has come into vogue that attaches itself to the New Testament Church but in the end lends to its destruction. How often do such things come across a pastor’s desk! One man proposes to start an organization called ‘‘Community Builders’’ and explains, ‘‘While congregations and denominations have a purpose, we must move beyond them in our local area and demonstrate biblical unity of the Body of Christ.’’5 He then describes their ministry to be exactly like a church. Of course, he asks for the local churches in his area to support him. Another group of businessmen wants to start a support organization for local Christian business people who will meet for ‘‘Bible study, outreach, work, and opportunities for networking and fellowshiping’’6 but is not intended to be a church (that would give it a negative connotation). Then there is the story of singer Larry Gatlin, who made much of his fortune singing in churches, but now says, ‘‘I don’t go to a particular church on Sundays. I can build my own cathedral (the article goes on to say, ‘So on Sundays Gatlin can be found at his home in the Myrtle Beach area, worshiping quietly by himself while watching devotional TV shows in his own room’).’’7 No wonder that two out of five unchurched adults say they have ‘‘made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ’’8 without making any connection between Him and His church.
As a pastor of a local church, I have given this phenomenon more than a casual thought. I have seen in my short life-time, and even shorter ministry, the local congregation of believers, having membership together, owning property with a church building on it, meeting at agreed upon times and trying to carry on a set of absolute beliefs through teaching and preaching, become a sort of step-child to people calling themselves Christian not to mention non-Christians. A typical prospect to our church may ask if we provide any number of services, none of which may have anything to do with the church. Or they may ask what church functions we have at non-church hours and at non-church locations, and never ask about our own church services. In addition, there is the constant pressure to be more marketable with the look and sound of our church, not so much from within our church, but from those who would join.
Any pastor reading this knows exactly what I am talking about. He also knows that the choices are not easy. As a Baptist, I know we are not traditionalists and yet we have a rich traditional heritage. I know I am commissioned to reach out to my generation and at the same time not to be yoked together with them. I know that culture can be a positive tool and a destructive tool. In the last four years I have pushed myself to read more about this phenomenon than I have read about it in my entire life. It has at least informed me of this: history is not as ignorant of the effects of culture as my generation thinks it is, and my generation is playing with fire it knows little about. I am, therefore, very reluctant to accommodate my generation in matters of my faith (Francis Schaeffer decried this accommodation and called rather for ‘‘confrontation’’9).
We have spent the last year at our church doing a thorough examination of every part of our ministry. We have asked ourselves if the Lord is pleased. In speaking to our church from 2 Corinthians, I came across a verse in chapter thirteen that seemed to put my thoughts into clearer focus. ‘‘We are glad, when we are weak, and ye are strong: and this also we wish, even your perfection (vs 9).’’ Paul, as an apostle, didn’t mind if he suffered as long as the church was strong. His desire for them was their katartisin (not the normal word for ‘‘perfection’’). That is the word from which we get ‘‘artisan.’’ To Paul, the church is to be God’s ‘‘work of art.’’
Our determination has become this: to be what God wants us to be; to do what God wants us to do; and to show what God wants us to show. We want to be His ‘‘work of art.’’ Now a piece of art is supposed to reflect the Artist’s handiwork. Tampering with it is forgery. A person coming into the gallery either likes it or he doesn’t. It is not the custodian’s job to please the observer, only to show him what the Artist has made.
The local church is the one place on the earth where the lost can actually see the body of Christ in a functioning manner. There we are! All of us together! Praying, singing, reading, teaching, caring, comforting, correcting and a number of other functions that the New Testament describes churches doing! There are families uniting together in worship, singles finding common bonds, widows and orphans and babies! We are not trying to be anything but the body of Christ. To be like the world would be forgery. Like the computer term ‘‘wysiwyg,’’ “what you see is what you get.”
From here we go out to our homes, our jobs and schools and neighborhoods, to be salt and light to a world that thinks it doesn’t need us. And I find that people who go out from a church like this, have no trouble navigating their world. They are confident that their faith is intact and that they are connected to history as well as to Christ. They don’t have unreal expectations from the world nor the world from them. And one of the greatest blessings in this world is to invite someone to come to church and see the body of Christ function. After all, if they accept Him, what they are seeing is what they will be getting!
Notes: 1. Bruce and Marshall Shelley, The Consumer Church (Downer’s Grove: IVP, 1992), p. 50. 2. Gene Veith, Jr. Modern Fascism (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1993), p. 66. 3. Shelley, The Consumer Church, p. 50. 4. Gene Veith, Modern Fascism, p. 72. 5. Mark Gardner, ‘‘Community Builders: A Proposal for Community Ministry’’ (A paper to community members). 6. ‘‘Christians Make Impact In Local Business’’ (Dayton Business Reporter, July 1995), p. B-9. 7. ‘‘All The World’s His Church’’ (Knight-Ridder News Service, nd). 8. George Gallup, Jr., and David Poling, The Search For America’s Faith (Nashville: Abingdon, 1980), p. 90. 9. Francis Schaeffer, The Great Evangelical Disaster (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1984), p. 98-99.