NEEDING and WANTING the Church

Last week, Donald Miller, a popular Christian thinker and author of Blue Like Jazz, penned an article in which he confessed that he wasn’t a regular church attender. We tend to assume that members of the  Christian “celebrity culture” have a regular place of worship and are active in a local church community, so Miller’s confession came as a surprise to many.  Surprisingly, however, the backlash from the church-attending communities who look to Miller for encouragement and support (and buy his books and read his blog and attend his conferences) while quick, was also sympathetic.

Ed Stetzer, in a piece defending church attendance as (among other things) Biblically commanded, conceded that he agreed with many of Miller’s critiques of the church and admitted that he, too, often doesn’t find the instruction and inspiration he needs as a Christian in Sunday morning worship.

Much of the resulting conversation has revolved around what, if any, responsibility Christians have to attend church; how we NEED the church and how the church NEEDS us.  We do need the Christian community of the church for instruction, encouragement, correction, support and so many other things. And God knows the church needs talented, faithful, engaged, supportive members.

But is the relationship between the church and the believer a relationship based solely on fulfilling mutual needs?  Shouldn’t we (and Donald Miller) WANT to go to church?  And if we don’t, what responsibility does the church have to be a place people WANT to go?

It’s in vogue to be moving beyond the attractional model (drawing people to ourselves) of church toward more missional models (going out to meet and serve the community) of church. But as we rightly move our focus outward, we ought to remember that light will never cease to be attractive in darkness and that as we become more like Christ we will naturally draw people to ourselves. Becoming something that people WANT to participate in is a good thing.

One of the most convicting questions you can ask a group of ministers is, “How many of you would regularly attend your churches if you weren’t paid to be there?”  My sense is that many, if not most, ministers would have trouble honestly answering that question the way they’d like to.

If we take as a given that the answer to the question, “Should Christians attend church?” is a resounding yes, then what other questions remain? Miller’s admission provides a great opportunity to explore basic questions about the church. Here are a few.

Why do so many Christians get so little out of their Christian communities? Why do so many Christians put so little into their Christian communities?

What are weekly church services designed to do anyway? What exactly happens when we worship together? What should we expect?

What should members expect from their churches in order to be “satisfied customers”? In other words, what basic needs, if left unmet, should lead someone to look for another church?

What should churches expect from their members? What should we, as members, be giving to our communities?

What, if any, benefits do we get from community that we can’t find in individual communion with God?

What changes, and what stays the same, about the church as culture changes? What changes, and what stays the same, as the church’s place in culture changes?

Scripture provides answers to these questions, and Stetzer identifies a number of passages that speak to them. But our answers must move beyond scripture to speak to our experience, tradition, and cultural contexts, too.  And they must move beyond the NEED that we as Christians understand to the WANT that is required to attract a world that doesn’t feel like they’re missing anything when they stay home on Sunday mornings.

One of the worst things we can do is to pretend that we’ve answered these questions already; that we’ve moved beyond the basics; that once answered, these questions can fade into the background of our collective consciousness. These questions demand our constant attention. They continually require our best minds, our most creative approaches and our most concentrated efforts.

If the Bible is anything, it is a record of God continually finding new ways to communicate his love for us and his desire for relationship with us.  In scripture, God uses new people, new messages, and new methods to expand his Kingdom, to broaden his appeal, and to communicate his purpose.

As the great story of God’s love advances, more and more people are included in God’s kingdom. I, for one, don’t think God stopped doing new things when the scriptural canon was closed. Nor do I believe that the scope of God’s kingdom stopped growing. That’s the miracle and the mystery of the Kingdom. It keeps changing. The story continues to unfold.  So the answers to the basic questions keep changing, too.

So yes, Christians NEED the church, and the church NEEDS Christians.  At a primal level we need connection to our creator. But just as life gains value when we’re able to enjoy the WANT of a nice meal that moves beyond the NEED of basic sustenance, so the experience of the Kingdom was designed to move beyond our primal needs. If our churches are to be outposts of the Kingdom, then we ought to be wrapped up in the miracle and mystery, the growth and change, of God’s unfolding story.  I think there’s a growing “WANT” out there for a church like that, and keeping our focus on the above questions might just help us get there.

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