I want to begin with an observation: we want community as much as ever, but we are finding it increasingly hard to know where to get it. Young Australians report that family and friends are the most important thing to them – more important even than personal independence. And yet they are much less likely to eat dinner and talk with their parents on a regular basis than other countries. More of us are living alone. Overseas, it has been found that Americans have fewer people to discuss important things with than two decades ago.
In previous generations I imagine people used their last names more often than we do now. Now we just have first names, and occupations. “What’s your name?” Andy. “What do you do?” I’m a minister. In other words I am a disconnected individual, with no story, no origins – no last name. Just a first name and an economic function.
And there’s a very real possibility that we could be losing something valuable here. I spoke to a Christian lady the other day who was part of the stolen generation. She was injecting heroin in our church grounds, so I had a cup of coffee with her. (She’s got her habit, and I’ve got my more socially acceptable caffeine addiction – so who am I to judge?) Speaking to her, it struck me that part of the madness and injustice of the stolen generation was that we treated (on the advice of the best sociologists and psychologists) children as individuals whose connection with a family, a clan, a nation was incidental or unimportant. Only moderns could make that kind of mistake.
Community is a precious part of being human. Which is why people often look to church to meet a need – as a place to find belonging, identity, and community.
The church will break your heart
Churches get tax concessions for the same reason football clubs do – because they are seen, by governments, as a cheap way of meeting certain human needs. One of them is this thing called “community”. One man I knew well continued coming to church long after he abandoned historical Christian beliefs, continuing to belong long after he stopped believing.
And yet there is a tension here, because anyone who has actually been in a real church community can tell you that the reality often falls far short of our ideals. I heard someone say the other day that for him, church is both the best and the worst thing about being a Christian. He’s not far off for many people I suspect.
It’s sad to look through photos of all the people I’ve done music ministry with over the years who now, less than a decade on, have stopped trusting in Jesus completely. What was the deal breaker for them? For many of them it was disappointment with other Christians.
To love the church will break your heart. For that matter, love anything, and it will break your heart. As C.S. Lewis says:
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.” (C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves)
I’m not going to try to convince you that the Christian community is perfect. But I do think it’s precious. Chuck Colson has a lovely image for the church – the church is like Noah’s ark. Imagine Noah’s ark for a moment, with at least two of every kind of animal crammed inside for months with only one guy and his family to clean up the mess. Like some kind of floating zoo gone wrong. Chuck says:
“the stench inside would be unbearable if it weren’t for the storm outside” (Charles Colson, Being the Body, quoted in Why We Love the Church).
Of course you don’t go to church
As an Anglican minister I don’t get invited to parties very often. But when I do, I often get into conversations (once they find out that I am “Andy/Minister”) with people who are Christians, “but I don’t go to church”.
I don’t normally have the guts to say it … but of course you don’t go to church. You are the church. (Or at least part of it.)
Ask Paul what it means to be a Christian and nine times out of ten he’ll say “in Christ”. To be a Christian is to be “in Christ”. Being a Christian means to be one with him. To be the body to his head. To be the branches to his vine. To be his bride.
Here’s the thing though:
- if I am “in Christ”, and
- if you are “in Christ”, and
- if there is only one Christ, then
- we are all in Christ together.
If you are in Christ then you are part of his church. Whether you like it or not! This is because the Christian community rests not on things we do (like “going” to a place on Sundays), but on what what God has already done.
His plan was never to save a person, but to save a people:
Titus 2:14 [our great God and Savior Jesus Christ] gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.
No doubt many of you heard some of the incredible messages from the families of men and women killed recently in a South Carolina church. In a court hearing the relatives addressed the accused murderer Dylann Roof one by one. A sister of one of the victims said this:
“For me, I’m a work in progress. And I acknowledge I am very, angry. But one thing that Depayne taught me, is that we are, the family that Love built. We have no room for hating! So we have to forgive. And I pray God [have mercy] on your soul. “
That phrase has stuck with me. We are the family that love built and hate will not destroy. Different races, different social status, different histories, and we are all one in Christ Jesus:
Gal 3:28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
So when people say “I am a Christian but I don’t go to church” then they have fundamentally misunderstood either what church is, or what being a Christian means. It’s like saying “I’m married but I’m a bachelor”.
“I am a Christian but I don’t go to church” … as if being the family that love built were nothing at all, an optional extra, something to do on Sunday if there’s no better offers.
It’s like we’re orphaned children who have been given a gift we don’t quite understand, or can’t yet appreciate the value of. We have been rescued from abuse and homelessness, brought into the family, given an identity, love, belonging – and yet we don’t see why we should turn up to family dinner.
“Therefore, let him who until now has had the privilege of living a common Christian life with other Christians praise God’s grace from the bottom of his heart. Let him thank God on his knees and declare: It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.”― Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together
The glorious mess of the church
To be a disciple of Jesus is to see his vision for the church. To see through the mess of church as we experience it now to the glory that will be finally perfected in the kingdom.
It’s a vision of incredible intimacy. Jesus once prayed that we as the church might experience the relationship he has with the Father:
John 17:11 I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one.
Just pause on that for a second. The Father and the Son share intrinsic unity in a way we can only barely conceive … and that is Jesus’ prayer for us!!
And what’s more, this is a vision which, if you are a Christian, then you are already part of now.
Ephesians 2:6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.
No, you don’t go to church. You are there already.
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together
- Tim Chester and Steve Timmis, Total Church
- Ted Kluck and Kevin DeYoung, Why We Love the Church
 Cited in Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Young Australians: Their Health and Wellbeing (2011), http://www.aihw.gov.au/WorkArea/DownloadAsset.aspx?id=10737419259.
 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Young Australians: Their Health and Wellbeing (2011), http://www.aihw.gov.au/WorkArea/DownloadAsset.aspx?id=10737419259