Body (1Corinthians 12). This refers, of course, to one, living organism made of many different parts. When the Apostle Paul uses the image he highlights that the body as a whole doesn’t live well if all of the parts are the same or if only the “flashier” parts are respected.
(You know how this works. People say, “Oh, you have beautiful eyes.” But, they rarely say, “Oh, you have beautiful kidneys.” Yet many people would argue that it’s actually harder to live well without kidneys than it is to do so without eyes.)
Nation (1 Peter 2). A nation is made of many people. There aren’t many nations (read as “any”) where the sign at the border says, “Welcome to MyLand. Population 1.”
Temple (1 Peter 2, again). In this image the different people in the community are envisioned as the different bricks that only together can become the temple of God’s presence. One brick does not a temple make.
Looking at these images, I can’t escape the fact that God intends the spiritual life to be personal but not private. Religious life is envisioned within a network of relationships. It’s social. A quotation from a house church leader named Felicity Dale captures this well:
"Think of church like family. You don't 'go to family.' Family is what you are wherever you are."
Or this from Terence Grant:
“If we come to church on Sunday with the notion, ‘I’m here to be alone with God, I’m here to do my private devotion,’ we’re living in a dream world. There is no such thing as a solitary Christian.”
The great commandment to love God is fleshed out by the following command to love neighbor as self. In the gospels Jesus doesn’t do any work until he calls your typical, run of the mill people (like us) to do it with him. In the New Testament, almost every time we read “you” it’s intended to be read in the second person plural (“y’all” in Texas-speak). On and on it goes.
And this sociality makes sense. Life is just like that. None of us conceived and gave birth to ourselves. None of us makes it through a day of life after birth without depending on others, even if we don’t typically recognize it. I mean, who made the device you’re reading this on? Not you, in all likelihood.
Without the accent on the healing, challenging presence of God, these social images lose their power and purpose, even if they retain their form.
I remember a book on new forms of church life in the 21st century I read a few years back. In it the author wrote about what I’ll term “shallow social life and deep social life.”
He said that the church is designed to be a community of deep social life. That doesn’t mean church fellowship is not often fun or made up of only “deep” religious conversations. It means that the relationships in the church are not simply ends in themselves. The church is not designed to simply be another group of nice people interested in making comfortable lives for themselves in the world.
Their fellowship instead is built around a larger calling, vision, and goal – to represent the coming to earth of God’s presence as seen in Christ. In other words, the social fellowship of the church is designed to represent the words, deeds, and presence of Jesus through its life together. This is what makes it a deep social life.
But, the church is constantly tempted to settle for a shallow social life. In this spiral of shallow social life, the church becomes in-focused and often fixated on its own survival. When it does this it becomes an “anti-witness” to Jesus, if you will.
In response to this “anti-witness” you hear people outside the church say things like “the church doesn’t look like Jesus, so what exactly is the point of church anyway? Behind all the prayers, it’s just a typical social club, and a pretty boring one at that. It’s just another pointless institution looking to suck up money to keep itself going.”
Personally, I identify with that outsider, somewhat cynical perspective. I didn’t become regularly involved in church life until college, so I can image life without being a part of church. Also, as a pastor I tend to see people burned over and over again from times when the church has lost its focus on Jesus.
So, if someone is talking like that, the best response is not to talk at them, but to show them how Jesus (and so his church) has made you a different, more compassionate person.
Criticism like this can also provide a service. It can help the church ask itself a series of important questions like...
Is the church community really interested in knowing Jesus better and experimenting with how to live with Jesus as a model for life? Or is it really just playing the same political games other groups pray?
Is the church more interested in feeding its own bureaucracy, or in feeding physically and spiritually the people Jesus seemed to be interested in?
Is worship self-fixated and self-congratulatory, or is it centered on hearing from, encountering, and following the living God met in Jesus Christ?
Any congregation worthy of asking people to give money “to keep the doors open and the lights on” should be working regularly through those types of questions with fear, trembling, and hope.
If it does, if we do, then the church can be more than a social club and worth being a part of.