Every so often, I’ve heard someone at some point say something to the following: “We are not suppose to keep the (state the name) church going. We are suppose to be the church.”
Maybe the say they aren’t suppose to save the church,or that said denomination’s survival doesn’t matter.
For a long time, such statements bothered me, because they sounded good at first glance, but if you really thought about it, you discover the belief isn’t helpful for Christians, in fact it’s dangerous to the community called church.
When people say this, usually what they mean is that we shouldn’t invest our time in trying to save the institutional church. Again, that makes some sense. There are a lot of things in the institution called church that aren’t worth saving.
But this is where it can get crazy. In some ways, this kind of thinking reflects our times, where we distrust institutions like the government or the church and place a lot of trust in ourselves. But as imperfect as institutions are, they are needed in society- especially the one called church.
I just finished reading David Brook’s latest book, The Road to Character. His main thrust in the book is that we have become a society focused more on accomplishments, the resume virtues instead of what he calls the Eulogy virtues- the things that you hear at a funeral. Our society has moved from a eulogy virtue culture to one that is a resume virtue culture. The thing about the old culture is that people knew they were flawed and that it was hard to be virtuous. Because of this, one needed others to help them become people of character. In short, they needed institutions to help them be better people. This is where the church came in. Church was a place where with others we worked on becoming virtuous, or in Christian-ese, how we become sanctified.
And that’s what’s wrong with the whole “we aren’t suppose to save the church” phrasing. The church is the place where we learn to be Christians and we do that by learning from each other. But there is another thing that makes the institution of church important: it is the visible representation of God and God’s kingdom in the world. People can’t learn about God if they can’t see the church. If people want to know what it means to be a Christian, they can only see that when Christians gather and do the work of God together. Being the church matters. But it’s hard to be the church if you don’t have a point of reference. That and the whole being the church thing can sometimes be an excuse to just do good things on your own without ever indicating you are a follower of Jesus (similar to the misuse of the phrase supposed quote by St. Francis: “Preach the Gospel at all times; if necessary use words.”)
I worry at times that in mainline/progressive circles, the church itself is somehow secondary in the spiritual life. But I think that we need the church, the actual place filled with flawed and hypocritical people. I don’t think we should never criticize the institutional church; but I don’t think we should just ditch it, either. It’s valuable because it is the physical witness of God’s kingdom and because it is in this community where we learn about God and become better Christ followers. Allan Bevere said this best earlier this year:
We must never forget that Jesus told his original disciples and, therefore, all of us who are disciples, that the gates of hell would not overcome the church (Matthew 16:18). I have often pondered the image offered to us by the Apostle Paul that the church is the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-30), that the church is Christ’s presence in a special redemptive way that cannot be seen anywhere else. In the church, God’s kingdom ushered into the world and established by Jesus continues even today. And such work can be found in no other institution. If Jesus is the very presence of God in this world, then in a very real sense the church is the very presence of Christ in the world. But we must remember that unlike Jesus, who was sinless, the church consists of disciples, who are sinners, but hopefully going on to perfection… the emphasis in this context is “going on.”
There are times when I am very discouraged with the church for various reasons. And on such occasions, it is helpful for me to remember that the church has struggled from the very beginning. In the Book of Acts after the wonderful event of Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit and the Birthday of the Church, God’s creation (Acts 2), it doesn’t take too long before there is disagreement and fighting in the ranks (Acts 6). In other words, the church in the twenty-first century is not facing any more difficulties, any further disagreements, any more intense strife than what our Christian sisters and brothers faced in the first century. God, who always works in the context of the human situation has created and called a people to be his presence in the world. God has been more than willing for that presence to be imperfect; for even, and especially, in the church’s imperfection, God can reveal God’s grace.
So yes, let’s be the church. But let’s be the church at church, at that physical place where we meet fellow sinners saved by grace. No individual church or denomination can last forever, but we should be about preserving what is best from the church and carrying it on to the next generation.
I want to save the church, not just to save it, but because it is the way people know about God and it helps us become better Christians.
PS: Doug Skinner has a great blog post on the St. Francis quote.