I can’t remember how many times in recent years I have read or heard people say that they love Jesus but hate the church. Usually it comes out of the context of questions about God, faith, and why our churches are seeing a decline in attendance. What so many leaders in the church are wondering especially is why more and more young people are choosing to exchange their church communities for other social groups.
Sometimes people who leave the church will admit that they simply don’t believe in God anymore and see no need to be a part of the church. Maybe they grew up in the church but never had any real connection with God. Although I wish they did have positive relationships with God and the church, I can understand how they feel.
What I have been having trouble understanding is when people say they love Jesus, but they are fed up with the church. So much so that they choose to leave it. Perhaps they have had negative experiences when attending services, or maybe they see the church as stuck in the past. It could even be that they see the church as hypocritical and sometimes going against what the Bible teaches.
It’s not that I think these experiences are not true. I have my fair share of confusion and disappointment as well. Of course people have been hurt by the church. Of course the church is full of hypocrites and people who claim one thing and live something different. I can identify with all of these groups, both as a recipient and a guilty party. But to give up on the church and leave it while still wanting to follow Jesus makes no sense to me. They are opposites, like the positive sides of two magnets that can never come together. But in order for this to makes sense, I need to clarify how I define the church.
Although we say, “I go to church,” church is not an event or a spectacle. Although we call the spaces where we worship “church,” church is not a building. Although when our local, national or global church gathers, we are divided into denominations, church is not an organization. If that is how we see church, we have deviated greatly from what Jesus began here on earth. If our churches are organizations, buildings or spectacles, then I can understand people’s frustration and hatred, because they are looking for this idea of church to be what it can never be. So then what is the church?
At its most basic form, the church is a bunch of people who have been made new by the grace of God to become the body of Christ.
In his book, Why Jesus?, William Willimon spends a whole chapter talking about Jesus as a body. The nonsensical narrative of God is that He became human and put on an earthly body. Jesus, the incarnation of God (which Bruxy Cavey once described as “God with meat on”) came to us because all of our attempts to come to Him had failed. He pursued us to be in relationship with us. But Jesus’ time on earth lasted only about 33 years, and then, after the resurrection, He ascended into heaven.
But Jesus left another form of His body here on earth so that the world could experience Him through it - the church. The church, made up of the followers of Jesus, became Christ’s representative and ambassador. It is through us that the rest of the world would experience the life changing person of Jesus Christ.
“If the world is going to meet Jesus, it will need to meet him as his body, the church.”
- William Willimon, Why Jesus?, p.125
The problem is not with the church but with what the church has done. Out of our call to follow Christ, we have created programs, spectacles, organizations, buildings, and businesses as the vehicle of being Christ’s ambassadors in the world. Church becomes about how many people we can get into the pews (or comfy theatre seats). Church becomes about power and control over political nation states. Church becomes about deciding who’s in and who’s out, by creating denominations with criteria foreign to the call of Jesus.
With Jesus, there are really only two options: love Him or don’t. And if you love Jesus, there is only one option: follow Him. Jesus doesn’t give us the option to simply see Him as a good teacher. He wasn’t. He was a radical man who called Himself the Son of God. Either we take Him as that, or we discount Him as a lunatic. If we follow Jesus as God incarnate and submit our lives to Him, there is no question about it: we are a part of the body of Christ.
“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many.” - 1 Corinthians 12:12-14
This has huge implications for the way the church functions. For example, it’s not up to us to decide who’s in and who’s out. Only Jesus decides that. No matter how much you try to separate yourself from other Christians because they baptize differently than you, or sing different music, or emphasize different aspects of spiritual gifts, you are part of the same body. Just think of Jesus’ disciples and how different they were from one another.
I think our challenge is to change our understanding of church so that we can engage in the work of Jesus rather than to disengage and walk away from the church. What does that mean? In short, if you are fed up with the church, we need you.
The church needs people who are sick and tired of some of our traditions, spectacles, programs, organizations, structures, and business, because these things often stop the church from being the church. Instead of walking away from the church, we need those people to speak prophetic words to us so that we can be challenged to look more like Jesus. The things you are frustrated with are probably things that we need to change or get rid of, but we sometimes have blinders on and are often too stubborn to change. But don't give up on us. In fact, if you follow Jesus, you can’t give up on us and we can’t give up on you. Whether we like it or not, we are one body. And a body, with all of its parts, must stick together.