Why We Need the Church

I began to follow Jesus seriously in the 1970s. Back then, I thought of it as a decision. “I have decided to follow Jesus,” I sang. “No turning back, no turning back.” But over time, I came to realize that it was more a case of Jesus drawing me after Him. I worked the midnight shift at a fast-food restaurant and started reading the Gospels during my breaks. Their stories of Jesus calling the disciples to drop everything and follow Him caught my attention and eventually captured my heart.

In the early days of my new life, it didn’t dawn on me that church was also part of the package. Our family didn’t attend and now that I thought of myself as a Christian, it seemed unnecessary to me. I had Jesus and the Bible. I had made friends with others who shared my faith. Why ruin it all by adding church into the mix? I had visited a few churches in the past. With its unfamiliar people and odd music, the experience was more uncomfortable than anything else. We stood and sat. Stood and sat. And then a man got up and lectured us about things I didn’t really understand. But after I became a follower of Jesus, I started regularly attending because someone told me that it was what Christians do. The music was still strange to me, but the lectures made more sense now that I was reading the Bible. I have been going to church ever since, though not always with enthusiasm. The music and the people still seem odd to me at times. But I have come to see the church as an essential part of my Christian life.

What is the Church?

We often talk about the church as if it were a location. We say we are “going to church.” We point to a steepled building that we call “the church on the corner.” We think of church as a place we go to worship. But the Bible speaks differently. On the one hand, in 1 Corinthians 11:18, the apostle Paul describes how the Corinthian believers “come together as church.” According to this, church is something we do. It is the act of coming together as those who worship and follow Jesus Christ.  On the other hand, the apostle also speaks of church as an identity. Church is what we are. It is a community of those who belong to Christ. For example, later in his letter, Paul brings greetings from Aquilla and Priscilla, two of his friends and colleagues, and from “the church that meets at their house” (1 Cor. 16:19). This is the same letter that he addresses to “the church of God in Corinth” (1 Cor. 1:2).

So a church is not a building but an assembly of believers. A church is a community of faith. When you read Paul’s references to the church in the New Testament, you find that he sometimes refers to it in the singular and at other times in the plural. He speaks of “the Church” and also of “the churches.” These are the church’s two primary modes. One is broad, and the other is narrow. On its most expansive level, there is only one Church made up of all believers, at all times, and in all places. This church is not confined to what is seen. It spans heaven as well as earth and includes both the living and the dead. It is also evident from the way Paul writes that there are many churches. This is the other mode of the church. It is local and consists of individual congregations made up of those who profess faith in  Christ. These local assemblies each have their own distinctive make-up, personality, and style and may sometimes differ on points of doctrine or practice. As a result, the New Testament can speak both of the Church and the churches without contradiction.

Irenaeus, the second-century bishop of Lyons, characterized the church as “a paradise in the world.” The book of Acts provides a snapshot of what life was like in the early church. According to Acts 2:42, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” Luke describes what, on the surface, might sound like a utopian community. They shared their possessions, and their meetings were characterized by gladness and sincerity. Yet, the New Testament also paints a realistic portrait of church life. There we find people who are much like us, forgiven sinners who sometimes fight and complain but are still traveling the way of Christ together with the help of the Holy Spirit. In the book of Acts, we see some of the real-world flaws of this remarkable community. We discover that some of its members were hypocrites (5:1–2). We learn that the church’s first significant organizational change took place because some of its members were being neglected, possibly due to cultural prejudice (6:1). And we observe how reluctant the church initially was to accept the newly converted Paul because of his former life (9:26). Its members struggled with jealousy and ethnic prejudice. Some New Testament Christians were upset after they heard Peter had met and dined with Gentiles (11:2–3). Paul and Barnabas had so sharp a disagreement that they each went their separate ways (15:39). Some preachers taught with needed further doctrinal instruction (18:25–26). And Paul warned that others would become false teachers (20:30).

Why Church is Necessary

But do we really need the church? The Bible’s answer is an emphatic yes. One reason is that the assembled church provides a unique context for worship. When Christians come together as church, they do so to worship God through Jesus Christ. Ephesians 2:19-22 says that those who are in Christ are fellow citizens with God’s people and members of his household. They are a kind of temple, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. All who belong to Christ are being “built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” One of the primary reasons Christians come together is to experience the reality of God’s presence through worship. Another reason the church gathers is to hear the word of God taught. When Acts 2:43 gives a snapshot of the life of the early church, it says that the first disciples “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.” Christians meet together to study God’s word to know how to be the church when they go their separate ways. A church is a community bound together by what Jesus Christ has done and what it has been taught. On the one hand, the word of God is the foundation that establishes the church. The church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:20). Because of this, the church is also an agent of truth that proclaims God’s word to the world.  In 1 Timothy 3:15 the apostle Paul describes the church as the “the pillar and ground of the truth.”

Long before social media adopted the language of connection to refer to relationships enacted in the digital realm, the apostle Paul expressed the idea more concretely by calling the church a body made up of members who have been joined to one another through Christ. The church is a place where “we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others” (Rom. 12:5). God’s Spirit has empowered every believer to contribute to the well-being of the other members. Instead of losing our individual identity and disappearing into the whole, each of us has a distinctive function in the church. Every member adds value to the church, even those who do not seem to add value. Christ has arranged the church this way, “so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other” (1 Cor. 12:25). Therefore, Christians come together as church to worship God, hear the word of God proclaimed, and care for one another. Then they each go their way to represent God’s interests in the world around them.

Although there are many organizations that work for the betterment of the world, three things set the church apart from every other institution. First, the church is a community where God uniquely manifests His presence. It is the dwelling of God by the Spirit. Second, the church is a believing community that both hears and proclaims the word of God. It is through the church that God spreads the good news of forgiveness through Christ. Third, the church is a community of servants empowered by God to represent His interests in the world.

God’s Beautiful Imperfect Church

Anyone who has visited a church knows that it is still a work in progress. God has given Christ’s righteousness to the church as a gift, but our practice of that righteousness is not yet perfect. Those who claim that there are hypocrites in the church are right. No congregation is everything that it should be. But there is more to the church than our experience of it. An essential discipline of the Christian life is learning how to view the church through the eyes of faith. We learn to look beyond our disappointments and take God at His word. All that God says of the church is true. This faith-driven approach to church life does not deny or explain away its problems. Just the opposite. Most of the New Testament was written in an effort to apply the truth of God’s word to the failures and inconsistencies of the church.

So how does one find their place in the church? The starting point is to recognize that union with Christ also unites us to the church. The same faith that is the door to a relationship with God through Jesus Christ is also our entrance pass into the church. We must also recognize the importance of intentionality. Scripture urges Christians to study the art of being a church. Belonging to the church comes automatically, but behaving like the church takes learning and practice.  Hebrews 10:24-25 uses the vocabulary of thoughtful reflection when it tells us to: “. . . consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” The closer we get to Christ’s return, the more we need the church.

Practicing the Present

I am a sucker for books and movies about time travel. The Time Machine by H. G. Wells, the DeLorean in Back to the Future, and any Star Trek episode in which the crew of the starship Enterprise travels back to the twentieth century—I love them all. But over the years, I’ve learned a few important things about time travel. For example, as far as I can tell from these books and movies, backward is better than forward. When you travel back in time, you know what you’re getting. The future, on the other hand, is unknown and always seems to get worse. But that doesn’t mean that the past is safe. When you travel back in time, you had better not touch anything. Apparently, the smallest change can have devastating effects on the space-time continuum. You may come back to the present and find that you don’t exist.

In real life, time travel is impossible, but that doesn’t mean I have no interest in the past or the future. The truth is, I’m often preoccupied with both. Sometimes it’s because I’m thinking about the past, trying to understand what I have experienced and how it affects my life. Just as often I’m concerned about the future. Maybe it’s because I’m looking forward to what comes next. More often it’s because I’m worried about it. What gets lost in all of this is the present. Like the quiet child in a loud family, it’s often overlooked. Either way I tend to brush by the present, as if it were some stranger I pass on a busy street. Or if I do give it attention, it’s usually only a kind of grudging consideration—the sort you might give to someone who whines until your attention is wheedled away from the thing that really interests you .

“I have been scattered in times I do not understand,” St. Augustine complained. He saw his life as one that stretched in many directions at once. Like Augustine, our minds too are scattered in time, so that our interests range far beyond the present. At one moment, we peer intently into the past, hoping for the mists to clear and longing to catch a glimpse of a present that has disappeared from view. In the next, we skip far ahead, hoping to scout out the future and stake a certain claim. Unfortunately, the beauty and value of the present is often lost. We are here in body but not in mind. We are only halfhearted in our attention and sometimes in our service. To someone whose interest is chiefly on the future, the present is only a way station. Its primary function is to serve as a staging ground for what comes next. For the person whose focus is mostly on the past, the present is a cemetery filled with monuments to the glory days that will never come again or with a painful record of the injuries and slights we have suffered.

I want to propose an alternative. I call it the “practicing the present.” Practicing the present is more than the habit of slowing down and making ourselves aware of what is going on in the moment. It’s a way of locating ourselves in the world. It’s a way of seeing. Practicing the present is the habit of reining in our wandering mind and concentrating our attention on the here and now. This means, first of all, taking stock of things as they really are. What is the real landscape of my life? What do things really look like? We are doing more than assessing. We are trying to orient ourselves to reality. Those who dwell on the past and future are often living in a fantasy world. But God is at work in the real world. As we take stock of things as they really are, we do so with an awareness that God is truly present no matter how mundane or how bleak the circumstances appear.

Those who practice the present believe that God dwells in the midst of the muck and mire of daily life. Practicing the present doesn’t ignore the future or the past. But it does view both with a measure of sanctified skepticism. The future and the past can both be an unhealthy refuge for those who are disappointed with their present. Practicing the present also demands that we rein in, as much as we are able, our ambition and our anxiety. Both are common to human experience, and each in their own way can blind us to the reality of God’s presence. Ambition and anxiety can both cause us to forget the One who has numbered the hairs of our head and who is really responsible for the effectiveness of what we do for Jesus. Both ambition and anxiety can cause us to take too much responsibility for the success or the failure of what we do.

A few years ago, I was diagnosed with cancer. I was shattered by the news. I felt betrayed, not so much by God, but by my own body. I lay awake nights thinking about the thing I had inside me and wishing that I could go back to the day before I knew of the diagnosis. When the doctor told me that my surgery appeared to be successful, I felt like a condemned prisoner who has just been given a pardon. “This is what forgiveness feels like,” I told my wife. Five years after the surgery, my blood work showed a slight change, and I panicked. The doctor assured me that the difference was insignificant. As far as he was concerned, I was still cancer free. Yet the old fear had returned, and I found it difficult to break free from it. What if the doctor was wrong? How did I know that the next test results wouldn’t show that my cancer had come back? I still think about it.

Fear often casts a shadow over the future as we worry about things that might happen. Just as often we fret about the past. Sometimes we worry that we have taken a wrong turn along the way or we regret some choice we have made. We wonder how the past has shaped our present or how it will affect our future. We speculate about how things might be different if we had acted otherwise. The trouble with all such fears is that we can do nothing about them. Once our choices have been made and the action is taken, we cannot go back and undo them. No matter how much we may regret the past, we do not have the power to change it. The future is similarly out of reach. We can speculate but we cannot know for certain what the future will be like. The past is a shadow, and the future a mirage.

In one sense, we can’t help practicing the present. We have no other temporal framework within which to live. Time travel is only the stuff of science fiction. We may remember the past, but we cannot return to it. We may place our hope in the future or dread its approach, but we cannot suddenly transport ourselves there. The truth is that the present is the only context available to us for living out our lives. So we may as well learn how to practice the present.

John’s latest book Practicing the Present: The Neglected Art of Living in the Now: will be released by Moody Publishers in June and is now available for pre-order from Amazon.com. Order your copy today.

Extraordinarily Ordinary

When my friend Ray was diagnosed with cancer, he started reading obituaries. He found comfort in the newspaper’s daily litany of the departed. Somehow it made him feel less alone. Like a pilgrim who is traveling in company, instead of someone who stumbles along a difficult path by himself. It was the ordinariness of the thing that helped him the most.

I feel something similar whenever I thumb through the old yearbooks in the faculty lounge. Their faces framed in horn-rimmed and cat-eye glasses, the images of former faculty gaze back at me with pursed lips or shy smiles. I do not recognize any of their names. They are long forgotten by the school they once served. Along with them are rank upon rank of students who are also long gone. They are not remembered either. Indeed, most of them were hardly known when they were here. Like the majority of us, they were just ordinary people.

It is hard to be ordinary. Especially in a culture which worships the heroic. This is particularly true of the Christian world. Wendell Berry observes that the Judeo-Christian tradition favors the heroic. “The poets and storytellers in this tradition have tended to be interested in the extraordinary actions of ‘great men’–actions unique in grandeur, such as may occur only once in the world” he explains. This is a standard that is impossible for ordinary people to live up to.

As a young Christian, I remember being captivated by the story of Jim Elliot, one of the five missionaries who lost their lives when they attempted to bring the gospel to the Huaorani people of Ecuador. When I was finished I got down on my knees and prayed that God would make me a martyr too. It was a foolish prayer, prompted more by romanticism than by devotion. It was a request born of youthful impatience and a rash hunger for glory. Not at all like the real martyrs, most of whom stumbled into their unique calling.

It takes another kind of courage and a different skill set to follow the path assigned to the majority. “The drama of ordinary or daily behavior also raises the issue of courage, but it raises at the same time the issue of skill; and, because ordinary behavior lasts so much longer than heroic action, it raises in a more complex and difficult way the issue of perseverance” Berry observes. “It may, in some ways, be easier to be Samson than to be a good husband or wife day after day for fifty years.”

On some days we feel like we are only going through the motions, merely shuffling along as we pass into oblivion. Instead, we are traveling in company. We are upholding the world with hundreds of small and ordinary efforts. We make the bed. We drive the kids to school and worry about the kind of day they will have. We go to work. We clean the bathroom. We wait for the end of the world and the dawning of the age to come. It is a kind of liturgy.

The world needs its heroes. It may be true that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. Yet both the church and the world at large are vastly more dependent for their daily functioning on the common efforts of those who are extraordinarily ordinary. The writer George Eliot observed, “The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”