Does the church still matter today? That's the wrong question to ask

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Does the church still matter today? Why that’s the wrong question for us to ask

March 15, 2023 -

A Bible study group is gathered around a table, Bibles open, hands clasped in prayer, indicative of what the church is © By brain2hands/stock.adobe.com

A Bible study group is gathered around a table, Bibles open, hands clasped in prayer, indicative of what the church is © By brain2hands/stock.adobe.com

A Bible study group is gathered around a table, Bibles open, hands clasped in prayer, indicative of what the church is © By brain2hands/stock.adobe.com

It’s become conventional wisdom that the key to happiness is less screen time . . . or at least that’s how it often seems. Turns out, that’s not entirely accurate.

As Rhiannon Williams describes, “Screen time has a bad reputation, and there are plenty of negative headlines blaming the amount of time we spend on devices for everything from reduced attention span to depression and anxiety. But there’s a growing body of evidence suggesting that reducing your screen time won’t in itself make you happier, and that general device usage isn’t a reliable predictor of any of those things.”

To be sure, there are elements of social media, phone addictions, and the inability to step away from work that can make our lives worse, but some variation of “Do I need less of those things in my life?” is the wrong question.

Unless you first understand what it is about the time you spend on a screen that’s making your life worse, you are likely to end up solving for the wrong problem.

And screen time is hardly the only area of our lives where we face that same issue.

What is the church?

In an article for Christianity Today, Kirsten Sanders argues that Christians in America are making a similar mistake when it comes to our understanding of the role the church should play in our culture. As she writes, “One question I encounter regularly these days is why the local church matters. This, I think, is the wrong question.”

She goes on to describe how the pandemic taught us that “God can be encountered in living rooms, in nature, and even on a TV. . . . The entire Christian tradition insists that God is not hindered by anything. . . . God indeed dwells with his people, gathered in homes across the world.”

At the same time, however, Sanders argues that “the church is not God’s guiding, consoling presence in one’s heart or the very real consolation and correction that can come when a group of Christians meets to pray. Nor is it what we name the occasional gathering of Christians to sing and study in homes or around tables worldwide.”

So what is the church?

That, it would seem, is the correct question. Unfortunately, it’s also one that has proven increasingly difficult to answer for many believers today.

Needs “only the church can meet”

Throughout her article, Sanders goes into greater detail on the myriad ways in which Christians have attempted incorrectly to define what it means to be the church, and her account is worth reading in its entirety.

For our purposes today, however, the most crucial element of her argument is that the church’s greatest mistake is often losing sight of what makes it unique in its attempts to make itself relevant.

Efforts to care for the poor and the needy, provide a place of community, and help people live more moral lives are all important pieces of what it means to follow Christ, but they cannot serve as the foundation of what it means to be the church.

The reason is that those services, as vital as they are, can be found in other places. They’re not what makes the church distinct from the world around us.

As Sanders, notes, people’s physical and emotional needs are important, but “spiritual needs are the ones that only the church can meet.” Consequently, that needs to be our focus and the principle that guides our other efforts to serve people in the name of God.

Sanders concludes, “We must refuse to justify the church’s existence by stating what good we offer, what our contribution is, or whether we can promise that our people will resist temptation or refuse improper use of power or never harm each other. The church matters because only there is the truth about the world spoken—because only there is the Lord proclaimed as King.”

When the world doesn’t understand the church

In short, what makes the church the church is our common cause of worshiping Jesus as the only path to salvation and the Lord of our lives.

However, as Paul writes, we should not be surprised when that identity is considered “folly to those who are perishing” (1 Corinthians 1:18). As he goes on to say, “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (vs 23–24).

But will we be content if the world around us doesn’t quite understand that purpose? Can we resist the pull of defining our worth by the culture’s standards rather than God’s?

Those can be difficult questions to answer, but they reside at the heart of what it means to be the church today. Fortunately, the same was true for the first generations of Christians as well.

We are purposefully peculiar

One of the primary ways that the early church proved its value and worth was by being a blessing to the people they met. However, blessing others was never their focus. Rather, it was a natural byproduct of a life dedicated to serving God and growing in their relationship with him.

In the same way, there is an important place for Christian service and charity in the church’s purpose. But, as Sanders describes, if meeting physical and emotional needs ever becomes a higher priority than meeting spiritual needs, “the church becomes understandable to the world but loses its mission. It is no longer peculiar, even if it is now coherent to a culture that is anything but Christian. We need that friction, that impossible question of how church works, that puzzlement over what the church does, because what it does is often inconceivable to those outside it.”

As we think about what it means to be the church, we’re going to have to accept that there will be some who just never get it. Whether it’s mischaracterizations in movies and entertainment or even just a sideways glance from our neighbors and coworkers, we’re going to have to learn to live with being misunderstood.

And that’s all right. After all, people didn’t get Jesus either.

The crowds followed him because he fed them and performed miracles, but few understood him because his priorities were different from theirs. He never gave up on them, but he also never strayed from his purpose to accommodate them.

If we want to embody his church in our culture, we must do the same and remember that our purpose—what makes us unique—can only be found in worshiping God as part of the body of Christ and making him known.

Is that your purpose today?

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