We spend just enough time "at church" to be religious, but nowhere near enough time to be family.
For years I went to church. Religiously. I actually went to church for about 25 years. Then I stopped. I'm so glad I did. Instead of going to church, I started being the church. It's radically changed me. They have changed me. My family has gotten bigger.
The church is supposed to be a family. But there's a problem. The church in America is too often very un-church. As a result, a lot of people say that they like Jesus, but they just don't like the church ... and they're in pretty good company ... with Bono. In U2's song "Acrobat", from the album Achtung Baby, Bono articulates a fairly common perception of the church:
No, nothing makes sense, nothing seems to fit.
I know you'd hit out if you only knew who to hit.
And I'd join the movement
If there was one I could believe in
Yeah, I'd break bread and wine
If there was a church I could receive in.
This is a common view of the church. What's the view? Conflicted: "And I'd join the movement If there was one I could believe in. Yeah, I'd break bread and wine If there was a church I could receive in."
Like many of us, Bono wants the church, but there are too many ifs. He wants to be part of the movement of the church. Unfortunately, many churches aren't concerned with movement. Too many of them are inwardly focused, not outwardly focused. They aren't the world-changing communities of the New Testament. They are static, inert and inward.
Bono wants the communion of church, but says there's no church he can believe or receive in. I'm guessing that what Bono is referring to is not merely the eucharist, but the one-body community that is symbolized in the act of communion (1 Cor 10:16-17). Like Bono, many of us long for church as movement and communion, a church that is missional and communal.
Some churches are fortresses. Groups of combative soldiers that enforce their doctrine, hide behind their high and holy walls, and launch grenades of judgment into the culture. The mission is doctrinal conformity, not grace. The community is in-grown not inviting.
Other churches have more in common with shopping malls. They are filled with salesmen and consumers. The salesman market the church to the world. They dress her up like the culture, dress down the message of Jesus, and sell the consumers short on the gospel, community and mission. Unlike fortress churches, the shopping mall mission is not to keep people out but to get people in. At quite a high cost, people pile into the building and out of the building wondering if this is all there is to church.
Then there are the cemeteries — lifeless, irrelevant, stodgy churches. These churches are trapped in time, disconnected from contemporary issues. Somehow they've lost the joy of the Lord. Calcified by religion, they offer virtually no community or mission.
When our churches have more in common with fortresses, shopping malls and cemeteries, who can blame America for not liking the church, for not receiving in her, for not joining the movement?
Acrobats or Brothers?
How should we respond? Opt for Jesus but opt out of the church? Believe in Jesus, just not the church?
It's easy to become cynical when we're confronted with fortresses, shopping malls and cemeteries. But deep down, if we are honest with ourselves, something is wrong with accepting Jesus and rejecting the church. After all, "the church" was Jesus' idea. Speaking to Peter, Jesus said: "Upon this rock I will build my church." "My church" — not Peter or Paul's church. The church belongs to Jesus. He created a new family. Pointing away from His blood family and to His disciples he said: "These are my mother and brothers" (Matt. 12:49). The church is supposed to be family, brothers and sisters, but we act more like acrobats. Bono sings:
'Cause I need it now.
To take the cup
To fill it up, to drink it slow.
I can't let you go.
And I must be an acrobat
To talk like this and act like that.
Confessing his need for church, but failing to act on it, Bono calls himself an acrobat. He can offer the critique but refuses to endure the sacrifice of being the church. Maybe we're the acrobats. Talking up the church but stripping it down into an event. Going to church instead of being the church. Keeping people at arms length, acquaintances, refusing to embrace them as brothers.
We say we want community, but are unwilling to make the sacrifices for it to happen. It's too inconvenient and messy. We want the benefit of church without her demands. Something has to change.
Why not start with you? What if you started having people join you for meals, Christians and non-Christians. What if you started having family meals together? What if you began to serve your neighborhood in some way and invited some church friends to join you? What if you began to put others needs before your own? I wonder what would happen. Fewer acrobats and more brothers? Church would slowly become more of a family than an event.
Church is not an event, a place or a plant. It is a family of brothers and sisters united in the Spirit and the Son. The church is a community, people in relationships under grace. So the church is supposed to be a family, but we act more like acquaintances.
Instead of sharing life and truth, joy and pain, meals and mission, we share one, maybe two events a week. Church has been reduced to a spiritual event that happens for an hour or two on weekends, and if you are spiritual, occurs another couple hours during the week in a small group meeting. We spend just enough time "at church" to be religious, but nowhere near enough time to be family.
The dominant metaphor of the church in the New Testament is the metaphor of family. Every one of Paul's letters opens by addressing the church in familial terms — sisters, brothers, son, and our Father. The use of "brother" is, by far, the most frequent. This sibling emphasis reflects the familial nature of the church. What would happen if we started acting like family?
I am happy to say that the landscape of church in America is changing. I can point to numerous churches in our city that are not fortresses, shopping malls or cemeteries. Instead, they are communities of imperfect people clinging to a perfect Christ, who accept one another as they are accepted, in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
In my church, we are seeing signs of this family-style community. People are sharing meals, opening their homes, helping each other move. (Who doesn't love a good move?) People are helping one another find jobs, babysitting, offering comfort, and providing meaning. It's increasingly a steady state of community — shared laughs, truths, meals, sorrows, and mission. We support one another. We share a steady state of social, gospel, recreational, and missional connections.
One family recently invited all their neighbors over for a pizza party. Two of the neighbors had lived there five years and never met. Two other neighbors had a long-standing disagreement that was resolved that night. That same family then invited all the staff of a local coffee shop over for another pizza party. They came and continue to hang out. Why? Because they have encountered the church — not a church, the church — a community of brothers and sisters in the gospel for the good of the city.
Recently a group of men met in their Fight Club to help one another beat up sin and believe the gospel. One of the men had recently been through some difficult financial times. Because of the financial crisis, this husband and father had been laid off from his job, losing not only his income, but the company car.
He shared this with the guys in his Fight Club. One of them had a pretty good job, and a pretty nice SUV. He decided to give the vehicle to his friend, to the brother who had lost his job and his car.
Sometimes the church looks like a pizza party, and sometimes it looks like a sports utility vehicle. These kinds of churches will have momentum and communion, mission and community that attract others: not to an event, but to a family. Christians and non-Christians are joining the family. Why? Because they have found a believable church, one with community and one with mission.
Don't give up on the church. Instead, start giving things away, sharing your life, and see what happens. Stop going to church, and start being the church. You'll be glad you did.
Copyright 2009 Jonathan Dodson. All rights reserved.