Nobody goes to the store and buys a grape; they come in bunches. So too, nobody sings in a choir of one or plays ping pong by herself. These things make no sense. So it is with the Christian faith. It is, by definition, a team sport.
Yet there is a growing anti-institutional bias in the Western world, even among those who have grown up in a churched culture. The trend is toward the privatization of religion. That’s why church leaders increasingly hear sentiments like this: “Don’t get me wrong, I believe in Jesus; I just don’t believe in the church. I don’t see why we need organized religion.”
How do we respond? Let me suggest two strategic directions.
First, we need to engage people anew with the broad biblical vision. Establishing community was God’s plan at the beginning of history. The creation of God’s image bearers as male and female, coupled with the command to be fruitful and multiply, is testimony to the fact that God’s purpose has always been to create a large, diverse family whose life together would reflect the very character of the Godhead—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—living in perfect community. The opening chapters of Genesis reveal that the tragedy of sin is not only that it separates us from God, but also that it immediately begins to destroy human community.
The restoration of community was Christ’s purpose at the center of history. His promise is to build his church (Matthew 16:18), and he calls his followers brothers, sisters, and mothers—a new family. Jesus died not only to reconcile us to God, but also to one another. At the cross the dividing walls are broken down and the beloved community is formed (Ephesians 2:11-22). This community, the church, is called the body of Christ, and the New Testament never envisions the possibility of someone being in Christ without being part of the body of Christ. Consider, for example, how the New Testament letters call us to love one another, serve one another, accept one another, teach and admonish one another, forgive one another, bear with one another, encourage each other, confess our sins to one another, and pray for one another. How can you do any of these things if you absent yourself from community?
But there’s more—the vision of the future. The full and final redemption of community will be God’s grand accomplishment at the end of history. The book of Revelation speaks of the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21), a redeemed community drawn from every tribe and tongue and people and nation (Revelation 5:9). By contrast C.S. Lewis, in his book The Great Divorce, describes hell as a place of loneliness, of everlasting retreat from human community.
Given the weight of the biblical witness, we do well to press the question: Is not the quest for a “churchless Christianity” something like trying to sing in a choir of one or to play ping pong by yourself? Is it even possible? How can one profess to believe in God and not embrace the very thing that God loves? How can one hope to be part of the redeemed community someday, but not participate in the redeemed community today?
There is also a second strategic direction we must travel. If the first is to challenge the critics of the church, the second is to listen to them … and challenge ourselves. Surely we have brought some of this trouble on ourselves.
The North American church has tolerated, even perpetuated, a truncated gospel that reduces faith to mental assent. Ironically, this reductionist gospel makes strange bedfellows of two groups: Altar Call Christians on the one hand and Neo-Gnostic Churches on the other. Altar Call Christians explain certain spiritual laws and help people say the sinner’s prayer, then send them off with (a sometimes false) assurance of salvation. On the other hand, Neo-Gnostic Churches instruct their youth to affirm true theological propositions and subscribe to certain historic confessions, then welcome them to communicant membership. Thus, by different roads these two camps reach the same destination. They both raise up believers who see true faith as mere mental assent, when in fact they may still have the same level of faith as demons (see James 2:19). Think about how Jesus, in Matthew 7, describes those who will one day say “Lord, Lord,” but they have not done the will of God and do not have an intimate walk with Jesus.
Here’s how this relates to the problem of people abandoning organized religion in droves. If we teach people (or allow them to believe) that they have “arrived” just because they give mental assent to something, we may have so inoculated them with the gospel that they become immune to the real disease. It’s the seduction of the conceptual experience. They’ve thought about something, affirmed it, and now they feel like they’ve “been there, done that.” What’s next? Nobody tells them. Nobody shows them. They’re bored. They leave. Who’s to blame?
The truth is that discipleship is not about mental assent so much as life transformation. Jesus said a disciple, “after he has been fully trained, will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40). In the Great Commission Jesus mandates disciple-makers to enfold people into the church through baptism and “then instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18-20, The Message). True faith involves practicing obedience until we get it right, being mentored to think as Jesus thinks and do as Jesus does, until finally we actually become like him. This is a life-long journey, and churches that facilitate this process are the most exciting places in the world. People so engaged don’t want to leave. Such churches are truly, and not in name only, the Body of Christ on earth—the visible representation to the world of the risen Lord Jesus, whose spirit lives and breathes in the beloved community. If that is our calling, the current plight of religion in North America becomes more understandable, as does the fact that our churches need repentance, reflection, and renewal.
For at least 20 years, folks from the emergent church and various house church movements have critiqued the institutional church for being more concerned about budgets and buildings than about doing the stuff that Jesus did and the stuff we read about in the book of Acts. And in many cases, they’re right! Unfortunately, many of them have leveled their criticism and then left. My inclination is to say to them: “You’re right. Let’s repent together and do life together better. We need each other. And please, please don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.”
The problem is not that the church is an institution. And the answer is not withdrawal from community or the privatization of religion. The church has always existed as both organism and organization. The organism is the body (the dynamic, mysterious way God lives and breathes in the community). The organization is the structure (buildings, budgets, policies), the institution which emerges over time to facilitate the life of the organism. Already in the first century, the organization of the church became more complex as the organism flourished—for example, from the emergency appointment of diaconal helpers in Acts 6 to the very specific guidelines for elders and deacons in I Timothy 3. So the problem is not organization per se. Even a small group needs organization (a leader, a time, a place to meet); and the more an organism flourishes and evolves, the more complex its structure becomes. The organization of the institutional church has enabled God to do things we could never have done alone or in small groups—things like founding hospitals, colleges, counseling centers, safe houses, food banks, crisis pregnancy centers, recovery programs, global relief and development agencies, planting new churches, developing comprehensive discipleship resources for children and youth. And the list goes on. Think of all we jeopardize when we withdraw from the organization.
I believe in the holy catholic church, the communion of saints. And though the organization of the church always needs remodeling as the organism changes, I do not believe the problem is the fact that the church is an institution. God wants it to be so. Indeed, every society institutionalizes what it values, whether that be education, or transportation, or sports.
No, the problem, I believe, is that the organism is in many cases not healthy, and God’s purposes for the new community are not being fulfilled. Therefore the answer is not to walk away from each other and try to be a choir of one, but rather to come together and ask God to make new and beautiful music with his bride.
Come, let us repent together. Let us renew our commitment to God, to obedience, and to each other in the body of Christ. Let us rediscover the joy of practicing our faith together and doing all that the Lord has commanded us, that the beauty of Christ may be seen.
Daniel Brink has been a minister in the Christian Reformed Church for 34 years, first in Chicago and since 1986 as the senior pastor of Rosewood Christian Reformed Church in Bellflower, CA (Greater Los Angeles). He has an M.Div. degree from Calvin Seminary, a Th.M. in conjunction with Chicago’s Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education, and a D.Min. from Fuller Seminary.