I understand many people have a problem with the “institutional” church. They might say the church is stuck in its ways. I understand why people have preferences of one denomination over another. I get why they might point out that the in the first century we really had house churches. I hear people say that since all Christians everywhere are a part of the Church that anytime believers gather they make up a temporary local body of the Church. You’ll certainly hear some people out there saying they worship better in the forest or that they prefer different musical styles or that they’d rather just have a Bible study at their local coffee shop. Yet I also hear some people say they dislike music altogether or that the preacher was too dry or perhaps that their learning stlalyle doesn’t jive with an auditory emphasis in most worship services.
I guess that sometimes it boils down to the fact that some people like small churches, some people like small groups, some people like big churches, some people like programming and some people want individualized attention. You have churches popping up all over the place and yet still more and more churches are dying out. It’s like a consumerist propaganda, each church is trying to sell themselves as having what the guy down the street doesn’t have and I hear people comparing churches like they compare hamburger joints. The preferences over theology, music, eschatology, liturgy, and preaching style have caused a great splintering of the evangelical Church in America.
It doesn’t really matter what your opinion is about individual churches because neither you nor I are in a place to judge the health, vitality, community, spiritual condition or value of any particular body of Christ. Yet I continue to see a growing and disturbing trend among Christians. We are all out there criticizing each other. We are disgruntled. People like to voice their conflicting opinions: “We need more age-appropriate programming,” “We must be conservative!”, “We need multi-age family programming, “We need to be more liberal and not bound by the restraints of the way things were done in the ‘old days,'” “We need bigger and flashier technology and art in worship,” “We need a smaller group and a more intimate setting,” “We need to be cutting edge and be a trend setter,” “We need to start a house church and get away from the institution.” The opinions about what an individual church should be and do are more numerous than the people in those churches themselves.
I don’t really care about where you stand on what a church should be or how it should look or how it should act. Because frankly your opinion doesn’t matter (neither does mine!). But I’ve got one thing to say. The church was never about you (or me). Let me say that again. The church doesn’t exist for you, your needs or your desires. Yet so many people are out there asking what their church can or will do for them. “I need Church to feed me better.” “I don’t like the worship there.” “The parking lot isn’t great.” “This church is so much better then the one we used to go to.” “That church was friendlier towards me.” “That church believes in only using that one translation of the Bible and I didn’t like it.” “That church is to strict on its rules and I felt trapped.” “This church has a lot of old people so I felt out of place.” “That church on the other side of town only has young people and is way too hipster.” It’s like churches, local bodies of Christ, have become a part of a buffet line. We as Christians come into town and we wonder, “What Church will meet my needs and make me happy?” It’s almost as if church only exists to fulfill my desires, wants, needs and make me feel good. It’s no wonder there is such a splintering of the church; we’ve come to see churches the way we look at the local pizza joints. That one is too greasy, this one is expensive, that one doesn’t deliver to my house, that one cooks it in a wood-fire oven, the kids prefer that yucky one on the other side of town with the kids-jungle-gym-maze on the inside, yet I prefer the one a block away because its convenient. We criticize Christian leaders and authors because being critical is now cool. We balk at what others are doing because we don’t like it and want to find something wrong with it.
It’s no wonder the world mocks us as Christians. We’re not even a little bit unified. We’re so divided and splintered that we’ve become the laughing stock of the secular world. We’re the judgmental critical cynics of our own community. We’re so passionate about reformation and individualism that we’ve left all forms of unity, team spirit and comradeship somewhere behind us in the dust. Is it any wonder when someone ostracizes themselves from the church that the reasons they pull up are often critical and demeaning or personal and untouchable?
I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me… May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me. (John 17:20-23)
I want to make several things clear here. I don’t want to be one of those people who criticizes people for not going to church. There are certainly houses of worship out there that are not worth your attendance or investment. Your decision to attend a church should be something between you and God alone. I’m not against necessary reformation. But what I see today seems less reformative in nature and more of a splintering and abandoning of the Church. This saddens me deeply.
Please just hear me out. I’m begging you, please don’t consider only your needs and wants when you attend a local body of the Church. If you somehow believe that a church experience is all about you then you’ve missed the point of church. Ask God to show you where you can fit in and how you can aid in the discipleship of someone else and where you can serve God. If you have to defend your reasons for not attending a church by saying that you prefer to worship God in nature or that you are more fed by a sermon podcast or by reading the Scriptures in a coffee shop, you are missing the point of church. Because the church was never about you. The church is about all of us. It’s not so much what you can I get out of church as what can I give back to the church. Because like marriage once you stop focusing on yourself and begin focusing on the other person you’ll find there’s joy and satisfaction for both people. We find it far too easy to point the finger at the church and explain why it failed to live up to our expectations and standards. If you attended a Bible-believing church and weren’t spiritually nourished and fed, is that failure on the church, your shoulders or was it God’s fault? If you found faults at the body where God has called you, why not roll up your sleeves and ask the leadership what you can do to help? It’s far too easy to be a critic and much harder to climb into the joyful, messy, irksome, beautiful, sanctifying local body of Christ.