Why Christians need the church

Blind men and elephant
Men doing theology. Wikimedia Commons.

There’s an old story about several blind men who try describing an elephant after touching various parts of it. Because the elephant is quite large, each man can only touch a limited portion. So the man touching the leg says the elephant is like a tree, while the one touching the tail says it’s like a snake, and so on, each man coming to a different, incomplete conclusion about the beast.

That story comes to mind as I reflect on the increasing number of people who claim to be Christians yet distance themselves from the church.

World magazine recently reported on a statement from celebrity — and professed Christian — Justin Beiber that underscores this distancing. “I don’t consider myself religious,” said Beiber. “I haven’t been to church in a long time, but I know I have a relationship with Him.”

Take that comment as you like and for what it’s worth, but it seems to elevate private experience of God over a shared experience, something manifest in the church among fellow believers. It reminds me of Tom T. Hall’s song (and one covered during the Jesus People movement):

Me and Jesus, we got our own thing going
Me and Jesus, we got it all worked out
Me and Jesus, we got our own thing going
We don’t need anybody to tell us what it’s all about

But I don’t buy it, and I think Christians like Beiber are missing out.

Jesus doesn’t come by himself. Christ comes with a posse: Mary and the apostles and the martyrs and you and me and all the other saints — past, present, and future. We don’t get Jesus to ourselves, and we shouldn’t want Jesus by ourselves. Jesus is best known in community.

Why? Go back to the elephant. God is infinite. We cannot comprehend him and can hardly appreciate the little bit revealed to us. We’re like the blind men, each with our part of the pachyderm. What the blind men need is not a smaller elephant of which they can get a better individual hold. They need more blind men to tell them about their part of the elephant.

That’s one thing the church is supposed to be about: We need all the other experiences of God to help us better know and appreciate him. Our own experience is not enough. We need each other.

Jesus modeled this for us. He worked not with just one disciple, not with just three, not just six, not even just twelve. Some had more intimate experiences of him; some had particular revelation (for instance, the Transfiguration, which only Peter, James, and John experienced). The others needed those revelations too, but by God’s design they could only access them by relationship, through community.

And notice that it wasn’t enough to have merely one Gospel, one perspective. The apostles affirmed four Gospels, four perspectives on the life and ministry of Jesus. And what holds for the writing and preservation of four Gospels applies to their interpretation.

“Each person [reads] in accordance with his capacity, and it is interpreted in accordance with what has been given to him,” wrote Ephraim the Syrian. “If there were [only] one meaning in the words, the first interpreter would find it, and all other [readers] would have neither the toil of seeking nor the pleasure of finding.”

But we don’t live by ourselves. What one person finds, he shares with the others, and it’s the cumulative insight of the church that gives us the best picture of Christ, a picture that reflects not only a diversity of contemporary opinion but those of centuries upon centuries.

We live and worship God in community because we can’t see enough of him on our own. Christians who isolate themselves from the body are consigning themselves to a peculiarly distorted and limited view of God.

The Christian faith isn’t about Jesus and me. By necessity it’s about Jesus and us.

Correction: Following the World magazine report, the original post lumped a statement from Bear Grylls in with that of Beiber. Given the comments of one of the readers below, I thought it best to remove Grylls’ comments, which might have been taken out of context.

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    An awesome post.. Praise God for this beautiful revelation

  • Love this. Thanks

  • This is excellent, Joel.

    You cannot help but read the Bible from a completely relational perspective. It has definitely never been an individualistic narrative.

    The local church is the vehicle for creating the family of Christ. There are aspects that we each work out individually but it always points back to walking it out in a relational context.

    Beyond that, there is the aspect of community. Most think of community is a bunch of close friends. However, the nature of community is quite diverse. It’s not about an affinity group. The church was never intended to be homogenous. And that’s the beauty of it.

    We all see differently and provide a total picture of the multi-faceted nature of Christ.

    • Tony: I like you point about diversity. The community of faith should be cross-cultural if for no other reason than it includes the insights and influence of people who have lived on every continent and throughout two thousand years of history. It’s not homogenous.

  • Sam Orez

    What a beautiful insight. I also see another reason for people to shy away from religous affliation and that is so they are not associated with the other positions of the church such as the right to life.

  • Anna

    Thank you for this post. I was having this very discussion with a group on Face Book. The very nature of the Holy Trinity is community.

  • I found this post as a result of a link from Michael Hyatt. When I saw “Why Christians need the church” I had two immediate and equal reactions. Reaction A = Duh, of course Christians need the church. Reaction B = Oh crud, not another article that is going to try to guilt people back into weekly attendance in a building every Sunday & “church work” for the rest of their lives.

    Regarding the title of this post, I suppose that it all comes down to “how we define the church.”

    I have never heard of Bear Grylls and I know very little about the personal life of Justin Beiber. However, if I take only the statements that you quoted, I don’t come to the same conclusion you do about how this is a “Me and Jesus” way of thinking.

    Statement #1: “My faith isn’t very churchy!” Now with my perspective of this word, as someone who’s been in an official capacity of ministry since 1996, I would say that this is a POSITIVE STATEMENT about one’s faith.

    I would read this as “My faith isn’t holier than thou.” Or I would say “My faith isn’t I live one way for a few hours on Sunday and a completely different way the rest of the week.”

    I know that these statements are an overgeneralization of the institution of the church. However, it the perception of almost every single “non-churched” (there’s another fun word to go and define) that I have ever met in my life and from what I’ve seen, in my own involvement of the “leadership of the institutionalized church” since 1996, I’d say that it’s a rather valid perception based upon the percentage of “Christians” who seem to validate that perception for them.

    Statement #2: I haven’t been to church in a long time, but I know I have a relationship with Him.” Again, I can’t claim to know anything about what Justin Beiber meant when he said this. However, I can tell you with 100% certain that THIS STATEMENT IS TRUE FOR ME!

    I stopped going to church in September of 2011. When I say “going to church,” I simply mean that I stopped participating in the “institutionalized” church that is operated much like any other membership club/organization. I simply mean that I do not gather every single week, at the same building, with the same people, singing the same songs, week after week after week, after week.

    However, with that said… I believe fully that Christians do, in far, need the church. Actually, I would prefer to say that Christians need ECCLESIA. The Greek word “ecclesia” is correctly defined as: “The called-out (ones)”

    Your post here fully supports this statement as well.

    Jesus doesn’t come by himself. Christ comes with a posse: Mary and the apostles and the martyrs and you and me and all the other saints — past, present, and future. (Yep! The called-out ones)

    We don’t get Jesus to ourselves, and we shouldn’t want Jesus by ourselves. Jesus is best known in community. (Yep, a community of “called-out ones”)

    That’s one thing the church (THE COMMUNITY OF CALLED-OUT ONES) is supposed to be about: We need all the other experiences of God to help us better know and appreciate him. Our own experience is not enough. We need each other. (Agreed!)

    So, as you can see… I totally jive with the message you are sharing here. Unless, of course, you mean to say that this is why Christians need to join the me membership of a local organization that meets every week at the same time, etc, etc, etc. If you mean that, I totally disagree.

    I haven’t “gone to” on of those places that many people “call the church” since September 2011. I would also say that my faith isn’t very “churchy” as most of the people I that I know would understand the word “churchy” to mean. And not because I speak poorly of the “church” but because of the reputation that the “thing most people call church” have given itself.

    However, TOTALLY DISAGREE with the assumption that because I would easy agree with phrases like “my faith isn’t very churchy” or “I haven’t been to (that place people call church) in a long time..” to mean that I’m missing out and that I believe it’s all about me and Jesus and that we have our own thing going.

    I traded in “church work” for “the work of The Church.” I’m spending more time in “genuine community” (Call if fellowship if you like) with other followers of Christ now than I have ever done before. I share my faith with 10’s of THOUSANDS of people every single week. I’m DOING LIFE WITH other followers and I’m more involved in deeper relationships of trust and encouragement than I ever have been before.

    I just saw this post and I thought I would share that I agree that Christians need to live a life that is in community with other followers of Christ.

    • Thanks for your comments, Cliff. There’s a lot here to address, but a couple of points:

      1. The church from the outset was a community that included institutions. James, as bishop over Jerusalem, for instance, exercised authority with and over a body of believers that met together and passed binding resolutions. That’s a historical fact, one duplicated throughout the Middle East and beyond as the church spread. Moreover, if the body at Corinth had no institutional authority it would make little sense for Paul to advise excommunicating one of its members (or approving that member’s restoration). Christians live in mutual submission to each other; and historically speaking that includes what we’d call the institutional church. This is a good thing. None of us are our best selves as laws unto ourselves. We need voices of authority in our lives, and the institutional church is an inescapable part of that.

      2. To say that the church is a community with institutions does not preclude the value of leaving some of those institutions. I think there are plenty of lousy churches out there. Leaving to find a better community might be the best thing a person does for his or her spiritual life. But I think that finding a community — and then living in community — is key. And that community has always had an institutional facet.

    • Yuri Hooker

      Hey Cliff,

      I feel compelled to respond to your post as someone who was inclined to feel how you feel up until fairly recently. My story is fairly typical. I grew up in church, was very involved in the music ministry, etc. and by the time I left home for college I was feeling rather burnt out. When people find out you’re “that music guy”, you get asked to do everything. Plus, being up front all the time is emotionally and spiritually exhausting (it seems you know this from personal experience). Because people see you up there Sunday after Sunday, everyone thinks they know you, and they make you privy to far more information about them than you ever would have hoped for. Everyone’s a critic, or a martyr…I found even knowing how to respond to compliments was tiring, and I became rather cynical. I also felt I needed to hold myself to a high personal standard of morality and “spiritualness”, to “deserve” to be up there. To “earn” my gifts. I was also involved as a leader in the Christian clubs and studies with my peers. This all tired me out. Obviously, my faith and my own personal expectations were rather immature. (I hope that can be forgiven of a teenager…) When I left home, I stopped regular church attendance.

      Though I had many Christian friends at school, a couple of whom really took me under their wing and looked out for me, I drifted and never made a commitment to a church. My faith dwindled and faltered as I met challenge after challenge. I was tired of feeling guilty all the time. Eventually I told myself that there was no God and I embraced and/or manufactured all kinds of reasons why this was so. Mostly I just wanted to let loose and do what I felt like doing without being accountable for my actions. So I lived it up. I still bear the scars and regret for these self-inflicted wounds. I hurt myself and others deeply.

      About 2 years into my Bacchanaleate, during which I repeatedly repressed my feelings of guilt as imaginary (and hopefully temporary) leftovers from my youthful indoctrination into Christian culture, I once again had an experience of God. I knew that this was not something in my imagination. It wasn’t a theophany, but just a certainty–not a proof that I could offer to anyone who shared my unbelief, but proof enough for me. This experience did not bring me back to church, however. I still had a lot of “bold sinning” to do. I remember one Easter in particular in which I was hired to play in a service after a particularly shameful night. Now I just had Crushing Guilt to chase my shots of Debauchery.

      I tried fitfully to extricate myself from my adopted lifestyle. Occasionally I’d go back to church and decide it wasn’t for me. Everyone there was just so different from me and from my friends. They were embarrassing really: dowdy marms; clueless bigots with hearty handshakes and bad hair; fawning, giggling youth groupies so desperate to boff each other. I despised them. They didn’t understand me. They had no interest in Art. Not only did they not understand music or musicians, the music was (and still is) objectively pretty crappy. I didn’t want to have anything to do with them.

      I got married to the girl I’d partied with in school. She had also grown up Baptist and her story was similar to mine. We went to a big grad school together. We started to talk about God together and thought we should try going to church sometime. We tried one that was similar to how we had grown up. We weren’t completely turned off, but it didn’t do a whole lot for us. Then we went to 2nd Baptist Church in Bloomington, IN, an African-American church, which was a first for both of us. We were stunned by the singing and the preaching, but especially by the combination of the rock organ with the thundering sing-song of the preacher’s sermon. All the same, we felt out of place– we were (unexpectedly) two very white Canadians from Winnipeg: very uncool, very polite, very awkward…we didn’t go back.

      I interrupted my grad studies when I got an orchestra job back home. When my wife joined me after completing her Master’s Degree, we started going to her childhood church fairly regularly. My contempt of the “churchy churchiness” of it all was still there, but I loved my wife’s family and we wanted to be engaged in some kind of community outside of work. Also, we now had two kids and we wanted them to grow up with some knowledge of God and the Bible. The pastor was terrible and we came home each Sunday angry, criticizing the sermon, the music–everything. We were particularly incensed at the church’s non-response to 9/11. (I believe the Special Music number that week was “It’s a Happy Day” http://www.higherpraise.com/lyrics/love/love853159.htm) On the other hand, when our orchestra was locked out by the management, the church cut my wife and I a cheque for $1000 to help us get by. Not bad for a church dominated by right wing business owners.

      My heart started to change when I was invited to be a part a men’s accountability group. There were a couple of people I knew there including one guy from the orchestra. Though the guy from our church who arranged it all seemed like a bit of a douche to me, I was really impressed with his knowledge of the Bible. Because our schedules didn’t work out well we met on Mondays at 6:00 am. That lasted for a few months. The guy from work was struggling because he had been dating and sleeping with another woman in the orchestra. He refused to change. I started to see that we all were struggling, even the ones who put on a good face (ie. the ones I sneered at the most). About five years ago we moved to another part of town and started attending a new church. We were again burning out serving in the music ministry and we just couldn’t keep coming home angry. This new church was just down the street. I checked it out and loved the pastor. Down to earth. Real. No frills, biblical teaching and a good story teller. It was a big church, which was a down side to me, but as a plus there was a lot for the kids to do. We laid low for a year or so and then we started to get involved. People actually seemed to be willing to try different things with the music and trust us. (Funny how an appreciation of classical music and of historical expressions of faith is “different” in a Baptist church.) My heart was being moved week after week by the teaching. There were a lot of people who I would have earlier smirked about, but I didn’t think I was so hot anymore, either. There were a lot of people who genuinely seemed to cared about me and my family, too.

      My mother-in-law died. We were devastated. The outpouring of support from the churches, both our old church and the new one was staggering and humbling. I was undone. I started to see how our church family had been bearing us up (and bearing with us) for our whole lives. These people who I’d ridiculed and been completely fed up with on so many occasions were the same people who were bringing over hot meals and praying for us daily and who sat with us when we were so depressed we felt we couldn’t get out of bed. Why weren’t we more like them?

      I read Dallas Willard’s “Knowing Christ Today” and something clicked: I could actually Know that God existed–how could I have spent 10 years reading apologetics and not encountered (or maybe not understood) Aquinas’ Cosmological Argument? Then, last year, I was given a copy of Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer biography. Bonhoeffer’s example has changed my life. I started doing the things I knew I should have done all along. The basics of daily prayer, scripture reading, meditation and memorization and Sabbath keeping have become more dear to me than food and drink. They have even become more important to me than music. I had been experiencing the law of diminishing returns regarding music for a number of years. The harder I tried, the less connected I felt when I played. Through the spiritual disciplines I realized that I had made Music/Art/Expresssion into an idol. Since coming to this realization and submitting music to God, the joy I have felt in my playing and listening has returned with a regularity and intensity that I have not experienced for many years.

      Bonhoeffer is an interesting case. He grew up in a “spiritual”, yet non-churched family. Yet clearly even this titan of Christian thought knew eventually that he needed the support, the care, and the challenge of living in community. He knew it even when the Church turned its back on him. He did not succumb to the temptation to pack it in and practice his faith alone with “him and Jesus”. He had the foresight to know that this course would simply exalt his own ego. He had the wisdom to see that even when he “went into his inner room” to pray, his own self-approval was standing in the way of Jesus, that the approbation of his inner critic was what he was seeking, that he was looking to be “seen” by himself.

      In my experience, when I have sought refuge away from the Church, it has been to shield myself from the views and opinions of my fellow believers, to extricate my life from theirs. I have tried to remain unaccountable for my actions, telling myself that I need only be accountable to God. Unfortunately, without both the good AND bad example of my brothers and sisters in Christ, I often have remained blind to my own sin. This is what the institutional Church offers me in the end: all the things that Joel talks about above of course, but also the Holy Irritation that comes from immersion in a Family that will not only support me and love me, but also annoy the Hell out of me.

  • Ann

    Everyone is thinking that Bear Grylls never attends church, because of just one statement. Well actually he’s a member of a London church and tries to go when home. He posted on Twitter a few weeks ago: ‘Off to church now’ while he was in LA. And when you read his books you’ll find that he absolutely doesn’t have an aversion to church, but promotes it. The writer of the original article obviously hasn’t done her homework well. There’s a difference between ‘church’ and church. When Bear talks about his faith, he says it isn’t ‘religious’ or ‘churchy’, but should be a relationship with Jesus. And that’s something different than never attending church which isn’t true in his case…
    Also, the least he does is keeping his faith personal, he’s one of the very few celebrities who isn’t afraid to tell the whole world he’s christian. Promoting Alpha worldwide, posting scripture verses on Twitter, mentioning his faith in many interviews and emotional testimonies in his books which brings people to faith.
    And he actually has a lot of born-again friends, most of them are from his church. The vicar is one of his good friends, has a few other friends who speak regularly in these services. It’s certainly not a just ‘Jesus and me’ faith. Don’t draw conclusions before you’ve examined the complete story.

    • Ann, thanks for the comment. Weighed against that information, his position certainly seems more balanced than originally presented. I’ve corrected the text in light of that.

      • Ann

        Hi Joel,
        thanks for the changes, it does more justice to him now. In an interview he said that because he’s away a lot, he isn’t able to go often, but would love to go more.
        In his books he writes very positively about church attendance. In his little book ‘To my sons’ in which he offers life advice quotes, he writes: “Find a fun, honest, down-to-earth local church and support it.”
        In his autobiography ‘Mud, sweat and tears’, he writes in the chapter about faith: “What a relief it has been in later life to find that there are some great church communities out there, with honest, loving friendships that help me with all this stuff.”
        In december he did a short christmas reading in his church. Also he’s visited churches quite often to do talks, like Hillsong (Austr) and other big churches in the US.