This post is partly inspired by a blog post recently written by Brian Zahnd entitled Do we still need the church?
It’s a great question. But, as I commented to him in response to his post, it begs the question (like so many other articles of this nature): “What exactly do you mean by church?” I know, I know, we’ve been round this mulberry bush a thousand times in the blogosphere over the past few years. Everyone offering their opinion on why church is necessary, why we should give church another chance, reasons people are leaving the church, etc, ad nauseum. Yet I have found that most, if not all, authors of these pieces constantly conflate the two definitions of church, even though they might well affirm that the word “church” has evolved into a homonym. People outside of the system are yelling that they never left church because you can’t leave the body of Christ. People in churches yelling that they did. And on and on it goes.
Anyways, the point of all of this is just to say that I inquired of Brian Zahnd what he felt the “irreducible features” of church are (just so that I understood what he means when he advocates strongly for still needing the church). His reply was that church includes “public gathering (not just a group of friends), sacraments (baptism/communion), and corporate worship”.
I think that’s a great and desirable place to start looking at the components of what church gatherings should include. I might not agree 100% but I am not here to pick apart the essentials that he settled on. (I will say, though, that it was very refreshing to see that “authority” was omitted from his list as this is most people’s go-to criterion for validating a church) Rather, I want to explore whether the religious system is the best place to participate in the essential elements of church experience.
Some would have us believe that going to/joining a church is obviously important for one’s spiritual well-being. Sure, no church is perfect, they tell you. But where else are you going to have regular fellowship, participate in the sacraments, and worship corporately?
My argument is that yes, you can get some form of church experience within the religious system. And it’s not all bad. But at what cost? By participating in the religious system, you may be gaining some benefit from it, but you are also supporting a highly dysfunctional expression of Christianity. If the only valid way for me to gather publicly, partake of communion and worship corporately is to do so in a building, under a hierarchical church leadership, as a non-participatory, tithe-paying lay member of a tax exempt corporation, then with all due respect – thanks but no thanks. In addition this, there are varying degrees of additional dysfunction: some churches require members to sign covenants, others keep track of tithes paid, virtually all of them center their meetings around a monologue delivered by a clergyman, most churches have outrageous overheads and are (IMO) poor stewards of the people’s money in the name of pragmatism.
All of this institutionalism is an old and inflexible wineskin, and cannot possibly contain the fresh wine of the Spirit of God.
As a footnote and an encouragement…. some people within churches argue that going to church is absolutely the most important thing. And that having organized fellowship of some sort is a must, at the very least, if you are not attending church. I am not so sure about that. It’s not that I don’t believe fellowship and mutual edification, and weekly (or more often) gatherings are awesome and needful. I just realize that God has everyone on a journey, and often when you come out of a church situation that has been traumatizing (or even if you just leave without trauma), God might just want you to rest and realign in HIM. As a family. Find your locus (HIM). Set your feet upon the Rock (HIM). Let HIM wash your mind and heart and do a work in you. Sometimes this means being in the wilderness for a while! Instead of freaking out about being out of fellowship, as if that is – bar none – the thing you should never neglect. I have found, in my experience, that God links people up and knits hearts together over time, and that fellowship arises from the ashes, the brokenness and from authenticity.
Blessings and Peace!!!