As open as people tend to be about spirituality these days, you might think the church would be a popular concept. But it really isn’t. It seems that the church is a fairly easy target, and it takes a lot of abuse—not only from non-Christians, but from Christians as well.
I can sympathize with people who have been “burned” by church or who are skeptical of organized religion. When it comes to a gathering of human beings, there will inevitably be corruption of all kinds. So I’m not surprised that churches are imperfect, and I’m not surprised that people are noticing.
What I do find surprising, however, is that so many people are surprised to find that their churches are imperfect. And I’m also surprised that once they see the imperfections, they leave, thinking they will either find something better or start something better on their own. Since the church’s problems stem from human beings, no church will ever be perfect, even if you start your own according to your exact specifications.
Having said that, I certainly don’t want to make light of the pain that people feel as a result of having been hurt by church. So many churches have done so many really messed up things. I don’t want to minimize that or tell hurt people to “stop being crybabies.” Pain is real and needs to be handled seriously.
What I want to emphasize, however, is that the church is worth committing to. We will quickly give up on the church as long as we keep approaching it with a consumer mentality. For many people, as soon as the church fails to give them what they want, they’re out shopping for a new church. But that is such a skewed view of the church, and it’s a very modern development. That approach is centered in the individualism and consumerism of the 20th and 21st centuries.
The church is not a customer service corporation, it’s a body of believers. This means that I don’t shop for a church, I am a part of the church. Think about Paul’s description of the church as a body in 1 Corinthians 12. He says, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you.'” Yet that is exactly what we do when we look at the other people in our churches and say, “You guys have it all wrong, I’m doing my own thing.” This approach is so unhealthy! When you walk away from the body, not only are you leaving a body without an eye, but you’re also walking around as just an eye without a body. An eyeless body is handicapped, and a bodiless eye is all but worthless (and more than a little disgusting).
The church is worth committing to. Again, if it was all about me being entertained and having my needs met, then it would make perfect sense to “church hop” or start my own thing. But it’s not about those things—it’s about the mission that God has given us. Jesus began his mission on earth, then died to set us free from sin, then rose from dead as the firstfruits of the new creation. Before he ascended, he left the church to finish his task of bringing truth, healing, and redemption to the whole earth. Immediately after he sent the Holy Spirit to empower his church to fulfill their supernatural task. The book of Acts makes it clear that the church is God’s plan for accomplishing his mission on this earth. As David Platt puts it: There is no Plan B. If the church is what God wants to use on this earth, then not committing to the church amounts to forsaking our God-given mission.
Now, I think there will indeed be times when people need to part ways with a church. I think Martin Luther in the Protestant Reformation is a good example. He really wasn’t trying to start his own church. He actually wanted to reform the Catholic Church, and the Protestant Church didn’t begin until the Catholic Church kicked Luther out. I think that’s a good model for us to follow. We do everything we can to invest in the lives of the people that God has placed in our lives, seeking to reform our churches, and then when they tell us to move on, we do so as graciously as possible. As a quick qualification, I’m not suggesting that we should be jerks in trying to change our churches so they kick us out sooner; we have to proceed as Jesus would, graciously and patiently teaching, healing, and restoring.
But for the most part, when I hear about people leaving their churches, it isn’t because they diligently, patiently, and lovingly tried to bring their churches back into line with God’s purposes and got kicked out as a result. Usually, they didn’t like the music or the childcare or the preaching style or the overall “feel” of the church, so they left.
I’m also aware that some people are wanting to leave their churches to join a “community” movement. I can see the appeal, and there are many things that are healthy about a smaller group of believers meeting in simplicity without a formal service, expensive building, or church programs. I’m not going to try to talk anyone out of this church model. But it’s worth pointing out that the healthy aspects of these types of gatherings are not incompatible with most traditional churches. From my perspective, every complaint that people have against traditional church models would be solved if people began living in true community with one another in addition to attending their normal church services. The church service is not the problem, the problem is that we have made the service into the total church package. My point is simply that we don’t have to bail on our churches to bring change.
If you’re dissatisfied because your church feels impersonal, then be a part of making it more personal. Love the people who seem distant and cold. Lead by example in showing people how to share their possessions and give to those in need. If your church seems too focused on entertainment or if you think the preaching is shallow, then do what you can to add depth and biblical grounding by ministering to the people God has placed in your sphere of influence. You won’t ever solve the problem completely, because the church is and will always be made up of human beings. Not until Jesus returns and restores our world will our human interactions be perfect. But until then, we build towards this restoration and healing through the church functioning here on earth to fulfill God’s mission.
The church is worth committing to, and ultimately, I don’t believe the church will fail. Lest we think the church is a thing of the past, Jesus promised us that he would build his church, and that the gates of hell would not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18). Don’t weaken the church by trying to function autonomously. Love the church, and devote yourself to seeing it become the healthy, world-changing force that God intends for it to be.