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THE CHURCH, WHY BOTHER? - by Ted Schroder


Ted Schroder

January 9, 2005

Tim Stafford, in this month’s Christianity Today, has written an article entitled, The Church, why bother? He reminds us that one third of all Americans are unchurched (don’t participate in any church), and approximately 23 million of those – 35% of the unchurched - claim to be personally committed to Jesus Christ, i.e. they consider themselves to be Christians, but they are not involved in a church. He calls such a faith Gnostic: the spirit is completely separated from the body. “They think your spirit can be with Jesus Christ while your body goes its own way.” He asks, how come this separation? He lists three important factors.

1. Enlightentment individualism and opposition to any authority, which is enshrined in aspects of the Protestant Reformation and the American Revolution. Individual interpretation of the Bible led to personal choice and the founding of many denominations and independent churches. It is a consumer mentality.

2. The growth of parachurch groups such as Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, Campus Crusade, Young Life and the Navigators promoted a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and provided the fellowship and teaching which the churches were not supplying.

3. Seeker-sensitive churches adopted the parachurch model which adapted itself to the consumer culture and avoided identifying characteristics of traditional churches in their structures and style.

As result of these factors many Christians see their salvation to be between themselves and God, and the church is only one resource among many. When they are not satisfied with their church, they move on, or fly solo.

Tim Stafford gives many illustrations in his article, of people who fit this category, such as Bono of the rock group U2. “I just go where the life is, you know? Where I feel the Holy Spirit… I just go where I find life. I don’t see denomination. I generally think religion gets in the way of God.”

Stafford also acknowledges that many church leaders have alienated members because of their hypocrisy and manipulation. Many people feel their church has failed them in their hour of need. But he also asks what Christians who do not participate in a church miss. He thinks that there are strong reasons for believing that committed participation in a local congregation is essential to becoming what God wants us to be.

“First, the sacraments are not optional. The sacraments are not a human tradition. They began with Jesus himself. He commanded the disciples to baptize all nations (Matthew 28:19), and to celebrate the Lord’s Supper in remembrance of him (Luke 22:20). If we are followers of Jesus we will do what he commands. This necessitates us being involved in the fellowship of a church, since the sacraments are meant to be communal and regular.

Second, we need the regular rhythm of public worship, which began with the disciples’ gathering on the first day of the week. We celebrate the resurrection on the anniversary of the resurrection of Jesus rather than on the Sabbath. In the weekly cycle of life we need the reinforcement provided by the community of faith. Whether we listen to the proclamation of the Gospel, or respond in prayer, or sing praises, nothing substitutes for human presence in the public performance of worship. The lively, physical reality of others touches our nature as body persons. As Hebrews reminds us, “And let us consider how we may spur one another toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another. (Hebrews 10:24,25)

Third, the church is the body of Christ, the tangible representation of Jesus’ life on earth. As the apostle Paul wrote to the quarreling Corinthians, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ (1 Corinthians 12:21) You could sum up his message this way: “If you miss connecting to the body of Christ, you miss Christ.”

Paul allows no vague representation of the church as the sum of all Christians. The body analogy expresses Paul’s belief that Christ is available on earth in tangible form. These various gifts come in human packages. To be ‘in Christ’ we cannot stand off distant from this body. We absolutely must serve other Christians – parts of his body – in a continuous relationship. A body part detached from the other parts is clearly useless, and soon dead. It cannot experience Christ, the head of the body.

We offer perilous advice when we urge people to ‘find Christ’ anywhere but in a local congregation. Can you imagine Paul arriving in a city, finding the local congregation not to his taste and simply staying away? For Paul, a Christian without his church is an unthinkable as a human being with no relatives. A person may quarrel with his kin, but he cannot leave them – they are his own flesh and blood. So it is with the church. And furthermore, they are Jesus’ flesh and blood.

People need people. God’s people need God’s people in order to know God. Life in Christ is a corporate affair. All God’s promises were made to God’s people – plural. All the New Testament epistles address Christians in churches. The Bible simply does not know of the existence of an individual, isolated Christian.

If people commit themselves to the church, they will undoubtably suffer. The church will fail them and frustrate them, because it is a human, as well as a divine, institution. Yet it will also bless them, even as it fails. A living breathing congregation is the only place to live in a healthy relationship to God. That is because it is the only place on earth where Jesus has chosen to dwell. How can you enjoy the benefits of Christ if you detach yourself from the living Christ?”

--The Rev. Ted Schroder is an Episcopal priest pastoring at Amelia Plantation Chapel on Amelia Island, Florida

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