In reflecting on the importance of the church, first theologically and then sociologically, I am becoming aware how much my viewpoints are shaped by the assumptions of American culture. I suspect I’m not the only one; in fact, I’m not even sure how to start thinking outside of these limitations.
I’m concerned that our view of the church is shaped by the individualism, consumerism, and functionalist mindsets that dominate our culture. To put another way, we view the purpose of the church is to support my personal walk with God, to meet my needs, or to serve as a tool to fulfill some other function (evangelism, social justice, etc.). It’s not that these are bad things, they just aren’t the main thing. I am convinced that we cannot reclaim a biblical perspective of church unless we can rise above these perspectives.
The Church and Individualism
I’m going to start with individualism because I believe this the source of the other perspectives. We see it everywhere. It is common to hear people refer to “organized church” as a somewhat derogatory term. I’ve found this sentiment is equally common among the most devout believers as it is within secular culture.
The two groups may disagree on spiritual matters, but they find common ground in their mistrust of religious institutions and hierarchy. Scandals, poor leadership, and declining spiritual vibrancy within congregations inform this viewpoint. I agree each of these represent a real problem. And I strongly disagree with the overall message.
The committed Christians who express this view are not advocating for disorganized religion but, in my experience, use the phrase to communicate distrust for any form of hierarchy. In doing so, it is implied that a person’s spiritual life is more genuine if it by-passes human institutions and is instead located in the will of the individual, and perhaps a few friends with whom they organically share life. This is what concerns me.
We live in a culture that idolizes the individual. Radical individualism is an American cultural value that we are allowing to interpret the Scripture. We believe that any form of hierarchy or organization necessarily infringes upon the rights of the individual. We mistrust authority because we fear it may challenge our sense of self-sovereignty.
I am not critiquing different models of church, whether a simple micro-church or a mega-church. My concern is with the idolatry of our culture’s individualism which can be (and often is) expressed within any church model.
The irony of all of this is that our sense of personal autonomy is an illusion. No person is truly sovereign—we are entirely shaped by our society. My limited sociological knowledge convinces me that those who forego organized church will eventually yield to a powerfully organized secular culture.
The Church and Consumerism
People ask, “What type of church do I need in my season of life?” Or at times lament that “I’m not being fed” or even “I’m not finding genuine community.” I hear complaints that the worship is too quiet or too loud, too liturgical or not enough, and the list goes on. The questions are legitimate at one level, but I worry they reveal a consumeristic view of the church in which the church exists to support the needs of a group of individuals. By corollary, once it no longer does so, the individual leaves to find a new product (church) that is more effective.
I worry about any perspective of church that begins with the assessment of how it meets my needs. Imagine applying this same logic to family—we cannot grow a healthy community based on selfishness. Family is about love and commitment to others. Paradoxically, our needs are met through the process of seeking to meet the needs of others, not through looking out for ourselves.
Of course this needs to be balanced—there are plenty of legitimate reasons for leaving a church and this is outside the scope of a short article. If we gain a healthy perspective on church and understand our involvement as a calling rather than a service provided for our needs, then I trust the Spirit will guide us no matter the situation.
The Church and Functionalism
The first two mindsets are a bit more obvious than this last one, mainly because of their inherent self-focus. This is what makes a functionalist view of church so dangerous. It’s often devout Christians who are engaging the mission of God who fall into this trap (myself included!)
A common question in church planting circles is “what is the best way to do church so we can reach more people?” There are several other variations, such as, “what elements of church do we need to deconstruct so that we can be relevant to culture?” Or, “how do we need to innovate to stay current in the digital age?” None of these are bad questions and I’ve asked them all myself, but they all share a common theme: Church is reduced to a utility, a tool, by which we evangelize or purpose some other outcome.
The Church is inherently evangelistic—this is one of the many functions of Christ’s Body, but His Body cannot be limited to a any function. This view treats the Church as it, a thing, rather than we, a people. This mindset is operative any time we place an outcome (even a good one) above an identity. There are mainly wonderful things which occur when the church is healthy—social change, effective evangelism, community engagement, and more—but these flow from the Church and cannot replace it.
The “Right” Model of Church
It is common to hear debates on the right expression of church: Is an online church a legitimate expression? Is it better or pursue an organic structure of church or a model anchored in tradition? Is the explosion of new denominations and unaffiliated churches a good thing? What about mega-churches versus house churches? These questions are each important and complicated. But they are secondary and should not be our starting point.
I think any model that is based on allegiance to Jesus, His word, and the leadership of the Spirit both today and throughout history can be healthy if it is based on a healthy view of church. And I think any model can be corrupted if it is based on individualism or some other cultural idol.
Rapidly reproducing churches always start unorganized, which I think is wonderful. Some churches need to innovate in order to incarnate Jesus within their culture. Some structures need to be deconstructed. I could go on. We need to start with a right identity and then we’ll understand how to engage the structural needs accordingly.
I pray the church is effective in evangelism, I sincerely hope you find deep community and are spiritually fed, and I hope you have wrestled with how the church is best structured within your context. But when these represent the end goal of church, we’ve fallen short of the Church’s identity as portrayed in Scripture. Function and structure must always flow from identity and purpose. We must carefully guard against the temptation to switch the order.
So, what is the church? I cannot claim to provide a definitive answer, but I do hope to lift our gaze up from the small vision we’ve reduced it to. A brief survey of biblical language to describe the church reveals a few predominate themes: The Church is God’s family, Christ’s body, God’s chosen people, and the temple of God. Ephesians 2:11-22 is a beautiful portrayal in which each of these themes are woven together and subsequent articles will review each metaphor.
James Davison Hunter, near the conclusion of his book analyzing Christian response to secular culture, offers an important warning that I believe we need to heed:
“Observers who contend that the anti-institutional trends that signal an exodus from congregational life are a healthy development — a sign of a new “revolutionary “expression of Christianity — are profoundly misguided. The reason is that such trends are routed, in fact, in a consumer logic that makes individual choice central and the self sovereign. Such trends are less an expression of ‘revolutionary Christianity’ than of modern individualism and consumerism, the effect of which will undermine the only structures capable of constructively resisting the worst of contemporary culture.”