Guard against Drift
You have many reasons not to go to church. That’s why we see this moment in history as an opportunity to rediscover church. The drift away from church didn’t start with a pandemic or with partisanship. The world cultivates instincts in all of us that push against the vision of church. If churches are to thrive during whatever unknowns the future holds, they must be rediscovered.
The very language people use today to describe looking for a church suggests the fundamental problem. Folks talk about “shopping” for a church. When you’re shopping for a church, you’re asking what that church can do for you, not what you can do for the church. Shopping also suggests that church is a matter of mere preference, like choosing between brands of ketchup. And the customer is always right. Loyalty lasts only so long as the church continues to meet your needs.
Consider the role played by technology. Online video church and podcasts leave the impression that we don’t need other ordinary Christians for our spiritual growth. If we can find our favorite worship music on YouTube and our favorite preacher on Spotify, then we can curate a personalized spiritual experience that surpasses whatever half-baked effort we can find down the street while jostling for space against frenzied families we don’t care to know.
But the challenge new technologies pose to churches didn’t begin just yesterday. We’re not the first to observe that the automobile effectively ended church discipline for many churches. All of a sudden, someone could divorce his wife without cause and simply drive to a different neighborhood or town for church. He would never need to repent publicly at the demand of church leaders called to protect and care for his ex-wife and children. The point isn’t that new technology is necessarily bad. It’s just that it creates new challenges that we often overlook.
And so, again and again, the church needs to be rediscovered. This is because we’re all prone to forget what God wants for us. The apostle Paul told the Philippians, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” In this he pointed to the example of Jesus, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Phil. 2:3–4, 6–7). Jesus humbled himself to die on the cross so that he could be exalted by God. If we want loving unity in the church, then we must follow the same path of self-denial. No other route will reach the summit, where we find God’s approval: “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt. 25:21).
I (Collin) know a pastor who often says that no one gets the church they want. But everyone gets the church they need. We all need churches that call us to something greater than ourselves. We need churches that call us finally to God. When we follow the example of Jesus, we get the church we need.
We’re all trained today to leverage institutions such as family, work, and school to achieve our personal goals of attention and acceptance. Once we get what we want, or the institution asks us for something we don’t want to give, we can discard it and move on to another target. Get a new job. Get a new family. Get a new school.
The church forms us into men and women of God. We grow stronger together.
But personal growth doesn’t usually work that way. Generally relationships don’t change you for the better if they don’t challenge you at your worst. Consider: Who are the most important people in your life? Do they only affirm you and every decision you make? Or do you trust that they will love you no matter what, and love you enough to tell you the truth? Relationships with family members and friends are forged through thick and thin. They will stand behind you at your best, stand next to you at your worst, and stand in front of you at your most vulnerable.
That’s the kind of church we must rediscover. The church isn’t just another institution we use to build a résumé and enhance our self-identity. The church forms us into men and women of God. We grow stronger together. At the same time, we learn more about who God intended us to be as individuals—our unique abilities and passions. The church doesn’t erase our personalities. It enhances them by connecting us to the Creator who made us as we are and to others who call forth love and strength we never knew we had. You may not get the church you wanted. But you get the church you never knew you needed.
The two of us are not naive about how many churches fall short of this vision. You might think we underestimate the challenges. On the contrary, because of our positions, we know far more than most about the dark side of churches. We’ve experienced it ourselves. We’ve heard of it from others. We’ve seen it with friends and family members. And we’re not asking you to tolerate abuse or heretical theology. We’re not issuing a blanket endorsement for churches or condoning the misuse of power and authority that we know is common among churches, past and present.
We do, however, believe that you must expect friction in church. You should not expect to get along with everybody. You should not expect to share the same vision, the same priorities, the same strategies. Those moments of friction test all of us. They make us wonder if another church around the corner would be easier. It might, at least for a time, though probably not forever, because in that church you’ll find sinners redeemed by grace. And you’ll still be a sinner redeemed by grace. You’ll find the good and the bad, maybe to a lesser degree. But no church this side of Jesus’s return can avoid every disagreement and disappointment.
3 Ways Church Changes Us
Think of church as something like waves rolling over rocks. The waves are the church. You and other church members are the rocks. Day after day, year after year, the waves flow without ceasing. They rush over each rock and jostle the rocks against one another. From month to month, you probably won’t notice much difference. But over years, even decades, you’ll observe the change. As the waves crash and the rocks tumble over one another, their rough edges become smooth. They take on a polished glint in the sun. No two rocks emerge from the process with the same size or shape. But in its own way, each becomes beautiful. We shouldn’t be surprised that Peter, the “rock” himself, picks up the imagery of stones to describe the church. First, Peter wants us to see that the church is built on the foundation of Jesus. He applies Isaiah 28:16 to Jesus: “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, / a cornerstone chosen and precious, / and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame” (1 Pet. 2:6).
Second, he wants us to realize that God didn’t expect everyone to see Jesus as precious. For them, Peter cites Psalm 118:22 (“The stone that the builders rejected / has become the cornerstone”) and Isaiah 8:14 (“A stone of stumbling / and a rock of offense”) in 1 Peter 2:7–8.
Third, he wants us to see that Jesus has built something beautiful—us, the church: “As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 2:4–5).
This article is adapted from Rediscover Church: Why the Body of Christ Is Essential by Collin Hansen and Jonathan Leeman.
What is going on when a disagreements affects your heart’s posture or hinders fellowship with another person in your church?
Do multiservice and multisite church models run counter to the pattern for the local church we see in the New Testament?
The local church is the authority on earth that Jesus has instituted to officially affirm and give shape to my Christian life and yours.
How should Christians think about political disagreements within the church and how much should politics be shared from the pulpit?