Christian theology teaches that the church was founded by Jesus and is the world’s most important institution. Perhaps institution is not the best word, since the church is not exactly institutional; it is a movement. But it might be better yet to follow biblical usage and call it a body, or even to call it a body-in-movement.
Yes, the church is considered by Christians to be more important than the U.S. government and the European Union, more important than the International Monetary Fund and NATO, more important than the United Nations or the World Bank. The church is thought by Christians to be the place where God and humanity intersect.
Outsiders may well accuse the church of self-aggrandizement. The most important institution in the world? Really? The little clapboard building with the corny sign, the ancient organ and the lackluster sermons? It seems more than a little far-fetched to call that the world’s most important institution.
But the church is far more than a clapboard building, old hymns and a weekly sermon. The church is a people, called out of the larger society to serve God in that society. The church is an outpost of the approaching kingdom of God, strategically positioned within the various kingdoms of the world. The church is the bridgehead of divine activity in the world.
I was walking downtown on a Sunday afternoon many years ago, when I was approached by a woman handing out religious tracts. I took one, glanced at it briefly and then, without telling her I was a pastor, asked her to what church she belonged. She answered, with a kind of defiance in her voice, that she did not belong to any church, and told me that all of the churches were wrong in one way or another.
Of course, she was right about that – who knows it better than a pastor? The church is, in the words of Jon Foreman, “Painfully uncool, the church of the dropouts, the losers, the sinners, the failures and the fools.” Yet she couldn’t have been more wrong in her choice to distance herself from the church. God is using those uncool dropouts, losers and sinners to transform humanity and inaugurate his kingdom.
If Christians are right, the church is God’s own idea. But that raises the question: Why a church? Why not individual Christians doing their own thing? The answer must be that the church provides individual Christians something they would miss, if they were alone. And the church offers God something that individual Christians – even the cool and successful ones – could never offer him on their own.
The church provides Christians with a perspective individual cannot attain. I’ve seen things about myself and others and, more importantly, about God, through the eyes of African believers I would never have seen otherwise. But it’s not just people from other cultures. People from my own culture, from my own church, have revealed truths to me that long remained outside my field of vision.
In the church, people’s strengths are multiplied and their weaknesses minimized. There are people in my own and in other local churches who can accomplish things I could never do, with gifts and talents I do not possess. Together we can achieve more than any of us can do alone.
The church provides the valuable gift of rebuke and correction. This is something I simply cannot do for myself. I’m too close to myself to see my own foibles and failures with any clarity, and too subjective to apply the insights I do have in anything like an effective manner.
More than anything else, the church affords the opportunity to love and be loved – an opportunity that ought not be missed. Love originates with the social God (which is why the characters in Jesus’s God-stories are always throwing parties) and is the destiny of his people. The church is where people make the necessary party preparations – where they learn to value others, to sacrifice and forgive, to release control and take control.
Because of these (and other) reasons, the church is not one option for spiritual expression among the many a Christian might want to try. It is God’s Plan-A – and there is no Plan-B.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 7/15/2017