Regular readers here are aware of my deep conviction that salvation is a corporate event. No one is saved alone, no one is a Christian by herself, no one worships or serves in isolation. God draws us to him in community, we are baptized into a community, we are transformed by the Spirit in the context of community. But in an increasingly individualistic society such as ours in the U. S., those ideas are more and more marginalized and rendered almost antiquated. In our culture, an individual’s rights and freedoms now trump those of the community. Almost any community.
Nobody watches broadcast TV anymore; we watch Netflix and DVDs and DVR’ed programs by ourselves where and when we please. Nobody listens to the radio anymore; we program our own playlists and listen with our own ear buds any where and any time we like. And if the civic club or the social group I belong to acts in any way that infringes on my own personal choices, I leave and join a new club. Or I start my own club, even if that club is just a chat-site or a Facebook group. And if any organization is seen by the society as encroaching on anyone’s individual desires, that group faces pressure from the society to relax its standards. Community must bow to the individual.
That means the members of our churches today are more prone to bristle when congregational leadership wants to hold them to high standards of discipleship. They are more likely to take offense and leave when they’re expected to behave in certain orthodox ways. At the very least, they’re bent towards ignoring it when the church calls for disciplined living in a particular community of faith.
That’s not the only reason that church numbers are going down across this country. But it’s a factor.
In an essay for Christianity Today, Andy Crouch calls this the “erosion of corporate identity.” He observes that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in her dissent in the recent Hobby Lobby case, wrote that “religious organizations exist to foster the interests of persons subscribing to the same religious faith.” Now, you and I both know that’s wrong. We know that Israel was saved and called by God to exist for the sake of the nations. We know that the Church is saved and called to sacrifice and live for the sake of others. But our culture doesn’t behave this way. So communities that try to behave this way are attacked or, at the very least undermined and marginalized by society:
“An individualistic world is scandalized by any community whose boundaries threaten the freedom of the individuals within it. Such a world promotes transactional relationships, overseen by the only form of community that remains: a centralized and powerful nation-state. Rather than existing to protect small- and medium-sized communities, the state views them with suspicion. Or that state redefines them, as did Justice Ginsburg, by reducing them to the most venal of motives.”
Corporate life in the U. S. is withering. Corporate life is what gave our forefathers their sense of belonging and identity and their platform through which to work for the greater good. But it’s fading fast. Small- and medium-sized businesses, civic organizations, and churches are on a rapid decline. Fewer and fewer of us have deep connections to the small communities that used to mediate life. Forty-one percent of children in the United States are born out of wedlock, so even the most fundamental and committed of communities — the family — is in trouble.
So, how are we to respond?
I believe we commit ourselves even more to the countercultural, subversive, corporate reality known as the local church. In all of its imperfections and sins, its many problems and issues — we throw ourselves into it with everything we’ve got. God’s Church should make a stronger claim on us than the state. According to our Lord, it makes a deeper claim on us even than our families. And by being stronger and deeper than the family and the state, your church provides a loving and loyal family for those who don’t have one and an eternal identity and community for us all. Yes, the church is going to demand a great deal from you. The church will ask that you humbly sacrifice and serve, that you eagerly give and work, that you commit and defer for the sake of others. But it also gives us the corporate life that we were created to enjoy, the only life that resembles the mutual love and relationship the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have enjoyed forever and brought us into existence to share.