Today, many Christians, especially those under 40, are asking tough questions about the faith. They are questioning assumptions taught by, or caught from, their parents. This is particularly true of assumptions regarding sexuality and racial justice. The process is known as “deconstruction,” a term borrowed from the philosopher Jacques Derrida and applied to the faith by the theologian John Caputo.
Beliefs about sexuality and race are not the only ones being deconstructed. So are beliefs about the church. Do people need to go to church? The answer is no—for people who are not Christians. For Christians, the answer is more complicated.
Most self-identified born-again Christians who do not attend church have not concluded, based on theological reflection, that church is unnecessary. They are not deconstructing; they are merely deteriorating. Their reasons for not participating in corporate worship are frequently individualist and consumerist: they don’t get enough out of it to make it worthwhile.
The idea that the value of corporate worship can be gauged with a consumerist scale should itself be deconstructed. It is not the result of theological reflection or “the mind of the Spirit,” but the result of American individualism and the spirit of commercialism. The Bible tells a different story.
The theologian and biblical scholar Scot McKnight has written: “There must be thousands of verses [in the Bible] for community to every one verse about the afterlife … From the book of Acts through the end of the book of Revelation the gospel is the work of God to form community.”
“Community” is a buzzword, or maybe a fuzzword, among Christians today. Everyone is talking about and looking for community, but many are looking outside the church, which they consider hidebound and irrelevant. Yet the church is Jesus’s community. There are no substitutes.
McKnight notes that “The apostle Paul traveled the Mediterranean founding churches, and he wrote to churches and organized churches, and Peter and John did the same.” The individualistic spirituality of our time knows no parallel in biblical literature. As McKnight says, “There is a lot of churchiness about the New Testament.”
That is not to say that the church, either in biblical times or in our own, is without its problems. The church is full of problems precisely because it is full of people, broken people, like you and me. But the restoration of broken people into the image of God and into a community of restored people – or, rather, a community of people who are being restored – is God’s work. It is called the church.
There is much more to the church than “attending services.” The consumerist mindset that views the local church as an entertainment venue that happens to be open on Sunday mornings makes an authentic experience of church life all but impossible. Church is not a spectator sport, or a concert, or a religious TED talk. A meaningful experience of the church requires participation in a community.
Such participation involves both what one receives and what one gives. The apostles taught that God has provided each church member with a capacity to contribute to the welfare of all the rest. The Bible calls this capacity a spiritual gift.
Further, participation in the church means serving, caring for, and helping other people. The old word for this is “ministry.” In the church, every person is a minister.
Because everyone in the church is a broken-but-being-restored image of the Creator, participation requires patience. The apostolic letters to the churches are straightforward about this: “Put up with one another. Forgive one another.”
It is through serving each other, putting up with each other, contributing to each other that the church becomes a fellowship of holy love, a community that embraces one another even in life’s messiest moments. That embrace enables a process of a transformation to take place both on an individual and a corporate level.
This transformation doesn’t happen to consumerist churchgoers but to participants. It doesn’t happen while attending church as much as while being the church. It happens to people who embrace each other because they have embraced Jesus and the life – the transforming life – he offers.
(First published by Gannett.)