I was getting my hair cut a couple of months ago when Sarah, the lady that cuts my hair, said, “You don’t have to go to church to worship God. You don’t have to go to church to be a Christian.”
I replied, “Well, let’s think about that. We weren’t created to live alone but in community with others. Most of the New Testament, if not all of it, was written to a people, to churches, or to individuals living in relationship with churches. When we think of the word church today we often think of a building, but when the early Christians heard that word they thought of people – they didn’t have church buildings the way we do so they couldn’t have thought in terms of buildings.
“Yes, we can experience God as individuals, but we can experience Him more fully as we live in relationship with others. God has put things in us that others need and He has put things in others that we need. Plus, the very process of life, of getting it right and getting it wrong and falling down and getting up again is something that is meant to be lived in relationship with others.”
“I never thought of it that way,” she said.
When I hear people talk about going to church I often hear going to church spoken of as an obligation. Other times I hear it spoken of as doing something that will earn merit with God. I seldom hear “going to church” spoken of as gathering with God’s people for worship and relationship. Perhaps this is because relationship with others is seldom experienced in church. Perhaps it is also because going to church is often more about us than about worshipping God, hearing His Word, and responding to His Word in obedience.
Many people go to church seeking an experience and if they haven’t had an experience – whatever that may mean – then they think something is wrong. This thinking leads to preachers and others gearing what should be Sunday morning worship around providing an experience that will keep people coming back – this is dangerous because it displaces prayer, the Word, and the Holy Spirit with entertainment and choreographic ingenuity.
I know what I’m talking about because I’ve been guilty of it – I don’t want to do that again.
An irony is that churches that used to be open to changes in worship are often as tightly choreographed today as a high-liturgical congregation. One difference between the two is that the high-liturgical congregation is less likely to be engrossed in the personality of the preacher or the excitement of the moment – and may very well be open to a deeper and more transcendent appreciation of songs, music, and the Bible than other congregations. I also think that congregations who make having a good experience a litmus test of legitimacy are more likely to subject the Biblical text to whim and fancy rather than submit to the text in obedience.
When I was a young man a question often discussed with my Christian peers was, “Is the church an organization or an organism?” I think the Bible teaches us that the church of Jesus Christ is most certainly an organism, for we are Christ’s body and He is the head of the body. But the Bible also teaches us that this organism has organization. The organization should serve the organism, the organism is not meant to serve the organization. Unfortunately, more often than not, as in most areas of life, once an organizational structure is established people matter less and less other than as servants of the structure. This doesn’t mean that we do not have organization, it does mean that we treat structure the way we treat nitroglycerin when transporting it…very carefully.
I think the fact that most church-going people identify themselves with a denomination (or with being non-denominational) before they think to identify themselves as followers of Jesus Christ shows us just how far structural identity has permeated our thinking. It is as if we are carrying membership cards in our purses and wallets the way we carry grocery-store shoppers’ cards.
The language of the New Testament describing the church, and prescribing the way the church should live, is far more organic than organizational – and yet so much of what we do as congregations is to feed the organization.
While much of what I’ve said above is critical, I mean it so only in the sense that a sculptor chips away at extraneous marble in order to find the finished image within the block of marble – for there is nothing in all the cosmos as beautiful as Jesus Christ shining in and through His church – that is, after all, the culmination and crescendo of God’s plan of the ages (see Revelation Chapters 21 – 22).