We Need the Church
The church is the second most foundational source of truth that can make us wise. Some might scratch their heads at this, especially in post-Christian Western cultures where the church feels unnecessary and irrelevant at best. Can’t we have Jesus without the church, adopting some aspects of spirituality without institutional religion? Aren’t churches prone to anti-intellectual foolishness, fundamentalist bigotry, and abuses of power? The list is long for arguments against the church as a vital part of our lives that reliably points us toward wisdom.
Nevertheless, I’ve seen in my own life—and in the lives of many others—that the church can be an indispensable source of stability and growth; a treasure trove of communal and Spirit-infused wisdom that we’d be foolish to neglect. The church, the people of God, is second only to the Bible, the Word of God, as a source of reliable and transformative wisdom. Especially in our unwise age, attaching oneself to the church—the global, growing, two-thousand-plus-years-old body of Jesus Christ on earth—can be like finding a lighthouse when you’re lost in a raging sea. A faithful, Christ-centered church and its wisdom-infusing patterns of worship is increasingly a refuge for those being pummeled by the maelstrom of our digital era.
So rather than running away from the church in these confusing and chaotic times, people should be running to the church. There are at least five ways the church can make you wiser in an age of foolishness.
1. The Wisdom of Community in an Individualistic Age
Our post-truth age pitches the individual self as the primary source of truth: “follow your heart,” “live your truth,” and so forth. And yet we follow our heart—which is “deceitful above all things, and desperately sick” (Jer. 17:9)—at our peril, becoming subject to the whims and contradictions of our fickle emotions. It sounds freeing to just “live your truth,” without the restrictive boundaries of moral police and stodgy institutions. But in reality, it’s a burden.
Helping believers navigate today’s media-saturated culture, Brett McCracken presents a biblical case for wisdom. Using the illustration of a Wisdom Pyramid, he points readers to more lasting and reliable sources of wisdom—not for their own glorification, but ultimately for God’s.
It may seem counterintuitive, but committing yourself to a church, even if it’s not perfectly fit to you (as tempting as this is), is freeing. A church community frees you from the crushing weight of self-obsession. It frees you to be part of something bigger than yourself, with people who are not like you. It frees you from the bias-confirming bubbles of only being exposed to like-minded people who always affirm but never challenge you. It frees you from the burden of being accountable only to yourself: what you believe, how you like to worship, how you interpret the Bible, how you want to live, and so on. When we are the only authority on these things, it’s hard to become wise.
Going it alone will get you only so far. Accountability only to your own “authority” will probably lead you to spiritual sickness. We need community if we are to become wise. Almost every community will help you become wiser than you would be alone. But a church community—a group committed to pursuing holiness collectively and more interested in glorifying God than in celebrating the “authentic” self—can offer particularly valuable nutrition for a healthy wisdom diet.
2. The Wisdom of God-Centered Rhythms in a Me-Centered Age
The weekly rituals of church worship—as well as the annual rhythms of the church calendar—orient our lives around God and his wisdom. When every moment of our iWorld existence conditions us to celebrate the self, the church boldly celebrates something bigger and grander and more compelling. In an age of nauseating narcissism where everyone clamors for stardom and Instagram likes, the church humbles us and constantly reminds us: this is not about you. This is about God. What a freeing and wonderful thing.
In a world where we spend way too much time talking about ourselves—on social media, blogs, YouTube, and so forth—church worship allows us to talk about God and to God. We sing of his attributes, his love and mercy toward us. We declare it in liturgy, creeds, and prayers. We are shaped by his story, in Bible readings, preaching, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, confession, singing together, and in the rhythms of the church calendar.
Wisdom isn’t just about concepts. It’s about the orientations of our time and energy, the postures that shape our hearts, often on subconscious levels. Prayer, for example, is a crucial habit for gaining wisdom—not only because the Bible says gaining wisdom can be as simple as praying for it (James 1:5; Col. 1:9), but also because the posture of prayer itself cultivates wisdom. Every prayer is a rebuttal to the “look within” logic of our age. To pray is to acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers in ourselves. We must humbly turn to God, the giver of wisdom (Prov. 2:6), seeking his guidance in all things. We are utterly reliant on him. The church helps habituate us to these crucial counter-formational practices, like prayer. We neglect them at our peril, especially in a world so apt at forming us to be unwise.
3. The Wisdom of Limitations in a Limitless Age
If every direction is possible, we end up going nowhere. This is where the church, functioning as a community of accountability and limitation, is actually freeing for any who commit to it. At its best, the nuclear family functions in this way too. It is our first community—our most proximate and continuous teacher in life. While families take on various shapes and sizes, and various degrees of health, this micro-community represents the people most likely to shape who we become. One’s nuclear family is a God-given gift of limitation. Rather than free agents who roam the planet without aim or attachment, we are rooted, enmeshed, and formed within this particular group of people we didn’t choose. The givenness of a nuclear family is a gift we should cherish and uphold.
Committing to a local church family—like embracing one’s place in one’s given nuclear family—means committing to this particular family, this particular place, this particular outpost of God’s kingdom. It is a narrowing down of our field of limitless choices. But far from shrinking our world, this limitation is freeing. To land in a church and to be grounded there, to be accountable there, provides a spiritual and relational stability that reduces the number of variables in life. It provides a defined plot of land where we can put down roots, grow, and be fruitful. It challenges the FOMO restlessness that tempts us to move so quickly from place to place that we never bear fruit anywhere.
The church also provides moral limitations. Rather than the burden of “everything is possible” morality, where right and wrong are in the eye of the beholder, the church—guided by Scripture and interpretive tradition—offers refreshing clarity on what is clearly okay and clearly not okay, and how to navigate the gray areas in between. These clarifying boundaries can be a gift to us, but we have to be willing to submit to them.
4. The Wisdom of Embodied Community in an Ethereal Age
One of the greatest sources of folly in today’s world is that we are increasingly living disembodied lives in ethereal space—pulled everywhere but grounded nowhere. Social media is attention whiplash. One minute we are drawn into some drama happening in Washington, DC. The next minute we see a friend’s photo from Fiji, followed by a headline about political unrest in Hong Kong, and so forth. We bounce from “place” to “place” without really being anywhere, least of all the actual place we inhabit.
In the digital age we have the illusion of “connection” with our many social media followers, but we find ourselves lonely and unknown behind all the manipulative filters and layers of facade. We feel involved in causes and issues, but the limits of our #Hashtag activism only leave us frustrated. Constant exposure to the problems “out there”—through social media and news sites oriented more around bad news than good—gives us an apocalyptic picture of the darkness of the world, leaving us angry and depressed.
One of the beautiful things about being part of a church, and one of its greatest gifts to our generation, is that it grounds us in a bigger story.
A local church can be an antidote to our disembodied grief. It connects us to people we actually live near and problems we can actually help solve. It grounds us in tangible geographic reality and reminds us we were made for physical connection with people in real places, not just informational connection through the mediation of screens. In a lonely, disembodied world, the church offers a beautiful alternative: an enfleshed community where the manipulative filters of life online fall away and you can be known in a truer sense, warts and all. It’s a place where our struggles and weaknesses are harder to hide; a place where healing—emotional, spiritual, physical—can happen.
However uncomfortable it is to do church with a couple hundred weird, smelly, not-like-me people whose hugs and handshakes are often awkward, the experience of embodied church can be a massive source of truth and hope in a lonely digital age.
5. The Wisdom of Continuity in a Constantly Changing Age
One of the beautiful things about being part of a church, and one of its greatest gifts to our generation, is that it grounds us in a bigger story—one that precedes us and will outlive us, where the past and the future matter as much (or more) than the present. In a presentist world where wisdom is shrunk to the narrow confines of immediate relevance, the church broadens horizons. It invites the refugees of a relentlessly unstable world to take refuge in the practices and time-filtered wisdom of two millennia of Christian tradition.
Christian heritage is a treasure trove of time-tested truth we would do well to mine. There is a great cloud of witnesses who came before us and wrestled with many of the questions and trials we face today. It’s important for contemporary Christians to avoid chronological snobbery, assuming our issues and insights are unique or new. To guard against this we should familiarize ourselves with our family of faith across time, drawing from and building upon their wisdom.
Ultimately, the value of continuity in church history is that it releases us from the burden of chasing relevance. Every generation need not reinvent the wheel. We simply need to know our story and place ourselves within it, understanding that the strength of the church is continuity rather than constant reinvention, transcendence rather than trendiness. We need churches to be less concerned with being “up on the times” than being connected to the timeless. We need churches that are shaped by the gospel more than by the zeitgeist.
At its best, the church takes us out of the uncertainty of the ephemeral and places us in the certainty of the eternal. It reminds us of our destiny and puts the latest social media obsessions into perspective. Everything ever tweeted and the most-viewed viral videos will be forgotten ashes in the embers of history, but the church will remain.
Brett McCracken is the author of The Wisdom Pyramid: Feeding Your Soul in a Post-Truth World.
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