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Thinking the Faith, Praying the Faith, Living the Faith is written by the PC(USA) Office of Theology and Worship.

Thinking, praying, and living the faith is at the core of ministry in the Office of Theology and Worship. In the following videos, learn more about what thinking, praying, and living the faith means to the leadership of the Office of Theology and Worship. Discover why it matters and what difference it makes in our lives, work, and worship.  

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August 28, 2013

Church Chosen and Not-Chosen

It’s a perennial question that has come in for some engaged conversation over the last several weeks: “Why Church”?  As in, specifically, why be part of and committed to an actual congregation? 

Things seem to have been sparked by Rachel Held Evans, “Why millennials are leaving the church.”  After that post went viral, Evans wrote a helpful follow-up that has not, unfortunately, gone viral: “Why millenials need the church.”  I’ll pick up on that un-viral post below.  Evans also has a few reflections and links in a blog post on her own blog.

Reflections within this same zone of issues include Tara Woodard-Lehman, “Do You Really Need Church?”  And Karen Swallow Prior, “Called to Love the Whore: The church needs grace, too.” 

My colleague Teresa Stricklen has explored some of the issues at hand in “Why Do We Need the Church Anyway?”   As Teresa makes so clear, we need to take seriously the pain and hurt that people have experienced (or that has been experienced by their friends) at the hands of Christians, gathered in congregations, pain and hurt that stands between them and the church.

These posts are helpful – insightful, challenging. 

I want to think briefly about another aspect of “Why Church,” looking from another angle.  Much of the conversation so far has been about what might be persuasive to a person who is unsure about the church, or who has come to reject the church (by rejecting the particular, specific, congregations).  That’s important work – what is sometimes called “apologetics.”  It’s an important part of evangelism. 

But what is it that makes the work of evangelism (and specifically, in this case, of apologetics) worth it?  Why bother making the case for being part of a congregation?   Why the investment of time and energy?

There’s a way in which “Why Be Part of the (or a) Church?” makes no sense.  To be a Christian simply is to be in the church.  To be a Christian is to be grafted into Jesus Christ (I’m thinking of John 15).  And once we find ourselves in Jesus Christ, in that kind of way, then we discover that there are other people there as well, and we are bound to them (Jesus spends John 14 – 17 assuring us that this is good, that God equips us for this).  At this level, what I would choose for myself doesn’t come into the picture.  From this angle, what I think my needs are doesn’t factor in.  To be grafted into Jesus Christ is to be grafted into the wellspring of life, true life.  To be grafted into Jesus Christ is to know my own sin and brokenness, so deeply connected to sin and brokeness in the world; and to know that sin and brokenness are awash in God’s forgiving, redeeming love.  And it’s that bracing love that I’m called to bear . . . to others.  Beginning with those unavoidable, divinely loved people who are there in Christ alongside me, the people who gather in congregations.

Rachel Held Evans brushes up against these matters in that un-viral post about needing the church.  She uses sacraments – loosely, evocatively, the 7 sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church – to consider our need for the church.  Particularly Communion: “Churches may disagree on exactly how Christ is present in these sacred meals, but we agree that Christ is present. And millennials, too, long for that presence.”  And not just millennials, as Augustine pointed out long ago: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”  Not only do we discover other people when we’re rooted in Jesus Christ: we discover that being bound together with God, one another, and all creatures is fully human, is part of who we are.

That’s why it’s worth it – the hard work of listening carefully to the painful experiences others have had with the church and responding in ways that share God’s love.  We make the case for congregations, because congregations are gatherings of people grafted into Jesus Christ, places where, however fallibly, we are on the way to embodying what it means to be a creature of the Creator, which is who we are.

All this is only one angle, one aspect: a theological, conceptual level.  Working this out in the day-to-day is difficult.  We put together actual congregations and denominations as best we can (hopefully).  We make choices about ways of organizing worship and life together.  Sometimes we’re completely wrong in spite of our genuinely good intentions, and sometimes because of genuinely bad intentions.  Sometimes things turn out well - perhaps because of our good intentions and in spite of genuinely bad intentions.  Often we just don’t fully know what we’re saying or doing (think of Peter at the Transfiguration, his mind frozen and his mouth in full motion, talking about a church building project – Luke 9:33).  All of which leaves us needing to do the hard work of understanding the pain caused when we - the church and its members - fail.  Because those hurt by our failures may fail to see that the church, the Body of Christ, is where that true life wells up.

Why church?  For all the good reasons explored in the blog posts linked above.  And because church is where we find ourselves when we stand in Jesus Christ, and come to share there in the relationship to God and to all creation that we were made for, in which we find life, true life.

Tags: belong, church, congregation, holy spirit, hurt, jesus christ, membership, salvation, sin


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