By Nebiye Kelile
Every generation must fight all over again for the privilege, the benefit, and the responsibility of belonging to a local church. Have you ever heard some version of, “they love Jesus, but not the church?” Depending on who we are and when we came of age, there are no doubt certain cultural factors that have served as shaping influences. They not only influence how we see ourselves, but also how we see and value Christian community. In his book, “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” Robert Putman underscored, “Faith communities … are arguably the single most important repository of social capital in America.” That was then—it is now 20 years later.
I’m arguing that the Church has lost the “social capital” that Putman talked about. The incentives are no longer there in the same way for this present generation as they were 20 years ago. This is both negative and positive news. It’s negative in that we are pointing out an obvious departure and exodus by many people from any meaningful membership and participation in the local church. At the same time, this is positive news for the Body of Christ. It could be that the day is coming where anyone who chooses to belong to Christ’s Church does so for biblical reasons—regardless of the cost—and not merely “social” reasons. That is a good thing!To be clear, the temptation to withdraw from community for all sorts of reasons has always been there—both in the early church and in our time. One great value to church membership is the ongoing mutual accountability and encouragement that takes place between the members of the faith family. In Hebrews 10:24-25, we read these words:
“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
We are literally called to “stir up” one another to love and good works. This term “παροξυσμός” translated “stir up” means “provoking” or “stimulating.” It’s the idea of not allowing one another to remain apathetic and indifferent and useless in the Christian race. The writer of Hebrews goes on to warn the church about neglecting the gathering of God’s people. The point the writer is making here is that we are better together. God didn’t call us to be lone ranger Christians. We are called to come together as a covenant family, where there is mutual love and accountability in the faith. Part of the way we combat sin in our lives is with the support of the community we belong to.
Now of course, this will mean that we’ve got to abandon unrealistic expectations of the Church. Some people’s version of a local church only exists in their mind. In Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “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.” Bonhoeffer is saying that there are many who are on a quest to find a church that only exists in their imaginations.
Why does any of this matter? Because, God hasn’t called us to fight with each other; instead, He’s called us to fight for one another. We’ve not only been reconciled to God—vertically. We’ve also been reconciled to one another—horizontally. Two thousand years ago, Jesus Christ fought on Calvary’s cross for my place and your place in His Body. No matter what direction the tides of society may blow, we’ve been called to bear one another’s burdens.
Do you find your experience in Christian community to be a burden or a blessing?