One of the most tragic changes Christianity has experienced in the last 50 years is the minimizing of the centrality of the local church in the life of believers. The Lord’s Day used to be considered sacred. It was dedicated to the worship and service of God, but now it’s treated like any other day. And local church life, which was once considered indispensable to the Christian life, is now treated like an extra-curricular activity rather than an essential part of our spiritual formation.
In his book, Set Apart: Calling a Worldly Church to a Godly Life, Kent Hughes presents six images describing today’s “de-churching” trends—trends that are held even by those who wish to retain some sort of connection to the historic Christian faith:
Cafeteria (or Consumer) Christianity
It’s hard to square these images with the lofty vision of the church found in the New Testament. In 1 Peter 2:4-12, for example, the Apostle Peter sets his sights extremely high. He writes to 1st-century believers about their continued need for Jesus, their continued need for each other, and their continued need for a genuine spiritual commitment. He knows they won’t make it or be effective in this world without these three things. In this message, we learn that the people of God are living stones being built together by Jesus Christ to reverse a crumbling world. Masonry imagery is used to describe both Christ and the church he is building:
Jesus is the living stone. (4a)
Jesus is the rejected stone. (4b, 7a)
Jesus is the chosen stone. (4c, 6a)
Jesus is the precious stone. (4d, 6a)
Jesus is the cornerstone. (6a, 7a)
Jesus is the capstone. (7b)
Jesus is the stumbling stone. (8)
Jesus is the coming stone. (12)
To the masonry image, Peter adds the temple and priesthood metaphor in his description of the church:
We are living stones. (5a)
We are a spiritual house in progress. (5b)
We are worshippers with direct access to God. (5c)
We are a chosen people. (9a)
We are a royal priesthood. (9b)
We are a holy nation. (9c)
We are a people belonging to God. (9d)
We are a people of praise. (9e)
We are a people called out of darkness into light. (9f)
We are the recipients of divine mercy. (10)
We are aliens and strangers in the world. (12)
Peter cites numerous Old Testament passages to make his case. He calls the people of God to live good lives and subdue the war around us (v. 12). But for that to happen, the church must also live godly lives and subdue the war within us (v. 11). The challenge is great, which is why drive-through Christianity doesn’t cut it.
Authentic Christian community is hard to find. It’s even harder to create. The biggest challenge, perhaps, is to sustain it once we’ve found it. But the search is well worth the effort. Having made the rounds in all kinds of churches, fellowships, small groups, and denominations, I can assure you, it’s out there. Where and with whom might surprise you, but it’s out there—a place where the “one anothers” of Scripture are practiced, and edification takes place on a regular basis. Even when it’s hard. Even when it’s electronic or digital. True connection can transcend physical proximity. Where it often struggles to succeed is in transcending human nature.
Arthur Schopenhauer’s well-known fable comes to mind—the one where two porcupines find themselves in a serious dilemma. On the one hand, the creatures need each other, so they huddle up to keep warm in the winter. On the other hand, they needle each other while they’re together, so they have to separate to avoid the pain of getting poked by each other’s quills. The cycle repeats and never ends.
We’ve all been there, haven’t we? I’ve been punctured by plenty of needles over the years, and I’m sure I’ve done my own share of puncturing. I forgive the former and lament the latter. In fact, the latter is sometimes harder for those who have a tender conscience. It’s easy to feel pain when you know you’ve caused pain. (Guilt is a worthwhile subject for another post, as is the common human ailment of hurting other people because we ourselves have been hurt somewhere back on the timeline of life.)
Here’s the perennial problem of human intimacy and fellowship: Can the individuality we display permit the closeness that our interdependence demands? Said another way, can we truly master the delicate balance of the guardedness we need for self-protection and the vulnerability we need for deep connection?
And the answer is not without grace.
Only grace can mitigate the endless cycle of needing and needling each other. Love covers a multitude of pokes. And grace says, “Let’s try this again” after a relational collapse. But grace can be its own thorn, too. According to Jesus, divine grace especially pierces the self-righteous.
Can the individuality we display permit the closeness that our interdependence demands? Not without grace.
Just ask the older brother in Luke 15. Or the religious bureaucrat in Luke 18. Or Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7, whose spiritual debt was a whopping 450 denarii less than the sinful woman’s debt—yet Jesus said he couldn’t pay his bill, either, so he forgave them both. (How humbling it must be to find yourself in bankruptcy court needing the protections of Chapter 11 when you thought you were so rich!)
Jesus’ grace toward the sinful woman was a thorn to Simon. But the forgiven woman now had more to offer her community. She had more love (cf. Luke 7:47), without which community cannot survive. It’s not the broken who destroy community. It’s the self-righteous, high-minded religious police who do that. That’s why bars often feature a better community feel than churches. Folks get real and raw with one another in an atmosphere of authenticity, even if they have to communicate between hiccups.
It’s not the broken who destroy community. It’s the self-righteous, high-minded religious police who do that.
Few people have done more reflective work on the subject of Christian community than Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Here are some gems from his book, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community.
Wherever you are in the needing-needling cycle, may these words help you find, create, and sustain authentic Christian community.
• “Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.”
• “God hates this wishful dreaming because it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. Those who dream of this idealized community demand that it be fulfilled by God, by others, and by themselves. They enter the community of Christians with their demands, set up their own law, and judge one another and even God accordingly.”
• “Because God has united us in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that life together with other Christians, not as those who make demands, but as those who thankfully receive. . . . We do not complain about what God does not give us; rather we are thankful for what God does give us daily.”
• “Will not the very moment of great disillusionment with my brother or sister be incomparably wholesome for me because it so thoroughly teaches us that both of us can never live by our own words and deeds, but only by that one Word and deed that really binds us together, the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ? The bright day of Christian community dawns wherever the early morning mists of dreamy visions are lifting.”
• “The Christian community has not been given to us by God for us to be continually taking its temperature. The more thankfully we daily receive what is given to us, the more assuredly and consistently will community increase and grow from day to day as God pleases.”
• “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. . . . Let him who is not in community beware of being alone. . . . Each by itself has profound perils and pitfalls. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and the one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation and despair.”
• “There is a kind of listening with half an ear that presumes already to know what the other person has to say. It is an impatient, inattentive listening, that despises the brother and is only waiting for a chance to speak and thus get rid of the other person. This is no fulfillment of our obligation, and it is certain that here too our attitude toward our brother only reflects our relationship to God.”
• “I can no longer condemn or hate a brother for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble he causes me.”
• “Self-centered love loves the other for the sake of itself; spiritual love loves the other for the sake of Christ.”
When it comes to community, are we better at the “needing” or the “needling”? Will we choose the coldness that comes with isolation or the puncture that comes with interaction? Or might there be a third way—the way of Christ? The way of grace?