You happily open a gift from a friend, and although it is nice, it’s just not you. The thoughtfulness of the gift is well-appreciated, but it isn’t quite right because this friend doesn’t actually know you that well. The next gift you open is so perfect, so you, so exactly right! Your emotions overwhelm you because this gift-giver knows you very well; in fact, this gift-giver knows you far better than you even know yourself. This gift is the Church, and this Gift-Giver is Christ himself. He knows us and has given us exactly what we need:
“The Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that He purchased with His own blood.” (Acts 20:28)
What is the church? We may understand it in two ways:
Universal church: composed of all the followers of Christ worldwide and not bound by an organization or building.
Individual church: local assemblies of followers of Christ who gather for sacred purposes, typically within a building.
Much of the New Testament consists of letters to fledgling churches. The Bible calls the church the Body of Christ, Bride of Christ, Temple of God, Communion of Believers, and Divine Family. What a tremendous gift, indeed!
Why is the church so important? Christ’s church remains an institution in which his followers can thrive and make known the gospel - an organization for all time meant to teach and live out the example of Jesus Christ. The church offers worship, a place of group and individual prayer, it teaches and preaches the great truths of the Bible, and it offers the comfort of traditions and ritual that connect to thousands of years of an unbroken line of inspired believers. The church was never meant to simply reflect the temperature of the culture around it, like a thermometer. Instead, the church should represent a thermostat, helping to set the temperature of culture and society through love, kindness, wisdom, and knowledge as expressed by Christ in the Bible.
Some prefer to say, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” Sadly, people with an honest desire for spiritual nourishment too often reject the very gift of the church given by Christ. The Bible, tradition, and experience makes it clear that there are no Christian islands. Believers are meant to be together in the church, we need to be together, supporting each other, encouraging each other, serving the needs of others, and holding each other to high standards in Christianity.
“Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another.” (Hebrews 10:24-25).
In this age of individualism and relativism (all is relative to personal preference), a strictly personal spiritualism inevitably leads to “the Church of Me” – my preference, my wants, my standards. Christ’s gift to us offers a better way.
Nevertheless, some churches and some church people have acted hurtfully. According to the Word of God (and our own practical experience), all human beings are sinful, imperfect, and struggle with right and wrong. As such, individual churches, members, and even pastors can sometimes cause hurt, wrongly condemn, and constrain honest questions or doubts. Such hurts must always be acknowledged and corrected. Jesus even recognized this reality:
“I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the teachings you have learned; avoid them.” (Romans 16:17).
Still, when we encounter a bad doctor, we don’t reject the medical establishment altogether. We find a better doctor. If we encounter a hurt from within a church, we need not reject all churches; we find a better one.
G.K. Chesterton once noted, “When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing; they will believe in anything.” Non-believer David Foster Wallace added, “There is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships.” The question then remains, what will we worship and how? Do we worship sports, money, power, social media, lust, politics? How do we order our time, money, and priorities? Do we choose to worship what we want, how we want, and when we want? The history, tradition, rituals, and truth of faith calls us to something higher than our particular preferences, desires, and preferred standards of behavior. The church, in all its glory and admitted imperfection, calls us to gather together for support, encouragement, knowledge, accountability, and wisdom so that we can receive, proclaim, and demonstrate the good news of life in Christ.
The mission of Jesus as God/Man/Savior established an unstoppable movement reflected by the church - a living example of the love and expectations of God. Jesus Christ knows us – he knows us far better than we know ourselves. He knows what gift we need - more than we even realize – and the great benefits of embracing this gift.
“On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 16:18-19)