Part 2 of series: The Church as the Body of Christ
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In my last post I began a blog series on the church as the body of Christ. I examined the story of the church’s birthday in Acts 2. There, the very first believers in Jesus gathered together in fellowship. For them, the Christian life was quite clearly something to be shared with others. Often, we in America aren’t so sure about that.
When I was a boy, I loved watching The Lone Ranger on television. He was a mysterious masked man who, along with his faithful partner, Tonto, and his powerful steed, Silver, stood up for justice in the Old West. His famous call, “Hi-yo, Silver! Away!” still rings in my ears. And I will never be able to hear the Overture to Rosssini’s opera, William Tell, without picturing the Long Ranger racing along on Silver. (Photo: Clayton Moore as the Lone Ranger, with Jay Silverheels as Tonto. If you want to hear a unique version of the William Tell Overture, check out this video.)
In many ways, the Lone Ranger epitomizes American individualism. The goal of doing it my way touches just about everything we do, including our way of living the Christian life. When we became Christians, certainly a few of us expressed our new found faith in Christ by plugging in to some sort of Christian fellowship. But many of us tried to go it alone. We stood back, and still do stand back from churches and other Christian organizations, sometimes confused about how to connect, sometimes doubtful that such connection is necessary, sometimes even fearful that sharing with other Christians will dilute the intense, personal reality of our faith.
Others of us started out in relationship with other Christians, but for some reason we backed away from Christian community. Perhaps life was simply too busy to keep church participation in the long list of pressing priorities. Perhaps we were disappointed by Christians who failed to live according to the example of Jesus (as we all do!). I remember one woman in my church complaining bitterly about the inadequacies of her Christian fellowship group: “We have such a hard time getting along. It’s crazy! The church is supposed to be like a family!” My response took her by surprise. “That’s exactly the problem,” I said. “We are a family. How many families do you know that live in perfect harmony? In fact, most of experience more conflict within our families than in any other relationships.” But, however true my observation might have been, it doesn’t exactly make us want to run out and join a church! (And if you’ve followed my recent writings on the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), you know how much of a dysfunctional family we are.)
Virtually every survey of American religious belief and practice concludes that while the vast majority of Americans believe in God, only a minority regularly attend religious services. Among those who attend, a much smaller percentage of people actually become meaningfully involved in the life of a religious community. For us, personal faith means private faith. If I choose to share it with someone else, that’s just fine. But it’s certainly not expected or required.
In fact, many Americans are downright suspicious about the negative influences of religious communities, In a survey, 80% of Americans (including many self-confessed Christians) agreed that “an individual should arrive at his or her own religious beliefs independent of any churches or synagogues” (Wade Clark Roof, A Generation of Seekers [San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993] p. 256). If we choose our beliefs all by ourselves, then we have every right to practice these beliefs all by ourselves.
The privatization of faith reflects the individualism that dwells deep in the American soul. Though we like to join lots of voluntary organizations and have lots of casual friendships, we are wary of committing ourselves in a way that would compromise our personal freedom. Though we enjoy touting our ideas, we are more reticent to share the contents of our hearts, especially something so personal as faith in Christ.
I can’t tell you how many times I have had the following conversation with a person whose parent has died and who needs a pastor for a memorial service.
“Well, if you’re coming to me, then I suspect that your father wasn’t involved in his own church,” I say.
“Yes, that’s right,” the daughter says. “He went to church a little when I was young, but then he pretty much stopped going. Said you didn’t have to go to church to be religious. But my dad was very religious in his heart.”
“Oh, that’s good. What can you tell me about your dad’s faith?” I ask.
“I know it was important to him because he read his Bible every day. I’m pretty sure he prayed too, every day,” she responds.
“Can you tell me anything more about the content of your father’s faith?” I inquire.
“Not much at all. My dad never talked about his faith. When I became a Christian and wanted to chat with him, he said those things are too personal to talk about.”
Too personal to talk about. That’s the American way. And for many Christians, that becomes a license to avoid church and other forms of Christian community, except on Christmas, Easter, and when weddings or funerals are needed. For these folks, their favorite verse in the Bible seems to be, “I can commune with God just as well on the golf course as in church, maybe better.”
These days, younger Christians among the Buster and Mosaic generations seem to be dissatisfied with the individualistic Christianity of their parents’ generation. They long for deeper community. But they tend to be skeptical about the church. In many cases, this skepticism has come from personal experience of a church, or even several churches. Those church folk who were supposed to imitate the love of Christ turned out to be judgmental, prideful, narrow-minded, and even hateful. Churches seems more interested in getting more members and building more buildings than in helping their members to be more like Christ. So many among the younger generations are cut off from church, not because they want to be Lone Ranger Christians, but because they don’t trust the church. (For a sobering account of how folks under 30 view the church, read unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity… and Why It Matters by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons.)
How different we are from the first Christians who, as we saw in my last post, followed up their Pentecost conversion with a commitment to intimate fellowship with other believers. But we’re not the first Christians with an individualistic bent. We see this very sort of thing in the New Testament, as I’ll explain in my next post in this series.