Why is church important?
I’ve been thinking a lot about church lately.
Some of the podcasts I’ve been a guest on and some of the guests I’ve interviewed here on The Bible Speaks to You Podcast have touched on the importance of church. And we’ve talked about some of the challenges facing the institution of church these days.
Exodus from church
There is a big shift taking place with church-going people. There’s been an exodus from many churches for all kinds of reasons:
- Emotional and sexual abuse from church leaders
- Discrimination based on gender, race, and political views
- The patriarchy in some churches has turned away people who believe the body of Christ should provide equal opportunities for men and women
- Top-down decision making, with one or a few people dictating how a church should be governed has turned away people who feel there should be more of a spirit of democracy in the way decisions are made
- Legalism that is more interested in strict obedience to the letter of the law over the freedom to be led by the Holy Spirit, has caused people to leave church
- Dictatorial theological attitudes which don’t permit questions or any variance in what is considered “sound doctrine” has caused many to leave such a church to find a community of believers who can share openly their doubts, ask questions, and not pretend to have all the perfect answers.
I don’t have time to go cover all the things going on in church which are impelling people to leave. But let’s look at some of these issues, and there are a lot more I’m sure, and see if we can find some value in church.
I have talked to several people who’ve told me that church was a toxic experience for them.
That’s really very sad, when you think about.
I’m going to jump into this problem with a question.
Who runs your church?
Who is in charge of your church? People, strong personalities, OR the Holy Spirit?
How does your church decide, for example, who gets which leadership positions in church?
The book of Acts gives a couple of great examples.
Almost immediately after Jesus had ascended, Peter encouraged the gathering of believers of the need to replace Judas. They chose two men, Barsabbas, and Mathias, and then prayed for God to show them which one was right for the job. (See Acts 1:23-26 below) Mathias was selected.
Have you ever wondered how Barsabbas felt? It’s not that he was unworthy. God simply had other plans for him.
The point is, when a decision had to be made, the community of believers, the church, if you will, asked God for guidance and then cast their lots, or we would say, they voted for who they felt God had chosen.
But the important thing here is they sought God’s guidance before they voted. They didn’t try to figure it out humanly. And Peter did not dictate who to choose.
There’s another example later in Acts. It also shows how church decisions should be made today.
There were a lot of very important leaders of the church praying together.
One day as these men were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Dedicate Barnabas and Saul for the special work to which I have called them.” Acts 13:2 NLT
No one was maneuvering to get themselves or someone else chosen for a particular task. The Holy Spirit made the decision. What if, instead of just one person making the decisions, or the manipulative politics that sometimes goes on behind the scene, we let the Holy Spirit guide our decisions at church?
As it turns out, Paul became a very influential leader in the early church. And you might say that he became a top-down church leader handing out dictates of what to do and what not to do. And he does come across this way at times.
Paul was writing to and visiting the various churches to encourage them, to help them sort through their challenges, and offer solutions. Sometimes he told them something they were doing was great. Sometimes he rebuked them for un-Christlike behavior. Other times he said, “This is my opinion.” And sometimes he said, “You decide for yourselves.”
Paul had the humility to admit he didn’t know everything. He never claimed to be infallible. But he was passionate about the gospel of Jesus Christ. He wanted to help his friends in the various congregations he wrote to, grow closer to Christ in their daily lives, and not be lured by the temptations of the materialistic and worldly societies in which they lived.
So yes, he used strong language, but Paul was not then, and is not now, the mediator between you and God. Christ is.
Guided by the Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit guided Paul in his efforts to lead and protect the growing Christian communities, many of which he had helped to start.
And that is the key to our success today in church. We must be guided by the Holy Spirit to meet the challenges of today. Now don’t get me wrong, Paul’s writings are full of inspiration, instruction, and guidance that continue to inspire us today.
But there is a greater need for us to cultivate our direct relationship with God through Christ and be moved by the Holy Spirit directly instead of just copying what Paul said without embracing the underlying spiritual essence of his message.
If we are just mindlessly obeying what Paul or even Jesus said, too often we experience the spiritual death that comes from focusing on and obeying just the letter of the law.
Letter of the law equals death
Paul, in fact warns about this very thing in his second letter to the church at Corinth. He said “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (2 Corinthians 3:6 NKJV)
This is what our churches need today, the Spirit, the presence of the Holy Spirit, guiding us, teaching us, inspiring us.
What happens when a church becomes overly focused on the letter of the law? It becomes a breeding ground for modern day Pharisees to inflict their legalistic approach to religion on those they want to control.
And unfortunately, when that happens, the Holy Spirit is relegated to a theological and theoretical concept, but with no practical influence on a church membership.
Is this what Jesus had in mind when he founded his church?
In my conversation with Jason Elam in Episode 120, “You Are Loved and Accepted by God,” we talked about Jesus’s conversation with Peter when he made that well-known proclamation:
on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. Matthew 16:18 NKJV
What is the rock Jesus builds his church on? I love how Jason put it. It’s the fact that God had revealed directly to Peter, without any intermediary, pastor, or human opinions, who Jesus was. In other words, it wasn’t just Jesus who could hear God’s voice. God speaks directly to each of us as well. That’s what the church is built on.
Bad Church leadership
There is a problem when a pastor or church leader thinks and teaches that they are the only authority in the church, that they are the only ones who know what is true and that you must do exactly as they say. You can’t ask questions. You can’t disagree with them or share your doubts about what is taught.
In effect, these church leaders are saying to their membership, “You don’t have a direct connection to God. I am the only one who can hear God’s voice. I am the only one who can interpret the Bible correctly.”
No wonder some of the people I’ve talked to are leaving the church. And this is just one of the reasons.
The book of Revelation gives a stern rebuke to this attitude when it declares we are all made “kings and priests to our God.” (Revelation 5:10) We all have a direct connection to God. We all have the ability to hear God’s voice.
Perhaps this and other problems the church is facing today come from not understanding more deeply Jesus’s comment to Peter about building the church.
Who builds the church?
Jesus said, as I just mentioned, “On this rock I will build my church.”
The question now becomes, “Who is building your church?”
If someone assumes the mantle of personal responsibility to build the church of Jesus, they have perhaps, even in their sincere desire to be loyal to Jesus, taken on a job that doesn’t belong to them. Christ is the only one who can really build a church.
If someone builds a church through their own personal abilities, opinions, and preconceptions, they may build an amazing structure, a beautiful organization, and attract the multitudes to their services and programs. But if it all depends on them as a person, they have built on the sand and eventually their “church” if you can even call it that, will fall apart.
We have seen more of this going on than ever before. Lots of churches are closing. Churches big and small are losing members for this very reason.
I think it’s time for us to re-examine what church is all about, how it should be run, who can be involved in the leadership, how it ministers to people, just to mention a few things.
What did Jesus have in mind when he talked about the church he would build?
What is church?
Let’s start with the word church itself.
In Greek, the word is ekklēsia and it simply means a gathering or assembly of people united in one body. In the Christian context it means, not a place a building, or institution, but the community of believers who gather to worship God.
It’s the people not the organization. But isn’t that how we think of church today? All too often, we define church as the building where we worship, the institution, and the way it’s organized.
What if church leaders, instead of focusing on all their institutional structure and accomplishments, and those things do have their place, prioritized instead on ministering to the needs of the people and the community?
I know a lot of churches are doing this, but too many are more putting the organization before the needs of people.
The ideal church
So what is an ideal church in today’s world? How can we be part of the vision Jesus had for his church?
Well, I certainly don’t have all the answers, but here are a few ideas.
It starts with brotherly love. You might think it starts with love for God, and in a way it does, but 1 John tells us that if you say you love God but don’t love your brother, it’s not really love in your heart. (See 1 John 4:20 below)
The same goes for saying you love Jesus. Just saying the words is not proof. Jesus said the only way to show you love him is to love each other. And the whole world will notice. (See John 13:35 below)
This love for each other, coupled with love for God and commitment to follow Christ above all else, is the cement what holds a church together and causes it to flourish.
A poem about church
Several years ago, my wife, Polly Castor, wrote a poem about what church has been for her. And I share it here:
Church is a framework for my week.
It gives structure to my days,
which would stretch forth
like a trellis to climb up
Sunday and Wednesday,
Sunday and Wednesday,
like ebb and flow,
like breathing in and out,
like the alternating
bottom valley and cresting top
of a curve or a wave,
Sunday finishes off the week
while clearing the decks
for starting the next
with a squeaky clean slate,
then Wednesday, hump day,
phew– the weekend is coming into sight
it’s a good time to express gratitude,
this weekly routine
reassuring in regularity
year in and year out
bound as with twine to this
makes me feel like
a tomato vine
all trussed up,
that I can wrap
my reaching tendrils around
holding tight, growing forth,
and keeping my fresh fruit
from being a tangled, trampled,
for just like tomatoes,
we can be floppy by nature,
and church is an inspired,
thoughtfully girded system,
configured and tended by
the greatest Gardener
for staking and buttressing us up
holding us dear and precious
both together and separately,
vastly improving our yield,
and facilitating the fulfillment
of our amazingly delicious purpose
all while tenderly tethered by the divine.
by Polly Castor
July 22, 2018
Isn’t this a wonderful vision for what church can be?
And there are many churches providing this kind of support needed by its members. Unfortunately, some are not.
In a harmful church?
If you are in a church that has harmed you, has not let you ask questions, has told you exactly what to think instead of giving you the freedom to think for yourself, it’s okay to leave that church. If a shoe doesn’t fit, don’t wear it.
It may be that you can be part of a solution if you stay, but maybe not.
As in everything, seek God’s guidance on what steps to take whether you stay or find another church.
Whatever you do, it’s important to be in a community of people who are guided by the Holy Spirit, not personalities and personal opinions. And that’s easier said than done. It’s important to be with people you can share the love of God with and the joys and struggles of following Christ.
Possibilities for church
There are lots of books and podcasts and discussions about what church should look like. And I hope the ideas I have shared here are just a springboard to more conversations about what church can be.
As we all listen for and follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit, individually and as a church collectively, we’ll witness more of what Jesus was talking about when he said he would build his church.
Thousands and thousands of people are looking for the church that Christ is building. If you are one of these seekers, keep seeking. If you are in a supportive church, let people know they are welcome.
And if you’re in a church Christ did not build, ask God what to do next.
Looking for a church?
If you’re looking for a church, ask God to show you where you will be a blessing, where your spiritual gifts and talents will be recognized, and where you will be supported to grow spiritually and follow Christ more closely.
Most importantly, look for how a church sees God.
Is God defined as a wrathful, vengeful, judgmental deity always ready to punish you for every little thing you do wrong, who sends disease and problems to test your faith, or refuses to heal you (or can’t)?
If that’s how a church sees God, don’t be surprised if that’s the way they act toward you,
The way a church perceives God will determine what they believe, and more importantly, how they treat people.
Look for a church or community that sees God as Love itself, as John says, “God is love.” (1 John 4:8)
I have a request. Will you join me in praying for the church as a whole?
Not to support or criticize any one particular church, yours or anyone else’s. Pray for the church built by Jesus to be available to everyone. And that everyone finds the kind of Christly community that will bless them the most.
I’ll leave you with this question: Who is building your church?
Episode 120 Jason Elam: You Are Loved and Accepted by God
Church Is…by Polly Castor
Check out Polly’s blog: pollycastor.com
James Early, the Jesus Mindset Coach, is a Bible teacher, speaker, and podcaster. He conducts Bible workshops online and in person. His focus is on getting back to the original Christianity of Jesus by embracing the mindset of Christ in daily life. Contact him here.
Acts 1:23-26 NLT
23 So they nominated two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias.
24 Then they all prayed, “O Lord, you know every heart. Show us which of these men you have chosen
25 as an apostle to replace Judas in this ministry,
26 Then they cast lots, and Matthias was selected to become an apostle with the other eleven.
Acts 13:2 NLT
2 One day as these men were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Dedicate Barnabas and Saul for the special work to which I have called them.”
2 Corinthians 3:5, 6 NKJV
5 …our sufficiency is from God,
6 who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
Matthew 16:18 NKJV
18 on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.
Revelation 5:10 NKJV
10 …made us kings and priests to our God;
And we shall reign on the earth.
1 John 4:20 NKJV
20 If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?
John 13:35 NLT
35 Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.
1 John 4:8 NLT
8 God is love.