Why church? It’s a valid question, and many are asking and not arriving at an answer. For a restless season in my own life, I struggled to answer it. But I now believe whole-heartedly that this question has an answer, and one that speaks specifically into our own day and time. Even if you are a skeptic, there are compelling reasons to pay attention to these answers.
“The way we are, we are members of each other. All of us. Everything. The difference ain’t in who is a member and who is not, but in who knows it and who don’t.” - Wendell Berry, "The Wild Birds"
Some have argued we are at the tail end of the single most devastating century to human community. Modern progress with all of its benefits has left us more and more scattered and fractured with every technological leap. The front porch turned into the family television, and then the family television turned into our own personal screens and cyberspace. The first broke our ties to our neighbors and the second the ties even to our own family members. We now run the real risk of living entirely in echo chambers of our own individual desires and opinions, brought to us online by corporations that have a vested interest in us staying online on their platforms as long as possible. The complexity and difficulty of natural community has been replaced by the flat ease and experience of the manufactured variety.
Church, at its best, is one of the few havens where age, skill, politics, occupation and all other social divisions gather around a common mission - to care for the world and for one another through the love of Christ. In this real community, children are still exposed to the wisdom of the elders, and the elders to the care and fervor of the young. Individual political and social opinions are sacrificed on the altar of loving God with heart, soul and mind and one’s neighbor as oneself. This is not a dream of Eden. It is simply a vision of healthy community, albeit one that is hard to recognize in our time. Where else are you pulled from the social strata of your coworkers and subdivisions? Where else do you have to put in the work not only to understand but to love someone who differs from you politically and even theologically? One could argue you could find this kind of community in other places or civic organizations, but the church, again at its best, has one critical advantage: the message and calling of Christ. Christ calls us to die to ourselves and to live for Him and consider others above ourselves. A task this difficult can only be practiced in a group of people united around the effort and reaching outside of itself relying on God. It is this task that is the foundation of a healthy community. It is no surprise that the ones who are lucky enough to experience it call their church their “family.”
The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. Matthew 13:20-21a
Another risk of our modern technological era is our obsession with the new. We are enamored with the latest trends, technologies and diversions, particularly if they bring us satisfaction, ease, or convenience. We now have more information at our fingertips than in all of human history thanks to the internet, but can we honestly say we are more knowledgeable than ever before? Are we wiser? Also, much of our education now, including the liberal arts, is heavily in support of and supported by the needs of the marketplace. This of course serves a practical purpose, but it doesn’t lend itself to rooting us in wisdom or education in the classical sense - the search for truth, beauty and virtue.
This means that one of our challenges now is to seek out the things that root us - in the lasting truths of human history and culture. When our outlets for reading are only as recent as the current best-seller list or worse yet today’s news, we run the great risk of repeating the worst of human thought and action again and again. We must continually wrestle with the ideas, thoughts and wisdom traditions that have stood the test of time. This obsession with the new may be one of the reasons the church is declining in numbers. But I also think the church’s rootedness is precisely one of the greatest gifts it offers to our current culture. The church is by nature rooted - at the very least in its ancient texts and traditions. Even if some of those traditions and scriptural interpretations trend over the years, they remain a part of a deep canon that is our legacy. One could say the church has a deep root system - the stories that we tell our children, the wisdom passed from generation to generation. It is much older than our current time, and it is not something we have outgrown. We learn from mistakes and find new insights, but the roots never cease to bear fruit. To the shallow waters of scrolling and binge-watching, the church at its best offers a deep well into the wisdom of the ages.
For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. - Matthew 16:24-25
We love to be happy. In fact, we spend the majority of our time in single-minded pursuit of this end. One of the great gifts of the church is that it tells us a story about how this dream of happiness tends to become our own nightmare. Our scripture and tradition teaches us that we tend to seek our own pleasure at the expense of others and even the eventual destruction of ourselves. Put simply, we are consumers. We consume friends for their listening ear and loving words. We consume our employees or employers for what we can squeeze out of them. We consume our spouses and children for our own pleasure or status. We consume products for the ease and convenience they offer with no thought to the systems of oppression and injustice that create and deliver them into our hands.
The church speaks to this disease of our nature, but the message is as radical and hard-to-hear today as it has always been. Our culture preaches self-care, the church self-denial. The culture self-actualization, the church self-sacrifice. The truth and wisdom of the church’s message, always crazy at a glance, can really only be discovered in the living out. It is the message summed up in Christ’s paradoxical words quoted above - whoever loses their life for me will find it. The church claims that the strange truth is that these words hold the hope of actual, lasting happiness for all of us - what is often referred to in scripture as joy. Joy can be had in sorrow and pain, even oppression, defeat and death. It is not momentary or rooted in emotion or getting what we want. It is difficult to understand and even more difficult to practice, but this is the priceless gospel that the church offers. And it is good news today and always.
I admit in thinking through this that I am showing my bias on what church should be rather than what it sometimes is. The church oftens looks as far from what I have described above as possible, offering merely more of our culture’s fractured community, shallow experiences and joyless selfishness. In this way, the description of church above is actually our challenge - the church’s commission to live up to its potential to offer true community, rooted in wisdom and offering the gospel story that brings true joy.
Your kingdom come, Your will be done,
On earth, as it is in heaven.