Maybe you’ve noticed that people are leaving the Church. Not just your church, not just your denomination — people are leaving churches all across the board all across this country. The numbers are slow, but they are steady. Church attendance and church membership are on a decline. And the shifting attitude can be summed up like this: “Jesus, Yes. Church, No.”
“I love Jesus, but I don’t like the Church.” “I follow Jesus, but I don’t go to Church.” “I don’t go to Church because they’re all sinners, the Church is full of hypocrites” (which is like saying, “I don’t go to the health club because of all the out-of-shape people there). “I serve the Lord every day, but I don’t do Church.” “You can’t organize spirituality.” “Jesus, Yes. Church, No.”
Let me confess right here that I know the Church is a mess. What else could it be? Have you looked at the people who sit by you when you’re there? Yes, the Church is guilty. We’re all guilty of being smug, complacent, self-righteous, racist, misogynist, impersonal, unfeeling, dated, and stuffy — all these things and more.
But Scripture —and the song — says our Lord Jesus purchased the Church of God with his blood. Ephesians says Jesus loves the Church and gave himself up for her. Church is a pretty big deal.
But even “church people” are struggling. All the research and surveys show that the Christian Church and its message do not significantly matter in the lives of its members. Attitudes about sex, marriage, and divorce; ideas about race, poverty, and war; thoughts and actions related to recreation, work, and money — in all areas of life you can’t tell the difference between church members and people who aren’t church members. Lots of people see the Church as really good as long as it gives me personal comfort or meets my needs or confirms what I already think about myself and other people and the world around me. That’s it.
A lot of Christians pretty much ignore the Church as harmless or irrelevant and live their lives like it doesn’t even exist. Christians are increasingly just going through the motions on the inside of Church and, on the outside, the Church is ignored and laughed at for its irrelevance.
I think one of the main problems is that we don’t have a robust theology of the Church. We think the Church is where the theology is packaged. We think church is where religious people with religious things in common go to get their religious stuff. Church is just a place to get your spiritual needs met.
No! Church is theology! Thinking right about the Church is directly tied to thinking right about God.
From the Day of Pentecost right up until this hour Christians have always believed in the Church. That line about the Church in the middle of the Apostles’ Creed — I believe in the holy, universal church, the communion of saints — comes from a baptismal confession from the middle of the second century. Only a few years later, it was being recited together by all Christians every time they assembled. A belief in the Church has always belonged right in the middle of our theology. Just like we believe in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; just like we believe in the dead, burial, and resurrection of Jesus; just like we believe in the forgiveness of sins and the second coming; we believe in what God is doing in and through his Church.
The Church is an utterly indispensable part of what God is up to in the world. Followers of Jesus have never believed anything less.
The Church can’t be treated like an optional extra. It’s not like ordering a side salad to go with your steak: I can take it or leave it, it just depends on what mood I’m in. The Church is the family of God, the called-out people of the Messiah, the baptized, sanctified, Spirit-indwelled, disciples of Jesus who become something together they can never be as individuals. Y’all are the Body of Christ and each one of you is a part of it. Our identity in Christ cannot be understood outside our membership in his Church. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God. To him be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations for ever and ever!
This week in this space, I want to take a look at the three descriptors in that line about the Church in the Apostles’ Creed. These three words/phrases give us a great outline to point us to what the Bible says about the Church and what Christians have always believed. These three words/phrases — holy, universal/catholic, communion of saints — will give us a better Church theology.