What we're doing isn't revolutionary at all. It's awfully traditional and old. Feel the excitement. (22)
Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck are not concerned with being revolutionary, especially if it means dismissing the church with cynical jabs fueled by self-righteous angst.
The current craze in contemporary spiritual literature is to embrace a Churchless Christianity. But Christ clearly taught that his mission was to build his church (see Matthew 16). Christ is the head of the church, his body. Christ loves his church and gave himself for it (Ephesians 5:25).
Because of the intimate union between the head and the body - Christ and his bride - DeYoung and Kluck rightly ask, "Is a head still a head if it doesn't have a body? Is a friend really your friend if you can't stand his wife?" (11) They then lament all the contemporary chatter that seeks to dismiss the church:
And woe to the friend who comes around your house, hangs out, and expects to have a good time, all the while getting digs in on your bride. Who wants a friend who rolls his eyes and sighs every time your wife walks into the room? Apparently, some people imagine Jesus wants friends like that. They roll their eyes and sigh over the church. (12)
Many of the cynics the authors engage with come from the emerging church and (to a lesser extent) from the missional movement. I have great sympathy with many of the concerns of the emerging church but one area that leaves me wanting is the weak ecclesiology espoused by most emergent leaders. They seem to never tire of attacking the church. They complain about its organization and its institutional quality with its rules of conduct. In spite of their good intentions, we are left with a free-flowing head without a body.
DeYoung and Kluck clearly state the goal of their book: "we hope that this book might have some small effect in helping people truly love their local church no matter how imperfect it may be and serve in it faithfully for the long haul" (15). They hope to maintain the tension that clearly exists, for church "is an organism and organization, a community and an institution, a living entity with relationships and rules" (16). Though postmoderns pride themselves on embracing a both/and rather than an either/or view of things, they often fail miserably in this in regard to the church.
I realize that they do this out of frustration. But the church that Christ loves is not a supermodel, but rather, a flawed and broken bride. They write, "The church we love is as flawed and messed up as we are, but she's Christ's bride nonetheless" (19).
I'm Not Into Organized Religion
Though many former disgruntled church-goers decry "organized religion," organization is necessary for the common good. An organism needs organization in order to survive.
I'm... glad that my church is "organized." I'm glad I know where to put my toddler on Sunday morning. I'm glad somebody was institutional enough to think through topics for a Sunday school class or two. I'm glad my pastor, rather than just freewheeling it, cares enough to study Scripture and a bookshelf full of dead authors to give me real spiritual food each Sunday. I'm glad somebody leads a social outreach ministry to those less fortunate in our area. I'm glad somebody (not me) makes sure the kids are learning something biblical in their classes. It is, at its most basic, organized religion. And I love it. (24)
Those who leave the church because of its organization often fail to recognize that the causes they espouse also demand a certain level of organization.
They leave the institutional church with its buildings and programs and paid staff and go to serve at the homeless shelter instead, never stopping to think that someone pays the bills for this building, someone turns on the heat in the morning, and someone maintains a calendar of events every month. (87)
The Church Should Fix Society
The disgruntled demand that the church seek to be the solution to all societal ills by placing community transformation above institutional survival. However, these things need not be at odds.
The purpose of the church in missional circles is often reduced to one thing: community or global transformation. This point is repeated several times, but it is never really defended. All Christians agree that the gospel has social implications. Most probably agree that community transformation could be a good thing. But where do we see Paul talking to his churches about transforming their communities? Where does Jesus, with the corrupt oppressive Roman Empire in full sway, seem interested in world-changing initiatives? (38)
The authors warn: "The church will look abysmal when we are expected to be the cure-all for a large portion of our societal problems" (40).
Furthermore, critics often underestimate the impact of the church. By focusing only on "official" programs, they fail to recognize "the work that individual Christians do. Isn't that the work of the church too? ... It simply boggles my mind when I read George Barna conclude based on his research that 'local churches have virtually no influence in our culture'" (42).
Community transformation is important, but it is not the church's primary task. The authors quote Richard John Neuhaus approvingly: "the first political task of the church is to be the church" (43).
The authors also draw attention to "the danger that we only champion issues that win us cool points. Let's be honest, no one we run into is for genocide or for sex trafficking or for malnutrition. It takes no courage to speak out against these things" (44).
We need to be reminded that
there is no language in Scripture about Christians building the kingdom. The New Testament, in talking about the kingdom, uses verbs like enter, seek, announce, see, receive, look, come into, and inherit. ... We are given the kingdom and brought into the kingdom. We testify about it, pray for it to come, and by faith it belongs to us. But in the New Testament, we are never the ones who bring the kingdom. (49)
Outsiders Don't Like Us
Some are frustrated that outsiders view the church with disdain. But this is to be expected: "If outsiders thought the church was hot stuff, they would become insiders. So of course outsiders don't like the church" (76).
Some argue that outsiders to the faith like Jesus but dislike the church, but "the Jesus they like is almost certainly not the Jesus who calls sinners to repentance, claimed to be the unique Son of God, and died for our sins. ... a guru Jesus who resembles Bono in a bathrobe" (78).
To assume that outsiders should naturally approve of the church is to fail to recognize the church's historic scandal:
We should not assume we have failed just because outsiders dislike us. It is well known that the Romans despised the early Christians. They were considered odd, unlearned, ungodly, culturally lowbrow, and socially unprofitable. The Romans thought the Christians practiced cannibalism because they ate the body and drank the blood of Jesus. Some thought they were incestuous because they called each other brother and sister and took part in love feasts. Others thought they were atheists because they had no icons for their God.
"Whether or not the Christians merited these three charges of atheism. Incest and cannibalism is beside the point," argues Michael Green in his book Evangelism in the Early Church. "They were universally regarded as the sort of people who might be guilty of crimes like these. Their early press was uniformly bad."
It can be helpful to know how others perceive us, but not always. In our self-esteem-oriented, easily offended, suffering-averse world, I fear that the church is too eager to be liked. (80-81)
House Churches are the Answer
Many that are frustrated with high levels of organization opt to bypass this by establishing a house church. They claim that house churches are God's original design. But they fail to recognize one fact: "The Christians met in homes for three hundred years because their faith was illegal. They didn't have anywhere else to meet, which is why buildings started popping up after Constantine decriminalized Christianity" (120).
Furthermore, "a Roman house, especially with the courtyard, could be quite spacious, allowing for up to one hundred people in attendance" (120).
Here's the bottom line: The whole conversation about church buildings is much ado about nothing. You have to meet somewhere. Even if you don't own a building, presumably your worship gathering does not meet in a random, always-changing, undisclosed location (unless you're facing persecution). You do have some address. There is some place where your church meets. (120, 121)
DeYoung and Kluck do not write off house churches as a legitimate expression of faith, but they take issue with those who assume that only house churches are legitimate expressions of faith:
If house churches have good preaching, good leadership, good theology, intentional discipleship, appropriate structures, rich worship, and administer the sacraments and practice church discipline, then I don't care if they meet in my basement. House churches aren't the only way to do church, but done right, they are a way.
But that's the key: House churches are a way, not the way to do church. Churches meeting in homes is not the problem. The problem is that "house church" in America often means anticlergy, antiauthority, antiliturgy, antisermon, antibuilding, anti-most ways of doing church over the past 1,700 years. (179)
You Can't Have Your Cake and Eat It Too
In one of the most powerful paragraphs in the book, DeYoung and Kluck point out how most of the criticisms addressed to the church are self-contradictory:
The church-is-lame crowd hates Constantine and notions of Christendom, but they want the church to be a patron of the arts, and run after-school programs, and bring the world together in peace and love. They bemoan the over-programmed church, but then think of a hundred complex, resource-hungry things the church should be doing. They don't like the church because it is too hierarchical, but then hate it when it has poor leadership. They wish the church could be more diverse, but then leave to meet in a coffee shop with other well-educated thirtysomethings who are into film festivals, NPR, and carbon offsets. They want more of a family spirit, but too much family and they'll complain that the church is "inbred." They want the church to know that its reputation with outsiders is terrible, but then are critical when the church is too concerned with appearances. They chide the church for not doing more to address social problems, but then complain when the church gets too political. They want church unity and decry all our denominations, but fail to see the irony in the fact that they have left to do their own thing because they can't find a single church that can satisfy them. They are critical of the lack of community in the church, but then want services that allow for individualized worship experiences. They want leaders with vision, but don't want anyone to tell them what to do or how to think. They want a church where the people really know each other and care for each other, but then they complain the church today is an isolated country club, only interested in catering to its own members. They want to be connected with history, but are sick of the same prayers and same style every week. They call for not judging "the spiritual path of other believers who are dedicated to pleasing God and blessing people," and then they blast the traditional church in the harshest, most unflattering terms. (87-88)
No one suggests that the church is not without its problems. It is a flawed and broken bride, but it is Christ's bride. As Chuck Colson wrote in Being the Body: "The church of Jesus Christ is like Noah's ark; the stench inside would be unbearable if it weren't for the storm outside."
Drop the Ideal. Live the Real.
There is no need to pit organism against organization, community against institution, or relationship against rules. These things are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, both exist in a healthy church. The problem is not organization, but bad, life-crushing organization.
George Barna invites us to be part of a "revolution" that "is about recognizing that we are not called to go to church. We are called to be the church." But "doesn't part of being the church entail worshiping together as the church?" (171)
The problem for many of the church-is-lame crowd is that they are easily disillusioned because of their unwillingness to recognize that, until Christ returns and completely sanctifies the church, it is flawed and broken. This is not an excuse; we strive to do the best we can. But it is reality. Too many of the church's critics have "too much 'already' and not enough 'not yet' in their eschatology" (39). Sure, "everything must change" but "everything will not change" until Christ returns to judge the world in righteousness and establish his kingdom for eternity (214).
An idealized view of the church will necessarily lead to frustration, disillusionment, and drop-out. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said it best in his classic Life Together: "Anyone who loves the dream of community more than the Christian community itself [warts and all] becomes a destroyer of the latter even though the devotion to the former is faultless and the intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial."
The fact of the matter is we are not going to "transform the face of planet Earth to a place of justice, peace and equity, a place without suffering." It's no coincidence that disillusionment is such a big theme in the church-leaving literature. Many of these passionate, well-intentioned youngish church-leavers have a vision for the world that is so unlike anything promised on this side of heaven that they can't help but feel disappointed and angry with the church for not getting the world where they think it can go. (215)
Yes, let's be real and honest about the church, but let's not bash it. It's an easy target. And we must always remember that constant criticism reveals an ungrateful heart:
And in our hypertherapeutic culture, we all need to realize that sometimes being in touch with our pain and being real about our doubts and authentic about our struggles is a form of narcissism and self-absorption more than maturity. We could all use a little less complaining and a little more gratitude. It's easy to blast the church for all its failures. It's harder to live in it day after day, year after year, with all its ho-hum humdrum and slowly, consistently make a difference. (221)
Church is not always exciting. It is not always revolutionary. Perhaps the church does not need more revolutionaries, but more "plodding visionaries" - people committed to fidelity to the church, for better and for worse, in sickness and in health.
Our jobs are often mundane. Our devotional times often seem like a waste. Church services are often forgettable. That's life. We drive to the same places, go through the same routines with our coworkers, buy the same groceries at the store, and mow the same yard every spring and summer. Church is often the same too--same doctrines, same basic order of worship, same preacher, same people. But in all the smallness and sameness, God works--like the smallest seed in the garden growing to unbelievable heights... Life is usually pretty ordinary, just like following Jesus most days. Daily discipleship is not a new revolution each morning or an agent of global transformation every evening; it's a long obedience in the same direction. (224-225)
Though I don't agree with all of their solutions, DeYoung and Kluck have provided the church with a helpful resource to reevaluate our frustrations, reorient our perspective, and regain a love for the church as it really is - warts and all - and not as we imagine it should be. If Jesus loves the church, so should we.
Quotes excerpted from Why We Love the Church: In Praise of Institutions and Organized Religion by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck
© Richard J. Vincent, 2009