Last week, I toyed with the question of leaving the church.
Strictly speaking, of course, it is quite impossible for any true disciple of Jesus to “leave the church,” if “church” is to be understood as the body of Christ in the world. The disciple is, ipso facto, a part of the church. That’s what Paul was saying in I Corinthians 12 and elsewhere. If you decide to follow Jesus, you are part of the new people of God – whether you want to be or not.
But the word “church” has accumulated two millennia of linguistic baggage. This is what has largely alienated folks from the institution – long memories of doctrinal disputes, inquisitions, closed minds, irrelevant debates, etc. Most of us think of “church” as the institution that meets in a building, or at least of the system that undergirds the people who meet for weekly worship in a given place.
From the beginning, “church” was not a particularly good word for what happened in the wake of Pentecost. The Greek word, “ecclesia,” from which “church” derives, simply meant a gathering, or public assembly.
A closer reading of the book of Acts, however, reveals that what seems to have formed as a result of the Holy Spirit’s descent was a clear sense of community, a group of people who understood that they belonged together. Acts 2:43-47 describes people who are so hungry for community that they spent time together eating and drinking, even sharing their possessions and money. Acts 4:32-37 broadens the picture, revealing that people voluntarily gave up their wealth in order to meet each other’s needs.
Community is the one thing that many of today’s churches sorely lack. Instead, church is a building to visit once a week to pay respects to a national deity. It doesn’t appear often enough to be a place where disciples gather around a meal to figure out where God is calling them next.
And yet, community is also the thing that most people today really want! How else to explain the fact that most of our television shows and movies are about the longing, creation and exploration of authentic relationships? And what is social media all about except the craving for real friendships?
As I indicated in my last post, it is certainly permissible for a Jesus follower to leave the church. But it is not at all permissible, nor right, for her to leave, or neglect, community. Every one of us who calls himself a disciple must be a functioning member of a community of faith, because that’s what we are called to.
The only question is, “Where?” and “To what sort of community am I called?”
The answers to those questions are something that each of us must discern. And a quick look at the church landscape in America reveals that the options are becoming increasingly diverse and exciting!