Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Churchless Christianity

My wife enjoys reading Real Simple magazine. Truth is, I enjoy perusing its' pages as well. However, it is a periodical aimed at women with the purpose of helping them, well, simply their lives. One of the popular features is "Real Life" which gives folks the opportunity to meet a "real Real Simple reader." The page is done in a question/answer style much like those American Express magazine adds where celebrities fill in the blanks to questions. In the October 2007 issue, readers met a mom and wife from Tampa, Florida that answered the following:

"The big decision I'm currently wrestling with is...My husband and I
would like our daughters to have a strong sense of spirituality, but we prefer not to raise them with the traditional church background that we both had. How do we teach them to have a strong faith in God without a special congregation or place of worship that would guide them with formal religious customs?"

What our Real Simple reader, who is a mother of three girls, appears to desire is the following:
1. daughters that have a strong faith in God
2. daughters that are spiritual
3. daughters that do not participate in a local church

I have certainly read of this phenomena happening more frequently in America. People desire and seek after spirituality that is outside the bounds of what Christians understand to be central to "following Christ" and being his church. As a pastor, I regularly see this belief in practice often.

For instance, I was recently perusing membership statistics of the churches in my congregations's local Baptist association. Our Associational Missionary was telling a group of pastors that our member churches have a total of around 8,500 members. In our understanding of church membership, this would mean individuals who professed faith in Christ at some point in time, were baptized and then received into the membership of a local congregation. Our missionary stated that only about 2,000-2,500 of those 8,500 are present in worship on any given Sunday. One pastor friend stated the figure of 2,000 was probably generous!

What is one to make of such a disparity?

This disparity has been demonstrated to me as I have visited in the homes of "church members" that have either never attended during my pastoral tenure or only occasionally such as holidays. (I heard a pastor call these peopl CEO's--Christmas, Easter and Other special occasions.) In speaking with CEO's, I usually seek to hear them give testimony of their conversion experience. If you simply ask people if they are a Christian, you tend to get an affirmative from every one in most of the South.

Just as an aside, I found this question to be helpful when I lived in Louisville because people were usually very forthright with either, "Yes, I am a Christian" or "No, I am not a Christian." In South Georgia, most of the people I have encountered have had some type of church experience. A few months ago, I was speaking to a neighbor that does not appear to be a Christian tell me of regular participation in a youth group during the teen years. Another pastor told me over lunch that he had a "member" who joined the church as a nine-year old boy during a Vacation Bible School. After that occasion, he only attended later Bible Schools and has, since becoming an adult, only been to church for a couple of funerals and weddings. The man is now 59.

It is commendable that our Real Simple reader desires to raise daughters that have "a strong faith in God." However, any attempt to do so outside a local congregation misses something very central to what it means to be a Christian! In his book Sharing Your Faith with Friends and Family, Oxford professor Michael Green says, "Christianity is corporate, and it is generous. If a person's attitude is--I can be a Christian without going to church--[then they] have missed the genuine article."

What appears to be missing in the thinking of the Real Simple reader, my pastor friend's 59 year old member that never attends and other CEO's that make up membership lists of various churches all over the nation is that though following Jesus is a personal decision, that decision does not lead one to live in isolation. Christianity must be understood in the context that being Christian is to be a part of Christ's church. Being Christian is doing life with other believers for the glory of God. Thinking that leads people to believe they are Christian with no level of active and ongoing participation with a congregation misses the clear teaching of the Bible.

Consider these examples:

Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. Hebrews 10:23-25

Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. Galatians 6:2

By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
John 13:35

Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Romans 12:10
Live in harmony with one another. Romans 12:16

May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. Romans 15:5-7

Finally, brothers, rejoice. Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. II Corinthians 13:11-12

Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. Ephesians 4:32

Over the last few years, I have appreciated my friendship with a couple of Presbyterian pastors. Though we have our spots of disagreement over certain theological issues, I find myself admiring their denominations intentional action in caring for and disciplining churh membes that fall away from regular fellowship. When a member does not participate in the church for one year, that member is contacted. The hope is that restoration will come and the member will, again, begin to participate in the life of the church. However, if that member continues in a lifestyle of not participating in the life of the church, they are removed from membership. The belief takes seriously that a congregation is responsible for one another. This is especially true of the pastor(s) that will be judged for his teaching and care of his flock. My Presbyterian brothers have taken the position that if a person does not desire to be accountable to the congregation in giving and receiving care, then before God, the church disciplines that member by removing them from fellowship.

In a day where church membership has been so demeaned and cheapened (especially in Southern Baptist Churches), it seems to me that churches must:

1. Help each member to understand the Bible's call of congregational life--both theologically and
and practically speaking. Membership SHOULD mean something! The church is the bride
of Christ and our calling is to bring glory to Him!

2. Seek to lovingly and patiently restore those members that have fallen from regular
fellowship. Again, this will call for biblical instruction. This task is made difficult because
these members are not in regular corporate worship.

3. With care, begin to discipline those members that continue to disregard clear biblical teaching
on congregational life.

Our prayer should be that our congregations reflect what the Bible teaches and not the desire of an average mom that is hoping to teach her daughters Churchless Christianity.


Lisa said...

Hey Rodney! I was thinking about you guys and googled your name and ended up your blog. I pray God's blessing upon your family today as you seek to serve Him!

Anonymous said...

Hey Rodney. Great words regarding the importance of our relationship to one another in Christ. Keep the wisdom coming!