By Paul Tautges
One of the least obvious—and yet most tragic—changes Christianity has experienced in the past fifty years is the diminishment of the centrality of the local church in the life of many Christians. The Lord’s Day, once considered a special day dedicated to the worship and service of God, is now treated like any other day by many professing believers. And local church life, once considered the center of indispensable relationships within our spiritual family whom we love, encourage, and to whom we remain accountable, is now treated like an extra-curricular activity rather than an essential ingredient of the Christian life. The signs of the diminishing priority of the church are many. However, I will only mention the six trends that Kent Hughes highlights in his book, Set Apart: Calling a Worldly Church to a Godly Life.
- Hitchhiker Christians: “The hitchhiker’s thumb says, ‘You buy the car, pay for repairs and upkeep and insurance, fill the car with gas—and I’ll ride with you. But if you have an accident, you are on your own! And I’ll probably sue.’ So it is with the credo of many of today’s church attenders: ‘You go to the meetings and serve on the boards and committees, you grapple with the issues and do the work of the church and pay the bills—and I’ll come along for the ride. But if things do not suit me, I’ll criticize and complain and probably bail out. My thumb is always out for a better ride.’”
- The consumer mentality: Many of today’s Christians shop for a church like they build their supper at a cruise ship buffet. “Ecclesiastical shoppers attend one church for the preaching, send their children to a second church for its youth program, and go to a third church’s small group. Their motto is to ask, ‘What’s in it for me?’” This has often been rightly called, Cafeteria Christianity.
- Spectator Christianity: “Spectator Christianity feeds on the delusion that virtue can come through viewing, much like the football fan who imagines that he ingests strength and daring while watching his favorite pro team. Spectator sports and spectator Christianity produce the same thing—fans who cheer the players on while they themselves are in desperate need of engagement and meaning.”
- Drive-through Christians: “The nice thing about drive-through restaurants is that you can get what you want in a minimum of time with no more effort than a turn of your power steering. The tragic result is a drive-through nation of overweight, unfit people with an addiction to fast foods. So it is with drive-through Christians, who get their ‘church fix’ out of the way by attending a weeknight church service or early service on Sunday morning so the family can save the bulk of Sunday for the all-important soccer game or recreational trip. Of course, there is an unhappy price extracted over time in the habits and the arteries of a flabby soul—a family that is unfit for the battles of life and has no conception of being Christian soldiers in the great spiritual battle.”
- Relationless Christianity: In light of the New Testament call to believers to be part of the life of a community of people, it is ironic “that there are actually churches that trade in anonymity, going so far as to abolish membership and the registry of guests. Some churches have even replaced a pastor-in-the-flesh for a video-projected preacher on the screen—a ‘virtual reality’ version of the church.”
- Churchless 'worshipers': “The current myth is that a life of worship is possible, even better, apart from the church.” So, instead of faithfully participating in a church, there are self-professing Christians today who prefer to have their own private worship service at a local coffee shop, or down by the lake, or in their living room—pajamas and all!
Of course, none of this is a surprise to God. The Apostle Paul, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, predicted that in the last days men would be “lovers of self” rather than lovers of God (2 Timothy 3:2).
Hughes exposes two causes of what he calls, “De-churching.” First, the popularity of “the invisible church,” an unbiblical doctrine. And second, “the historic individualism of evangelical Christianity and the grass-roots American impulse against authority. The natural inclination is to think that you need only an individual relationship with Christ and no other authority. Such thinking produces Christian Lone Rangers who demonstrate their authenticity by riding not to church but out to the badlands, reference Bible in hand, to do battle singlehandedly with the world.” Yet the opposite is true. If you adopt this kind of individualistic mindset, you are sure to be one of the casualties of war. A soldier all alone is an open target and Satan knows it. And a lack of commitment will leave you stunted in your relationship with God and other believers. Because, as Hughes says,
The entire Christian life is about commitment—first and above all to Christ, but also to the church, to family, to marriage, to friendship, to ministry. None of these will ever flourish apart from commitment. Marriage, for example, can never produce the security, satisfaction, and growth that it promises unless there is commitment. On the most elementary level, you do not have to go to church to be a Christian. You do not have to go home to be married either. But in both cases if you do not, you will have a very poor relationship. Here is the point: It is my considered belief that those who do not have the local church at the very center of their lives are likely not to make it as Christians through the opening decades of the third millennium.
More than ever before we as believers need to understand the priority and function that God infused into His design of the local church. Let me encourage you to use the following outline of three biblical analogies of the church in your own personal Bible study or small group. Pray for the Holy Spirit to re-ignite your passion for the church.
THE CHURCH IS THE FAMILY OF GOD
Four Observations from 1 John 3:11-18
- Love for the other members of our spiritual family is commanded by God, not optional.
- Love for the other members of our spiritual family is a window into the true state of our heart.
- True love is sacrificial.
- Love for the other members of our spiritual family results in meeting one another’s material needs.
Two Observations from 1 John 4:7-12
- Love for the other members of our spiritual family is a fruit of the gospel’s work in our hearts.
- Love for the other members of our spiritual family is an imitation of God.
Key Application Point: As the family of God, we belong to each other and are called to love one another in the truth.
THE CHURCH IS THE BODY OF CHRIST
5 Observations from 1 Corinthians 12:12-27
- There is one body with many parts, designed according to the Spirit’s will.
- Inferiority hinders proper body function.
- Superiority hinders proper body function.
- The mature response in both cases is this: “I need the other members of the body just as much as they need me.”
- Humility promotes unity.
Key Application Point: As the body of Christ, each and every one of us is necessary to its proper functioning. We are inter-dependent.
THE CHURCH IS THE TEMPLE OF GOD’S PRIESTS
4 Observations from 1 Peter 2:4-10
- Christ is the Living Stone.
- We are living stones, each a part of God’s building/temple.
- We are spiritual priests, each called to offer spiritual sacrifices.
- We are the people of God, called to proclaim the excellencies of Him.
Key Application Point: As the temple of God, each and every one of us is a minister carrying out the sacrificial calling of God’s priesthood.
Active involvement in the life of the local church is indispensable to healthy spiritual growth. We need the church!
Dr. Paul Tautges serves as pastor of Immanuel Bible Church in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, and has authored the books Counsel One Another, Comfort Those Who Grieve and The Discipline of Mercy. Dr. Tautges also blogs at Counseling One Another and Biblical Counseling Coalition.