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Beyond Mere Community

EDITOR'S NOTE: I run this article each spring because I'm so committed to it's message. So far--in four years of blogging--I've grown to embrace this message more and more, although I've modified the language, softening it here or there an an attempt to dialogue with others. If you've commented in past years, let me know if your thoughts have developed.

After 40 years of walking with God I have met plenty of unhealthy Christians who belong to a church, but I have never met a healthy Christian who does not belong to a church. What are we to do with this? The currently popular solution is to hang out informally with our believing friends and declare, ‘This is my church. These people know me and love me. I receive nothing from organized religion.’”

I wrote these words three years ago, and after thinking about it for a year, I have only one revision to make: After 43 years of walking with God I have met plenty of unhealthy Christians who belong to a church, but I have never met a healthy Christian who does not belong to a church.

It’s difficult to stand in defense of the church when the church is so screwed up. It’s a helluva a way to run a railroad, but apparently the Father thinks it’s worth the risks. We were designed for community, but also something beyond mere community, we were designed for the church.

Many will object, and I invite you all to tell me gruesome tales of hypocrites, self-righteous blowhards, and sexual predators. I get it. The North American church is desperately sick, and in many cases the church hinders the spiritual growth of believers. But before we all decide have coffee and croissants down the street with the cool kids and call it church, I’d like to suggest that God has given us a few clues about what He thinks makes up a church. The bottom line is: church is God’s idea, and we ignore it at our peril.

It’s a book-length discussion--a life-length discussion, actually--but here is one man’s list of at least six vital parts of a real church:

  • The church meets together regularly: Sunday morning isn’t the only possibility. In fact, Acts 2:42-47 suggests they met together far more than North Americans might find comfortable. In a variety of settings, for a multitude of reasons, followers of Jesus meet together regularly and share their lives together. I don’t give a rip when or where, but regular, habitual gathering is a mark of the church.
  • The church has a defined structure: Structure is built into God’s order of creation. Single-celled organisms reveal astonishing complexity of function; in the human body there is individualized function. Without the structure of a skeleton, the body cannot stand. These physical realities point toward spiritual truth. Amazingly, the scripture seems to endorse a variety of church structures, but every New Testament church had a recognizable structure. We can disagree on what that structure may look like, but it’s not possible to read Acts or the Epistles without recognizing it’s importance.
  • The church provides authority: Authority! Just mention the word and people tense up. Abuses abound, guilt is common currency, and the church in North American differs little from any business down the street. Yet we all must personally come to terms with passages like, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority.” (Hebrews 13:17) Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus could be considered all about authority! Nearly everyone has a horror-story about abuse of authority in the church. Here’s my take: authority without compassion and relationship makes a sham of God’s Kingdom, but compassion and relationship without authority misses God’s Kingdom entirely.
  • The church is a proving ground for love and forgiveness. “Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” (Colossians 3: 12-14) These words are impossible to live out in isolation. I believe the Father designed families and churches as the venues for love and forgiveness. How can we live out these words apart from our families, or the church--which is the family of God?
  • The church equips God’s people. Christian maturity requires a nurturing family atmosphere. Gifts of the Holy Spirit and the development of Christian character thrive in a healthy community. Entertainment apart from equipping is antithetical to God’s plan for the church--there are plenty of churches that amount to nothing more than TV shows. But fellowship and community without equipping also falls short of the mark. If there's no equipping going on, it's not fully the church. Jesus is into lab, not lecture. And it's not recess, either.
  • The church provides a unique corporate witness: There have been exceptional individuals throughout history. Saints and geniuses appear larger than life, and because they are are so exceptional, they are easily dismissed as individuals, even freaks. But who could dismiss an entire community of faith? “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another,” said Jesus in John 13: 34 “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” The early church would either get you healed or care for you until you died. Widows, orphans and outcasts of the first century knew there was a refuge called “the church.”

Object if you will: it’s easy to do. The church has failed in every area. Today’s post is not a defense of the way things are. The church in North America is desperately sick.

Some things should change--and I believe the change begins with us as individuals. If you must leave your current church, then go. But where? If you can find a group of believers attempting to fulfill these six ideals you will land in a safe place. Leaving a sick church may be the best decision. Ignoring God’s plan for your personal growth as a disciple never is.

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Reader Comments (13)

Mutual influence is inescapable-unless you are a hermit. I recall when I sent my grade school-aged kids to Louisville for a week long vacation. When I picked them up a week later they had a drawl. The fact is, we WILL influence and be influenced by those around us. The question is, who are we around?

April 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEd

I love this post. I've learned Nashville is the epicenter for drifters and non-attenders because people "don't identify" with the modern church or they church hop to find better business connections. Sounds a bit cynical, but from my experience it's pretty true, especially with younger people. I'm going to share it on my blog this week because it's an important message that needs to be heard.

April 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKatherine Michael

Where would you meet healthy Christians who don't go to church and how would you know if you had? What do you mean by "healthy Christian"?

I have met several healthy Christians who are not connected to any specific church and don't attend church on anything more than a very periodic basis. Granted they are the exception but that migh be as much about not being able to find these people as easily as you can Christians in church circles.

April 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKeith Rowley

Ed: Thanks for your comment, which is (I think) a gentle disagreement? EIther way it gave me pause--a good one.

Katherine: Please do share it on your blog! And as a Baby Boomer, I find among my contemporaries a real sense of disillusionment, so I think the problem reaches far and wide.

Keith: I SO appreciate your "methodological" point: that I haven't met many (any) healthy non-church Christians because our worlds do not intersect. It's a good point. Still, I'm not a shy wallflower-type. You'd have thought I could have run into at least ONE? :-)

April 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRay Hollenbach

Perhaps my habit of cracking wise has caught up with me. Actually, Ray, I am in full agreement with you. In fact, just this morning I recalled that one very important yet often overlooked aspect of the believer's need to attend church is that to fail to do so withholds the benefits of those spiritual gifts from the body. (Eph 4:12, Rom 14:19) Expressed another way, If you don't see the need for yourself, show up because someone else has need of you. (1 Cor 12:21)

April 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEd

Jesus is the healthiest Christian I know … where two or more are gathered in His name there is He … even if the name is “” … Jesus and His disciples enjoyed lecture, lab and recess together in one single three year training course of how to do it … the seven churches in Revelations were churches of spiritual community and not specific buildings of meeting even if the community of sharing were “” … the community Jesus grew up in as a child did not accept Him as the Messiah ... Where did Jesus go to church?

April 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHerm

My point is more that unless you always ask every Christian you meet where they go to church you might not realize that they don't. The healthy Christians I know who don't attend church are not obsessed with this fact. Their relationship with God does not revolve around what they don't do. Also they realize that it would not be healthy for most Christians to not attend church so they are not advocating for others to do what they do. These Christians simply have a different calling. A good historical example would be the dessert fathers.

As a further critique of your method your statement has the assumed point that because you have not met any that you know of they must not exist. This is like me saying I have never met an Eskimo so they must not exist.

April 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKeith Rowley

My Creator God equips me, always has and always will, because They know me as is in the example of my parents of mankind. Though most intentions are good I cannot rest in any church like I do in the arms of God. The most important community to God is Their family and it is from within that divine Unity that I break bread and sup wine. It is from that divine foundation that I find the strength, resources, direction and joy to go out into the world to bring baptism into that fold equally in the name of our Father, his Son and the Holy Ghost. amen

April 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHerm

Colossians 3 is the best advice for life. Thanks Ray.

May 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoseph Hurtgen

I have just finished reading "The Impossible Mentor" for the third (4th,5th, 6th, etc time). I am going to be blunt - to put you on the spot as it were! Are you saying in your book that Jesus expected every one of His followers to do the works He did, including all the miraculous healings, etc.,if we remained in close fellowship and obedience to Him, right up until this day? Despite all the evidence to the contrary, and the insitutional church has given plenty of that, but it's what scripture teaches what counts. I'm not arguing, and I will come to my own conclusion in this,but your point of view seems to show much influence by Dallas Willard, a teacher I greatly respect (and continue to respect even though he has passed on). So what is it to be? It is a pretty radical thought!

July 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGeorge

Hi George: As to the Lord's expectations, I can't say. But as to what he made possible for us, then my answer is a resounding yes! (You're also correct regarding Dr. Willard's influence.) The point of The Impossible Mentor was to challenge us regarding our expectations!

July 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRay Hollenbach

Hi Ray, Thank You for your direct answer! It leaves me with a bit of adjusting to do, and adjustments can be demanding in the sense thay are challenging. Pray with me. This is new territory, and I will need much faith. Like all of us I have plenty of projects to occupy my time in this area. It's not His supply that concerns me, it's His will for each particular scenario. Even the Lord wasn't successful every time (Nazareth!), so dealing with disappointment and discouragement have to be considered as well. Blessings, George. 1

July 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGeorge

Of course, George, I will pray along with you. Grace and peace to you in great measure.

July 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRay Hollenbach

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