Rounding out the relevance series (before we get stuck into some heavy topics) is the topic of Church. To me, there’s no question that Jesus and faith are still relevant. In fact, a reader remarked during the week that it is people that drive people from Jesus. Jesus himself isn’t the problem but often Christians mess it up. No arguments there!
We’ve talked about the concept of sin, and we’ve unpacked preaching. But now its time to talk format. We’ve been doing church this way (roughly) since Constantine. Meet in a building on a Sunday and hear a sermon. Somewhere along the line, songs or hymns made their way in. Tithes have always been part of it (since Jacob promised God a tenth of everything and Malachi put pen to paper). Society has evolved over the last few centuries but Church kept the same format, albeit adding flashing lights, stage design and contemporary music stylings.
So friend, is church still relevant? Here are some thoughts on it.
To kick this one off, the obvious scripture reference has to pop up, right? Hebrews 10:25 – “Do not forsake the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhort one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.”
Some translations say “the gathering together of the saints”. Others word it differently, but the inference is clear – if you are a Christian, meet up with other Christians to keep yourself encouraged and built up. Its good logic, I believe. No man is an island. Its a cliché because its true. We need people, because life will be great but it will also be crappy. At times, our walk with God will be as easy as breathing. At other times, it will be as easy as breathing when you have end stage emphysema and a sumo sitting on your chest. It seems to me that we need the Christian community around us in both scenarios.
- Firstly, when faith is easy its easy to stop praying, searching, or checking your doctrine. Its easy to invent your own truth and ride high on the euphoria of your own ideas when things are going well. Boy, I’ve heard some strange things come out of peoples mouths during these times! Things are going well. Things feel right. So we don’t check our thoughts to see if they are wrong. Being part of a community of believers can help keep you on the straight and narrow, and keep throwing scripture at you (via sermons) even when you aren’t reading your own copy of the Good Book.
- Secondly, in the hard times, encouragement and friendship can stop you from throwing in the towel, hiding from God or yelling “As if You are even there!” at the sky. I think I’ve done all three. And I’m eternally grateful (perhaps literally) for the people who have helped me through. But in these times, church hasn’t been in the walls of the church necessarily. It’s been at kitchen tables, crying into cups of herbal tea.
- Thirdly, community is a valuable part of a healthy existence. One of the greatest plagues of the modern world is that of loneliness. We are surrounded by people but have no one to share our lives with on a deep, personal level. We have Facebook friends lists with thousands of names, but no one to call in a crisis. Church, when done right, can be a solution to this problem. It can be a place to find a tribe and a sense of belonging. Nothing wrong with that (unless that church wields too much control over you because you need somewhere to belong. But that’s a whole other can of worms).
I am acutely aware that there are those who have a deep grapple with this question: is this “song service + pop culture sermon” format, the one that is oh-so-common across the western world, the best way to explore faith within the context of community. I can’t give you a Yes/No answer, but I’m more than happy to lay out a few thoughts.
There have been various movements in church format over the centuries. From the church of Acts which sounds a little like the communes of the 70’s (although I’m sure without the hippy/culty stuff that popped up in a lot of those). They shared their belongings. They broke bread together. They did life together. Then over the centuries that followed, long-form sermons and hymns took precedence as communal living faded away. Today, that sermon/hymn format has survived in some denominations. But in others it has been superseded by a more seeker-friendly format seen in mega-churches: a song service, tithes, the occasional communion, and a sermon. Its just all wrapped in slick advertising, nice stage designs and shorter, less fire-and-brimstone messages that are more appealing to the masses.
Is this the only relevant format? I don’t think so but each comes with pros-and-cons. Perhaps the modern format has been created to fit in with peoples busy, complicated lives, and perhaps that comes at the expense of a deep understanding of the word of God and a too-heavy reliance upon music to create the mood and experience. But the bottom line is this: if you are relying on church to keep your relationship with God afloat, you’re missing the point. Church doesn’t manage your relationship with God. It doesn’t save you. It doesn’t hash out your deep doubts or your misgivings. It shouldn’t dictate your every decision between Monday and Saturday. You and God have to work that out. Church is where we gather to keep encouraged, to be challenged when needed, and to find others who are walking a similar path. When we find a good church, its a thing to cherish.
Currently, a regular attender at church is someone who goes once every three weeks (or maybe four! I can’t remember!). It could be easy to think that this is the measure of a persons Christianity. I don’t think this is wise. Who has a closer walk with God? Someone who goes to church every week but never opens their Bible? Or someone who never sets foot in church but prays and reads their Bible every day? Who has a better hold on righteousness? The songleader who can create a heightened emotional atmosphere in a worship service, but chooses songs purely on how they can make people feel and lives a life that contradicts the songs? Or the person who doesn’t go to church regularly but makes a daily effort to ask “what would Jesus do?” and follow through on that.
Church attendance really isn’t a hill I’ll die on. I don’t think it determines whether or not you’ll go to Heaven. It can just make life a bit easier along the way. It can surround you with community, give you focus, and opportunities to contribute and grow your faith. That’s good. I’m in a church and I love it. But not all of my friends find it that easy. In fact, many of them serve out their faith the best way they can, but regular church attendance isn’t part of it at this point. You won’t find me passing judgement on any of them, because they share their faith and walk with God with other Christians (myself among them), and I’m absolutely sure God looks upon their reasons (and in some cases their struggles) and sees someone He loves and cares about.
Example: I’ve got a friend who left behind a city mega-church and settled down in the country. For him and his family, church is a lived experience that never has them set foot in a church (at least for this portion of their life). They have Christian friends and parents. They share their lives, frustrations, playlists, scripture readings, dreams, hopes and day-to-day stuff with them. But every day they make an effort to share the love of God with the people that are in their lives. Is it for everyone? No. But does it satisfy the Hebrews 10 clause – yeah, pretty sure it does. And they seem happy.
More than once, I’ve heard people voice their frustration at various parts of their own church experience. The worship doesn’t satisfy them (either its too pushy or its too light). The sermon isn’t quite right (its too pop culture, too light on scripture, too long, too short, too confrontational, not confrontational enough). The character of the congregation doesn’t suit. Its too cliquey, or too love-bomby and suffocating. It seems if you’ve got a church of 100 people, you’ll have 100 opinions on how it should run. You’ll have people who get along better than others. You’ll have rough diamonds. You’ll have iron sharpening iron. It will be great. It will be uncomfortable. It will be different things to different people. That’s all fine.
Church will never be perfect because its made up of humans and we aren’t perfect. I look at Hebrews 10:25, I look at people who never skip a Sunday unless they’re dead, I look at people who skip church on a sunny day and here’s what I think – Church isn’t Christianity. Church is encouragement, and community. Church is flawed, and easy, and difficult, and imperfect. It is beautiful and ugly at times, but Church is just people. It was a God-breathed concept that inevitably has good and bad aspects because it was entrusted to the hands of inherently flawed humans but church is not salvation. Jesus is.
The minute we think it is a qualifying factor in our salvation, or that it buoys our sinking devotional life, we miss the point. Over the course of the last few months, I’ve spoken with a lot of people who carry deep, deep wounds from toxic churches. Many of them can’t set foot in a church. To them I’d say – Don’t worry. No one is dooming you to Hell because you can’t do it. But find a friend who can help you satisfy the Hebrews 10:25 clause. There’s another scripture that says “where two or more are gathered, there I am in the midst.” Church doesn’t have to be in a building with a spire or a band. It can be in kitchens around tables. It can be in lounge rooms. Communion can be in tiny cups or it can be giant feasts an Italian mamma would be proud to put on. Format isn’t important. Here’s what is:
- Does it encourage you to keep on going in your faith, to keep on searching for a deeper walk with God in the mountains or in the valleys of life?
- Does it create room for the kind of friendships where someone could say “Okay mate, I think you’re going off on a weird tangent here. Why don’t we come back to what God says about it?”
- Does it motivate you to find ways to show the love of God to people who need it and thus spread the fragrance of His love in every place like the scripture says?
- Does it surround you with community so you never feel like you are doing this thing alone?
Christianity is you and God. Church is a community that surrounds you. How that works format-wise is less of an issue than some make it out to be. There are markers of a healthy church. I’ve talked about that before and I’ll probably talk about it again. But for today I’ll say this: I strongly believe Church is still relevant. It just doesn’t have to look the way it always has.
I say that as a member of a healthy church, as a member of a worship team. I love where I am at and see it as an important part of my walk with God. But that is my walk with God.
You do yours.