Dec 7, 2006

who needs church? - part 1

It would seem that a number of people that I speak with these days haven't given up on God in as much as they have given up on the church.

Speaking of which, where are you at with that?

As I've recently shared, I'll be soon heading into a new opportunity to be a lead pastor of a church in Ohio... so naturally you might expect me to be all about promoting my little organizational bias. To the contrary, I am no longer a self-preservationist when it comes to what I do professionally and so this is by no means a sales pitch to keep me or my buddies "in business."

Rather, I want to talk with you about something I am head over heels in love with... the Church.

We've all probably heard or uttered the phrase, "You don't need to belong to a church to be a Christian... faith is a personal thing with God." I used to feel that way, too, even as a pastor. It felt good to say something rebellious against the institution of the local church that in many ways can be more hurtful than it realizes. In fact, I believe that many people who say that may very well have had a bad experience with Christians and chosen to boycott the church. Such people (including myself) feel as though the "personal relationship with Jesus" thing is a Bible "loophole," when in reality having a "personal relationship with Jesus" isn't an overt phrase in the Bible and not necessarily the complete biblical concept we assume it to be.

For starters, yes - faith is an individual decision. However, we are also created for community... something that Genesis 2 showed us before the fall not to mention the fact that there are the "tribes of Israel," the "12 disciples," and so on. As I read it, both personal faith and communal living are needed for spiritual growth the way we are best designed.

For several centuries, there has been an institutional church that has at times resembled a family, a kingdom, a corporation, and a rock show. On many occasions we (the church, which is people and God) have gotten it wrong, erring on the "people" side a bit too much and not enough on the God side. On other occasions, though, we've done well honoring God and brought about things like the invention of hospitals, social freedom, care for the poor and sick, and so on.

I heard this interesting story that may shed some light on it:
A fourth-century Egyptian soldier named Pachomius was determined to grow in his faith and did what many serious believers did in those days. He became a hermit: living by himself in the desert, fasting, praying and having visions. But after a while, Pachomius began to question this approach: How can you learn to love if no one else is around? Can you learn humility living alone? Is it possible to learn patience, kindness or gentleness in isolation? He realized that developing spiritual fruit requires being around people. Pachomius quit the hermit life and formed one of the first monasteries. "To save souls," he said, "you must bring them together."
This story sheds some great light on these biblical concepts of how spiritual strength buidling requires other people, especially those who spur us on in positive and negative ways. For example, in my life I have had some amazing mentors who have made positive investments into my life in all the right ways. On the other hand, I have been ripped to shreds by others who have caused me to grow through pain... much like physical muscles grow under stress.

So it would seem the best way to grow with God means being around those in community that we enjoy and don't enjoy. In a MySpace world where you get to allow friends and block spammers, is it possible that we're missing out on some people who will hurt us in all the best ways possible? Are those people in our lives for us to fix.. or are they in our lives to fix something in us?

I'm not trying to be insensitive... I know many of you may have wounds that are just to hard to speak of. On the other hand, it's possible this isn't even a blip on your radar screen because you love your church and it loves you. In either case, I get the sense we all need each other more than we realize to stay engaged in the daily process of redemptively reclaiming our personal identity and innocence.
"Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it." (1 Corinthians 12:27)


Brian Eberly said...

Great post Tony. I for one love the Church. Has it always been good to me? No. I have come to realize though that I need the Church and the Church needs me.

It hurts me as I'm sure it hurts God to hear people say they do not like the Church. As we know the Church is also called the bride of Christ. When someone says something disparaging about my bride it hurts me because I love her and am one with her. When someone says something disparaging about Christ's bride, it must hurt.

May we as the Church live in such a way that others are drawn to us and our bridegroom.

David Moss said...

I had a friend once describe "the church" as the community that sustains you. He compared it to an ember outside of a fire that may burn for awhile but eventually grows cold, while an ember within/among others is sustained.

Another friend of mine - he was around 70 y.o. when he shared this - told me so much of being the church is about "just showing up". He said there were so many times in his life he just wanted to stay home - but then he might miss an opportunity to be used by God....or create a vacuum where God wanted to use another person to speak to him.

The communities that God has guided me to have certainly sustained me - through times of joy and suffering.

I like your phrase "redemptively reclaiming". There is a lot to that short little phrase.

BarBarA said...

Tony, thanks for writing about this. I have been hurt by "a church" but still believe in "The Church" even though I don't go anymore.

I have a meeting with my pastor next week to discuss this very topic. For me, not going is not so much because I don't like it, or find things wrong with it, its a huge FEAR and PANIC every time I walk in. I think for a single woman that goes to a church that is all couples, I am kind of invisible. But that's another issue...

Tanner Ridge said...

Good stuff... nuff said

Tony Myles said...

barbara... You raise an interesting point. Sometimes the problem is that we are not like the community we are trying to graft ourselves into. All the more reason why when we're enjoying our community as a church we need to keep making room at the table... and adding more tables as needed. The problem becomes when the things that draw us together (i.e. the commonality of parenting or marriage, for instance) don't negate the diversity that the body is supposed to hold.

A personal example... if I am correct in that the church I'm about to go to is in a predominantly white community, then I need to figure out what it looks like for us to expose ourselves to new social environments and racial diversity. Not to have a token outreach program, but because if we don't look outside of ourselves we start inbreeding. As the old wive's tale goes, that leads to mixed up "kids."

Anonymous said...

yup to it all.

It's too bad that sometimes churches and denominations can function in ways that hinder the Church. For many of my friends, that's the big "loophole" as you put it. They also say that it doesn't take a corporation with a tax-free status and programs to have community and be THE body.

Anonymous said...

I'm the anonymous author of the above.

DJG said...

I sometimes want to give up on church, but not the Church, not the bride of Christ. It is just that so many groups becomes so inclusive and self serving that they don't even resemble the bride that Christ described us as being.

Sometimes it is hard to find that community that you can fit into AND that truly is about the Father's business....sometimes it is too easy to "just show up"...I think he wants a little more from me.

BarBarA said...

Tony, I have a feeling you will find a creative way to introduce some diversity. Please be sure to acknowledge the singles too!!!

stephanie said...

There is one thing I find ironic about the poeple who I've spoken with that are frustrated with the church (or have left the church altogether.)

Many simply refuse to be an agent of change.

They are content to sit back and complain about the church, but there are far too many who refuse to invest the time into changing it into what God wants it to be.

I wish you all the best with your upcoming senior pastorship. Thank you for this post.

Heather said...

Great post!
My husband and I have been "church searching" for a few months. Before that, I don't think I ever let myself belong the church we went to. I feel the loss. I know the difference in my life. Bono sang, with or without you. This could be applied to the body of believers.

Thurman8er said...

A huge echo to the comments on ministering to singles. They are overlooked. They even make people uncomfortable sometimes. There is seldom a place for them. And they have SO much to offer!

And we need to remember that singles aren't just people in their 20's and early 30's who want to get married. They include 50 year-olds and the divorced and the widowed. Most of them just want to belong. And if they can't belong to the church, where CAN they belong??

On another note, I too find irony in some peoples' comments about the church. I know some people who feel that they are IN Christ but not a part of the church. I'm not quite sure how that works.

Larry said...

I'm one of those who has given up on going to church. The experience usually just ends up adding more burdens to a soul already laboring to follow Jesus.

I still have a church of sorts. A community of friends. a Weblog Fellowship, informal things like that.

I expect change in this. If I extrapolate the track of my walk with Jesus into the future, it's easy to believe that my path will eventually intersect that of an organized group of believers. We will all change in the encounter.

Why not now? I'm too much of a bottom-feeder, and don't allow myself to feel part of anything. When a group does accept me I tend to back away. Automatic defenses that God is working on through my informal groups of friends.

In other words... walk with Jesus and don't mind how strange your path might look to others. God is the master weaver of life-tracks.

Tony, I do strongly disagree with your implied notion of "necessary pain." I think our world would be better off if no one ever got "torn to shreds." No one learns from that experience except how to keep it from happening again. Being hurt is inevitable. It doesn't need to be sought or even informally encouraged. God can heal these wounds, if one allows Him to do so. This requires some idea that God actually cares, which is hard to accept when organized groups allow membership only to those who follow the right rules in the right way.

Tony Myles said...

Larry -

Thanks for your transparency and willingness to wrestle over this. I'd love to respond to your thoughts, but give me some time to add them to something I'm working on in part 3 of this.

One quick though, though... I hear you that pain isn't something to aspire to, but I would contend there are lessons we learn from pain that pain-free living doesn't allow. Sometimes we just really learn what's most important in life versus the things we pursue... which is maybe why we labor on earth to one day reach heaven. I know that I see life better when I have those around me who can catch my blind spots better than I can alone. Sometimes those are most recognized by people who happen to drive me crazy (which, perhaps if I was honest, is why they drive me crazy in the first place).

David Malouf -- said...

Keep going on this one, Tony!

I would concur your thoughts about Larry's situation. If I may parallel, pain-learning has a lot to do with Faith, not pain-management (unless that is solely what one is looking to do in life, manage pain).

Paul writes using terms of Vital Connection. We are part of the Family of God, the People of God. If I am child of God and there are others, then I'm connected to them. But then Paul uses Plato's 'body' analogy and even amplifies it. I NEED you.

Observation: people are equating "being in the Body" with showing up at the meeting time (Sunday morning). We know, eventually, that's not true.
-- But the consequence often taken is to drop the meeting time. Not an option in Vital Relationships -- that goes the wrong direction.

Redirect: two (very related) issues that I would love to see through Tony Myles Eyes. (1) Freedom of Choice allows for No-Choice [better, choice of "no"] and (2) Has mobility ruined community?

Phoenix, Arizona