Why is belonging to a church such a challenge? As Christians, we need to overcome at least four obstacles to live out the biblical vision of a gospel-centered, Spirit-filled community in the church.
Obstacle One: Sensationalism
Many Christians are stuck on the dramatic. We get excited about huge conferences, someone else’s pastor, or the latest controversy. Thrill-seekers simply don’t find life in a local church stimulating enough to really get involved and stay involved.
Caring for the elderly in a local church? Restoring a wayward member? Helping the single mom? Serving in childcare? These things don’t usually excite sensationalists. But while these acts may not be sensational in many people’s eyes, they would turn the world upside down if we began to live them out. What’s more, the endless search for something bigger, greater, and more extraordinary is in the end exhausting.
We need a renewal of Christians who are wholly committed to living out basic Christianity with their faith family.
Obstacle Two: Mysticism
When it comes to life in the Spirit, many think of mystical, miraculous, or private experiences. This is nothing new: Simeon the Stylite, the first of the “Desert Fathers,” constructed a short pillar in the Syrian desert sometime around AD 423 and lived there for six years out of his desire to live in communion with God.
But is that what it means to be spiritual? Being a desert hermit, away from people and worldly distractions, elevated off the ground? Not everyone can go live in the desert alone, and even if they could, that’s not the picture of discipleship in the context of community that we see in Scripture.
In contrast to the hermit’s approach, consider the opening chapters of the book of Revelation, where we see Jesus giving his evaluation of and instruction to seven churches, or “lampstands,” in modern-day Turkey. Jesus is described as “walk[ing] among the seven lampstands” (Rev. 2:1; see also 1:13).
Think about this: Christ is walking among the church! This is why I want my life intertwined with the church. This is why I refuse to give up on the church. Where is Jesus? He’s among his church. He’s up close and intimate with his church. He’s the Shepherd, the Head, the Vine, the Foundation, and the Husband.
To be best placed to experience Jesus in a deep, fresh, life-changing way, you don’t need a perch in the desert; you need a pew in a church.
Obstacle Three: Idealism
In Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic book Life Together, he talks about the problem of having a “wish dream” when it comes to the church. Bonhoeffer explains how idealism is the enemy of true community: “He who loves his dream of community more than the community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial” (p 26).
Wish dreams destroy community. Some have wish dreams related to small group expectations, pastoral expectations, or program expectations. Real life together will involve highs, and it will involve lows; it will involve frustration, disappointment, and struggle. But by grace, we press on together as sinners redeemed by Jesus. This doesn’t mean we don’t work hard to make improvements in every area in the church (we do!). It means we rethink our expectations.
I often chuckle when wish dreamers say, “I wish the church could just get back to the way it was in the first century; those people had it all together.” I want to ask, “Have you read the New Testament? Have you read 1 Corinthians? How about the story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5? It’s hard to get much earlier than that!”
Letter after letter in the New Testament addresses problems in the church! The seven letters to the churches in Revelation contain rebukes to five of the seven churches. Pattern our church after the New Testament? Yes. But let’s not pretend that churches in the first century were faultless. Let’s kill this wish dream and be quicker to identify evidences of grace in the church rather than function as a church critic.
Let’s celebrate when the church has biblical priorities and show grace when our church may not prefer our preferences.
Obstacle Four: Individualism
Many (often without realizing it) live isolated lives, especially in the West, never experiencing the satisfying joy of biblical community. We know so many people, but we go deep with very few (if any).
Technology won’t give us what our hearts long for either. Technology may strengthen relationships, but it can’t replace them. The COVID-19 pandemic taught us all this. After two weeks of video calls, I was sick of digital interaction. I thought about 2 John 12 during this dreadful experience: “Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete” (my emphasis).
John says there are limits to pen and ink (or, for us, the computer/texting/video). Emails, texts, and calls are poor substitutes for embodied relationships. Something is clearly lacking without face-to-face interaction. A lack of real embodied relationships will lead to a loss of joy.
It’s a privilege to be in community with brothers and sisters. This has nothing to do with whether you are outgoing or shy, introverted or extroverted. It’s at the heart of being a Christian.
Bonhoeffer put it like this:
“It is by the grace of God that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly in this world to share God’s Word and sacrament. Not all Christians receive this blessing. The imprisoned, the sick, the scattered lonely, the proclaimers of the gospel in heathen lands stand alone. They know that visible fellowship is a blessing . . . The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer . . . The prisoner, the sick person, the Christian in exile sees in the companionship of a fellow Christian a physical sign of the gracious presence of the triune God . . . It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren” (Life Together, pp. 18–19).
We need each other. This doesn’t mean we need to live together in a Christian commune. It doesn’t mean community is easy, or that it does not sometimes feel hard. It will never be perfect in this world, but it can still be experienced in a way that is wonderful. This doesn’t mean that all of our friends should be Christians (that can’t be the case if we want to be Christ’s witnesses). It simply means that we fix our minds on a vision of the Spirit-filled Christian life that essentially involves being in community, and we must be committed to pursuing that.