What is “church”?

November 13, 2014

Years ago I knew a woman that I disagreed with on a number of issues. We had a wonderful relationship and even though the issues that separated us were serious we didn’t allow that to get in the way of our respect and fond affection for one another. We had regular conversations about the things we believed and why we believed them. She would point out the error of my ways and I would do the same to her. Then one day she said something to me that I will never forget. “You know what your problem is?” she said. I wanted to answer, “You want them in alphabetical order?” but I didn’t. She went on to say, “Your problem is that you are an idealist. You actually expect the best in people.” She was right. Sadly I have “grown” since then.

What a condemnation of our society when hoping for the best in people is “a problem,” or “naïve.” I confess that I have grown more cynical as the years go by. And my expectations are dramatically diminished. I now “hope” for the best but don’t “assume” it any longer. That being said, I still have high, unrealistic expectations for those who claim to know Jesus. I really think Christians should love God, their neighbor… and each other. I really do. I know… silly, huh? Alas, the way we behave toward one another too often makes a mockery out of that hope.

Don’t get me wrong. I am equally disappointed in myself. Rarely does a day go by when I am not humiliated by my sinful attitude toward others. Not unlike last week’s rumination. I know what I’m supposed to do; I know what’s right; I know what God expects… I just don’t do it. It can be maddening!

Let’s turn our attention for a moment away from ourselves and ask a similar question of “the church.” What should we be? And what should our expectations be for church? Every one of us knows someone (or maybe even multiple “someones”) who used to be regularly involved in a church somewhere. For one reason or another they dropped out one day and have never looked back. There are two categories of those folks. There are those who left one church to attend another, and there are those who left a church and never went back to any organized gathering of Believers. It’s the second category that I want to discuss briefly.

Many in my generation “grew up” in the church. We attended Sunday School each week with our obligatory quarter in hand for the offering. Each summer we were present at the annual VBS. We sat patiently or not so patiently in the pews coloring, drawing, playing with little toys, eating candy, and waiting for the old, boring guy to be done talking and for the ancient songs to finish so we could go home and do something fun. Sometime right after the last Sunday of Confirmation Class we had enough gumption to tell our mom or dad that we didn’t want to get out of bed for church… and we didn’t. And they didn’t make us. And we still don’t get out of bed Sunday morning. Well, we might get out of bed but we have more interesting and compelling things to do now. Or so it’s believed.

And now, the two generations that follow me… well, they don’t have to convince their parents to let them sleep in. There have never been other options presented for Sunday morning. Church and Christian faith are not on their radar – at least until they need a nice location to get married, or in a very few cases they want to get a baby baptized. But even those two things are falling by the way side at the advent of dual purpose wedding chapels and reception halls. And baptism… who cares?

So what happened? How have we in the church lost several generations of people? What have we done… or not done? Truthfully there have been volumes written on this subject. Some have taken to analyzing what has gone wrong and others to recommending how we should go about “correcting” things. Under the category of “what went wrong?” I suspect the answer is fairly simple from a broad perspective. I have a sneaking suspicion that we in the church have simply become irrelevant. We no long “scratch where people itch.” The “News” that we put out there just doesn’t seem so “Good” any longer. Is it any wonder that the decline of the church parallels the advent of prosperity in our country? Think about it for a moment. When things are going quite well for the vast majority, the need for “Good News” is dramatically diminished. I mean things are pretty “good” already. It only follows then that church has progressed into the entertainment business. It’s no longer sufficient to proclaim the Gospel. Now it has to be done with a flair that keeps the masses amused and entertained so they will have some reason to come back. Once the uniqueness of that wears off… well…

I suspect much of this has to do with our distorted sense of “church.” We have almost always approached our involvement in “church” from the perspective of “What does it do for me?” Or “What do I get out of it?” That’s the crux of the problem. Our faith is not a “what do I get from it” sort of thing. It’s actually a “what do I put into it” sort of thing. Rick Warren in his book The Purpose Driven Life begins with this reminder, “It’s about God… It’s always about God.” As long as we approach faith from the perspective of “what’s in it for me,” we will not understand or embrace the Good News. And honestly that’s what we in the church ought to be about – proclaiming the Good News.

Personally I would rather go under with the Good News of Jesus Christ on my lips than with a theology of entertainment on my agenda.

So take a moment to evaluate your faith… is it all about you? Or is it all about God? Be honest.



7 thoughts on “What is “church”?

  1. Robert Browning said: Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for? That has always inspired me. Yet, also, today, I think the knowledge man has today plays a part in how he (we) view religion. I am aware there are many arguments to be made for and against.

  2. I am someone who is older than Bill and was never introduced to Christ. I met Bill when we were in the Navy stationed in Hawaii. I had my daughter in 1988 at the age of 42 and thanks to a teacher, Kristen nagged me into taking her to Church. At age 50 a Pastor invited me to a “life changing experience”. At the time I had stopped attending church. I became a Christian at age 52 or so. I developed a hunger and a passion for my faith and this year is the 13th time I will read the Bible in a year.

    My mother became a Christian at age 95 after more than 35 years of belonging to a cult. I have a sister who is a Muslim living in Morocco, a brother who is a member of a cult and a sister who is a Christian.

    The issues Bill are talking about are very real to me. The things that really bother me a lot are that often one can’t tell Christians from others. Only about 25% of Christians vote. Our faith is not alive in the world. What I want is a believer who acts different. George Barna recently conducted a poll and discovered that young people 18-36 don’t so much listen to what people say but what they do.

    In my experience, many churches are more concerned about facilities and not doing anything that will even hint of the church losing its tax exempt status than they are standing for absolute truth. The Bible stresses many absolutes and too often ignore Hell as a consequence of failing to accept Jesus as our personal savior.

    When I was in the Navy on submarines, when I ran around with an outlaw motorcycle gang, when I participated in various sporting events I was not passive; I spoke out loudly. Do you get the idea that Christians are on the winning team?

    Right now, Bill is probably giving thanks that I live in Iowa. 😄. I think you have a good shepherd so be thankful you have him.

  3. Good letter, Bill. I can relate to almost all of it, probably all of it. Compared to your recent sermon series, Fan or Follower, I think there’s another option unfortunately – neither….. some people just don’t like football at all! Blessings back at ya!  Steve

    Sent via the Samsung GALAXY S® 5, an AT&T 4G LTE smartphone

  4. I agree that many people do look for a church and sometimes even a religious faith that can do something for them. After all, how many of us would continue to follow God if He didn’t give us love, encouragement, support, and peace in a supernatural way. I think we need to do a better job of showing people why we follow Christ and what very real things He has done for us; instead of telling them why they need to follow Him.

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