The church is always in danger of being ditched as a superfluous burden. The church is always just about to be jilted. The church is always down in the count and on the verge of striking out. The church is never as beautiful and winsome as Jesus, and at every moment the disillusioned are composing their “Dear John” letters:
I really like Jesus, but I can do without you. So I’m moving on.
Each year approximately 2.7 million people in America cease to be active church members. With Christians steadily departing the church, churches are steadily disappearing. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 4,000 churches close every year. For every new church plant, four churches close. Not long ago my wife and I ate at a trendy restaurant that had once been a church. We sat in pews that now served as seating for diners. The food was excellent, but for me there was something sad about it all.
Is It Personal?
On some levels, I understand the impulse to walk out on the church. The church can be petty and difficult and sometimes just plain dumb. So the idea of being a Christian without the church can have a kind of romantic appeal. “Just me and Jesus, some good books, and a few close friends. That’s all I want, that’s all I need.”
But is it true? Is the church redundant, outdated and unnecessary—or do we still need the church?
Ultimately every person is the final arbiter on whether or not the church is relevant; I concede that. And though I am deeply suspicious that it is possible to actually flourish as a Christian apart from the nurturing soil of the church, I understand that some may not personally need the church. But there is one point I will not concede and of which I am absolutely certain: The world needs the church.
Why the world still needs the church is because a world without the church will soon be a world without Christ. This is a fact and there is no way around it. Despite all of its flaws and failures, the church has been and remains that which keeps the story of Jesus alive. If the story of Jesus is to be found in our world—the gospel story of his birth, his life, his teachings, his miracles, his death and resurrection—it is because the church keeps telling this sacred story.
How a World without the Church Would Look
We can’t just blithely say, “Well, we have the Bible.” The gospel story of Jesus does not remain in and travel around the world through the Bible alone. The Bible does not sustain the church, rather the church sustains the Bible. It’s the church that composes, canonizes, translates, prints, distributes, and interprets the Bible. Without the living presence of the church, the Bible would become an irrelevant artifact of little interest to anyone but academic scholars and antiquarians. Without a living church to maintain engagement with the sacred text, the Bible becomes a dead book.
What the Church Needs from Us and Why
The world still needs the church to keep singing its songs and telling its stories. The world needs the presence of people whose lives are shaped by the death, burial, and resurrection narrative of baptism. This secular world needs the presence of sacrament and the sacred story it enacts. The world of cynical commerce and cut-throat competition needs our flawed little churches with their Christmas programs and Easter pageants, their archaic steeples and quaint stained glass, their different kinds of sanctuaries and their all-the-same fellowship halls. The world needs churches gathering in storefronts and cathedrals. The world needs communities to dedicate babies, baptize believers, marry lovers, and bury the dead. Yes, our world still needs our churches because the church alone keeps alive the story of Jesus.
So even if I reach the point where I feel like I’m fed up with the church (because I’m fed up with people), I will always stick with the church. I’ll do it because the church needs me to do my part to keep it viable so it can continue to tell the Jesus story. I refuse to succumb to the temptation to think in purely individualistic terms. That would be a selfishness incompatible with following Christ. If the church had not carried its gospel story and sacred text from generation to generation, century to century, I could never have had a saving encounter with Jesus Christ. For the gift of the gospel story I am forever indebted to the church. So let me come right out and say it: I love the church. I love the church because I love Jesus. As long as the world needs Jesus, it will need the church. And the church needs you and me to do our part.
So even if someday I am no longer a pastor, I’ll always remain a church member. I’ll support the church. I’ll be there on Sundays. I’ll give to help keep the church financially viable. I’ll encourage the pastor. I’ll strive to preserve the unity of the church. To do these things is pleasing to God and good for my soul. I know this. But I’ll also do it for the sake of my grandchildren. I want to do what I can to help make Christianity possible for my grandchildren and their generation. In an increasingly secular age, the church is an oasis of the sacred. It’s the continued presence of the church that makes Christianity possible.