By Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck
Here’s what Bono, Oprah, and the guru speakers on PBS won’t tell you: Jesus believed in organized religion and he founded an institution. Of course, Jesus had no patience for religious hacks and self-righteous wannabes, but he was still Jewish. And as Jew, he read the Holy Book, worshiped in the synagogue, and kept Torah. He did not start a movement of latte-drinking disciples who excelled in spiritual conversations. He founded the church (Matt. 16:18) and commissioned the apostles to proclaim the good news that Israel’s Messiah had come and the sins of the world could be forgiven through his death on the cross (Matt. 28:18-20; Acts 2:14-36).
For almost two millennia, it was axiomatic that Christians, like, actually went to church (or at least told other Christians they did). From Cyprian to Calvin it was believed that for those to whom God “is Father the church may also be Mother.” But increasingly Christians are trying to get more spiritual by getting less church.
Take a spin through the religion section at your local bookstore. What you’ll find there is revealing – there are “revolutionary” books for stay at home moms, teenagers, and Christian businessmen. There are lots of manifestos. And most of the books about church are about people leaving the church to “find God.” There are lots of Kerouacian “journey” stories, and at least one book about the gospel according to Starbucks. It used to be you had to overthrow a country to be considered a revolutionary, and now, it seems, you just have to quit church and go pray in the woods.
We’ve been in the church our whole lives and are not blind to its failings. Churches can be boring, hypocritical, hurtful, and inept. The church is full of sinners. Which is kind of the point. Christians are worse than you think. Our Savior is better than you imagine.
But the church is not all about oppression and drudgery. Almost every church we know of visits old people, brings meals to new moms, supports disaster relief, and does something for the poor. We love the local church, in spite of its problems, because it’s where we go to meet God. It’s not a glorified social/country club you attend to be around people who talk and look just you do. It’s a place to hear God’s word spoken, taught and affirmed. It’s a place to sing praises to God, and a place to serve others. It’s a place to be challenged.
The church is more than plural for Christian. It is both organism and organization, a living thing comprised of a certain order, regular worship services, with doctrinal standards, institutional norms, and defined rituals. Without the institution of the church nurturing the flock and protecting the faith for two thousand years, there would be no Christianity. If Gen Xers (like us) and their friends want to be against something, start a revolution. If you want to conserve truth and grace for twenty centuries, plant a church.
We love the church because Christ loved the church. She is his bride–a harlot at times, but his bride nonetheless, being washed clean by the word of God (Eph. 5:25-26). If you are into Jesus, don’t rail on his bride. Jesus died for the church, so don’t be bothered by a little dying to self for the church’s sake. If you keep in mind that everyone there is a sinner (including yourself) and that Jesus Christ is the point and not you, your dreams, or your kids, your church experience might not be as lame as you fear.
Perhaps Christians are leaving the church because it isn’t tolerant and open-minded. But perhaps the church-leavers have their own intolerance too–intolerant of tradition, intolerant of authority, intolerant of imperfection except their own. Are you open-minded enough to give the church a chance–a chance for the church to be the church, not a coffee shop, not a mall, not a variety show, not Chuck E. Cheese, not a U2 concert, not a nature walk, but a wonderfully ordinary, blood-bought, Spirit-driven church with pastors, sermons, budgets, hymns, bad carpet and worse coffee?
The Church, because it is Christ’s church, will outlive American Idol, the NFL, and all of our grandkids. We won’t last, but the Church will. So when it comes to church, be like Jesus: love it, don’t leave it. As Saint Calloway once prophesied to the Brothers of Blues, “Jake, you get wise, you get to church.”
Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor at University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan. He serves on the executive team of RCA Integrity, a renewal group within the Reformed Church of America. Ted Kluck’s work has appeared in ESPN the Magazine, Sports Spectrum Magazine, ESPN.com Page2, and several small literary journals.
They are the authors of the new book Why We Love the Church: In Praise of Institutions and Organized Religion.