As pastor of a mainstream denominational church, my congregation has experienced a slow and steady decline for decades. Each year, the congregation gets older and smaller as more people choose brunch over Holy Communion and soccer matches over passing the peace. But more disturbing than the attendance decline is the increasingly homogeneous nature of our congregations. So, understanding the relevance of church has everything to do with how the Church can best live into what it has been called – to be the physical presence of Christ in the world. And since I understand Christ as God and all humanity as created in the image of that God, the physical presence of Christ in the world must look like humanity — diverse in all aspects.
Admittedly, our churches rarely meet this expectation. Perhaps this is why so many have forgotten why Church matters in their lives and have slowly faded away from its sanctuaries. But, let’s face it — this isn’t new. The Church has always failed to live up to Christ’s example, even as depicted in Scripture.
But, even when the Church struggles to live into Jesus’s vision, it still resembles it much closer than when I try to make a go of it on my own. This is how I know the Church is of God — because it requires me to seek help from others. That in mind, here are three purposes the Church serves in the lives of those who claim to follow Jesus.
Church helps us become more human.
Our world is full of obstacles that help us reject the fullness of our humanity. We are prone to selfishness and ego preservation. We seek to further our own position before others. We choose the easier path rather than the harder road. In fact, we’re so accustomed to this way of living, we call it “being human.” But, perhaps our thinking is backwards. Perhaps we have a very low opinion about what it means to be human, and perhaps humanity is precisely the opposite — fully embracing, selfless, ego deflating, others preferring, and choosing hardship as a pathway to peace.
In this sense, the goal of the human endeavor would then be to become more fully human, not less. Not ironically, God showed us how to do that through the example of Jesus’s own humanity. The Church can actually helps us to embrace the fullness of our humanity, to see it in others, and to love all. The Church is then God’s gift to help us see that becoming human is a communal effort.
Church offers us the truest sense of belonging.
All human beings desire to belong. Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, said that “it is only through belonging that we can break out of the shell of individualism and self-centeredness that both protects and isolates us” (Becoming Human, p.35). We have found all sorts of ways to create places of belonging outside of the Church, and yet, wherever we go, we still find ourselves divided into insiders and outsiders. If the Church fully embraced its identity as the body of Christ, it has the greatest opportunity to provide belonging for the greatest number of people.
One of my favorite stories in the Gospels is one we often dismiss as simply a children’s story – the story of Zacchaeus. If you’ve spent much time in church, you may know this song about it:
Zacchaeus was a wee little man and a wee little man was he.
He climbed up in the sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see.
And when the Savior passed that way, he looked up in the tree.
And he said, “Zacchaeus, you come down! For I’m going to your house today! For I’m going to your house today!”
It seems apropos that this is a children’s song, because it tells a story of radical inclusiveness and belonging, which children are often so go good at demonstrating. As my friend Leah says, it paints a picture of Jesus as “the One who sees, and loves, people who have a hard time seeing and being seen.”
As I’ve become increasingly aware during my tenure as pastor, so many people in my community are truly unseen in their daily lives. They are overlooked and ignored throughout their week. They rarely experience physical touch by other people. They are desperate for relationships with others. They crave belonging. Why? Because they are not beautiful. Or financially successful. Or popular. Or whatever undesirable characteristic we might label them with.
The Church offers me the best opportunity to be in relationship with these folks. It’s one of the few places that forces me into relationships with people I would not normally choose. Those relationships have revealed more to me about my humanity and have drawn me ever closer to God.
Church is our primary response to God.
When I am most annoyed at Church or when I find myself wistfully listening to the Sunday morning escapades of some of my friends (why do they always involve wineries?), I always come back to what, for me, amounts to the proverbial bottom line. The Church wasn’t my idea. I might have chosen something different. I definitely would have chosen something easier. It would probably involve only people I like, who don’t make me feel uncomfortable, who make me laugh rather than cry, and who surely don’t force me to question my understanding about God.
But the Church wasn’t my idea. It was Jesus’s idea. And Jesus knew that human beings would rather take the easy, safe route which would mean that people like Zacchaeus, or young people, or old people, or differently abled people, or gay people, or poor people,. or undocumented people…would have a hard time being seen. And thus, they would be robbed of sharing in the body of Christ.
Reversing this trend by fully participating in the life of the Church? That sounds like a pretty good idea to me.
This post is part of an ongoing series entitled, On Going to Church.
Kim Jenne is a pastor in St. Louis, Missouri. After 10 years working in advertising, Kim attended Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. She is very interested in the relationship between Church and culture and how we are shaped by our exposure and consumption of both. A lifelong St. Louis Cardinals fan, her earliest Cards memory is Darrell Porter hitting a clutch single in the eighth inning of Game 7 of the 1982 World Series. Go Cards!
Header and third images: Credit to Wikimedia. Used under creative commons license.
First image credit to Pixabay. Used under creative commons license.
Final Image ©CreationSwap/Jennifer Powell. Cropped from original. Used with Permission.