Let me start off by saying that I am a Christian who is a visual artist. By no means do I find these two self-identifiers as mutually exclusive. For me I cannot comprehend a division between them. I am one and the other. I was an artist before I claimed the faith, and I seek to shape my art in terms of my faith.
If art has anything to do with communication, then our contemporary world is drenched in art of one form or another: music in its myriad genres, the proliferation of writing from Best Sellers to Face Book posts, the latest interior color choices for our comfortable domestic settings to the chic, slick design of much urban architecture, and orchestrated body movement from ballroom dancing to flash mobs. Even bloggers need to share thoughts, observations and opinions. And we often hear that most embracing statement of “everybody’s an artist” if they stitch, sketch, surf, or saunter in a skilled fashion.
There’s an art in and to everything.
Art is pervasive. That’s for certain. It is far easier to say what art does, where is it and who is doing it than to define what it is. The fact is art cannot be easily defined into a neat, brief equation. It is like water: It is practically everywhere, it’s been around forever, we like it, we need it, we can float or sink in it, and it can slip right through our fingers.
If art has anything to do with communication, then what is it that is communicated and why is there the need to communicate it? Even if we are not communicating with others, we are still attempting to communicate with ourselves the question of our being in this world. So, we use our abilities to make, to create. Why are we compelled to create? Christians often use the broad, overarching statement that humans create because they are made in the image of God, the Creator. While this is certainly true, it does not convey in what way we are not like the Creator: we are fallen, thus diminished and lacking, incomplete. Thus, our creativity is inherently flawed, though marvelous, and in our creativity we convey the full range of humanness still separated from perfection: awe, mystery, justice, pleasure, danger, desire, fear, power and so on.
The need to create is often as much about disenchantment as it is with enchantment. And so, as makers and viewers of art, it is fitting for us to realize that it is not only the wonderment of life that ignites creativity but also, and frequently, life’s disappointments and disillusions that prompt us to reflect, address, and form.
If, as Christians, we say that art must have an aesthetic purpose because beauty is truth, what do we mean? What is beauty? We believe that Scripture is beautiful because it is true. But the truth of our being is that we are incomplete, suspended, it would seem, between worlds. And this world may have beauty in it, but it also has a whole lot of ugliness, horror, pain and suffering. Are these not also intrinsic parts of life? Do we not address these in our faith? Then why should art only attend to a narrow view of beauty as truthfulness? What is truthfulness in visual art? What does that mean? Factuality? If we accept that we are flawed, then even our perceptions of what is factual are questionable. Our perceptions are shaped by our worldview. Are truthfulness and factuality best conveyed in realistic rendering? Not necessarily. Isn’t realistic rendering a deceptive means of forming a substitute for the real thing? Skillful, yes, but still deceptive. Does realistic rendering have exclusive hold on conveying truthfulness? If so, why do we connect with the rich metaphors in the Psalms, and the melodic lines and chords in music, but comparable aspects in visual art we often find alien? Is it that through metaphors and analogies we can read into rather than solely onto a subject?
I realize I am asking a lot of questions here but that is because I believe we are supposed to be discursive, we should question and we should think.
In my presentation on September 9, I will discuss my own development as an artist whose work is shaped by a Christian perspective. That perspective grew and changed during my life with its many failures and successes. I am an experimentalist and because of this, I don’t always have a set way of doing things. I really am averse to a single rote strategy or skill set because I get bored easily. Also, because I taught on the university level for forty years, I had to be competent in numerous approaches so that I could direct students with their individual interests. In my recent work, I embrace this approach: I save all my “failed” drawings and paintings—those that fall flat and are incoherent. Then I “revive” them by finding the unexpected and salvageable in them through new combinations and associations. I take that apparently worthless mishap, and reconfigure and redeem it. The theme of redemption is at the heart of the processes and materials I use. But this theme is not an overt illustration of the concept of spiritual redemption we experience as Christians. My approach is analogous to it. I am particularly interested in the Book of Ecclesiastes in its theme of the vanity and temporality of life. But in all of Scripture and in the writings of Augustine and others, I reflect on the fleeting nature of life and on God as transcendent Creator who gives form and life to the formless and lifeless.
Cornerstone has a site development plan that would position us to remain rooted in Castle Rock for long-term ministry. Above is an initial conceptual drawing of the masterplan (likely to undergo development as the process moves forward). We have a plan that allows development in two phases. The first phase amounting to around 6500 square feet will be a multipurpose building, including a kitchen and bathrooms. It will be able to accommodate worship and nursery, while the current building is used for offices and Sunday school classrooms.
In phase two, the current building will be torn down and replaced with a narthex and sanctuary. The sanctuary plan currently includes a cry room. In addition, phase two will accommodate office space, meeting space, classrooms for all ages, and a nursery, all of which will be below the main level. It further includes a fireside room that can be used for various purposes. Finally, the plan includes two outdoor spaces, one a courtyard, and the other a more contemplative space near the sanctuary. The total development will be around 20,000 square feet.
Our goal for the design is first of all that it would reflect our identity, ministry, and theological commitments as a church. Next, we have sought for it to be welcoming and hospitable to our community. We want to remain a long-term part of Castle Rock for sustained service. Finally, and most importantly, we hope that it will beautiful and so glorify God! With that said, in current dollars, the opinion of probable cost for phase 1 is around $2 million; for phase 2 it is around $4.9 million.
In order to move toward phase one, we have recently renovated our outbuilding to accommodate children’s classrooms and office space. We also plan to reconfigure the space in our main building to expand our worship space.
A second aspect of acknowledging the value of Jesus requires us to admit our need. If you look up the definition of humble, you will find something like: not thinking of yourself as better than other people. From Genesis 3, and throughout Scripture, we learn that every human person is guilty of sin. None of us should think that we are better than others when it comes to sin. The problem of sin defines our most pressing need. We need forgiveness from God because of our rebellion against Him. Humility compels us to admit that none of us are exempt from this indictment.
It is not merely that that we have made mistakes, or even that we have lived morally deficient lives, though we have done both. Nor is just that we have done things that have hurt other people, though we have done those things, too. It is especially that we have rebelled against our benevolent Creator. We have defied the One who made us, and who is in charge of this world. We have turned our backs on Him, and have sought to go our own way. We have become traitors against God. We have lived as if He is of no account, as though He is unworthy of our time, attention, or devotion.
Jesus is our Savior, and that means that He rescues us from sin and its consequences. He came into the world to live in perfect obedience, which is far beyond the life that any of us have actually lived. The Father accounts the righteousness of Jesus’ perfect life to everyone who acknowledges his or her need, and to everyone who believes that Jesus has met that need. Jesus also died the death that our sins deserve, in our place. We must admit that we need His righteousness, and the forgiveness that He has secured by His death. We need them every day, every single moment.
We must admit these things because they are true, and also because Jesus alone is able to meet our most pressing need. Our most pressing need directs us to our greatest need. We need the peace with the Triune God that we have forfeited by our sin. God provides the breath we breathe, the food we eat, and the human relationships we enjoy. Indeed, he provides every good gift that we enjoy. But most of all, our lives can only become whole and complete if we are reconciled to Him. God created us to worship and enjoy Him. As long as we remain alienated from God, life simply will never be the way it is supposed to be.
Why did God choose to reveal the birth of the most glorious King in all of human history to lowly shepherds? The angel did not appear in Caesar’s palace in Rome to make his momentous announcement. He didn’t announce it at the Areopagus in Athens. He didn’t proclaim it in India, or to the Han dynasty in China. The Lord simply did not choose to deliver the announcement to the political, intellectual, cultural, or economic centers of power. Instead He chose those of low estate, those who were prepared to acknowledge the value of the gift, and to praise the glory of God. As we humble ourselves to acknowledge the value of the gift of Jesus Christ, we come to experience that He is our joy.
My Dad is seventy-seven this year. As people tend to do when they reach his age, he has begun to think about the reality that he has arrived at the twilight of his life. A couple of years ago, when we visited my Mom and Dad over the New Year holiday, he called me over because he wanted to talk to me about his financial affairs. He wanted me to have direction in the event that he dies.
For the better part of his life, he has collected coins. Through financial ups and downs he has held onto his collection. Over the years his collecting habits have ranged from old coins to special edition mints. My Dad wanted to make sure that, when he dies, I understand the value of his collection. He wanted to make sure that I don’t let it go for less than its worth. He wanted to insure that I get the full value out of his collection. The passages we have read this evening point to something similar when it comes to Jesus.
We must acknowledge the value of the gift of Jesus Christ. I want to reflect on two elements of acknowledging His value. The first depends on acknowledging Jesus’ stature. He’s the King over all, the second person of the Triune God. He is also the greater Son of David, who took to himself a true human body in order to save us from our sins. But He has now been exalted to right hand of the Father, and He reigns with the Father. He is the King of kings and Lord of lords, and His reign is everlasting.
He is the King of glory. He possesses the glory of God that was revealed to the shepherds through the angel when he appeared to them. The disciples caught glimpses of his glory throughout their time with Him. They saw the glory of His wisdom in His teaching; they saw the glory of His power in his miracles; and they saw that it was His personal glory on the mount of transfiguration.
We must acknowledge that, as God, Jesus sets the agenda. It follows that we don’t set the agenda. That is fundamental to the difference between God and us. We sometimes tell our children, or maybe our siblings, that the world doesn’t revolve around them; and we believe that. But neither does it revolve around us! It revolves around God, and that’s true whether we acknowledge or not. However, if you would benefit from the gift of Jesus, you must acknowledge that, as God, He sets the agenda.
If you acknowledge that He sets the agenda, it will have implications for how you order your life. God’s agenda, as He reveals in Scripture, will meet your most pressing need. It will not meet all of your wants, especially as they change from one moment to the next. Jesus will not meet your disordered desire for God-substitutes, for example. He will not meet your broken desire to be a little god yourself. God’s agenda does not promise endless entertainment, or possessions, or wealth. Instead, He promises Himself in Jesus Christ. He promises to be reconciled with you, so that you can live in peace with Him as your God.
Few subjects generate such controversy in the church as music in worship. The shift to an entertainment-driven aesthetic in evangelical worship may shoulder part of the blame. Similarly, the notion that corporate worship prioritizes Christian outreach might also contribute to the imbroglio.
This blog post, however, will not address the reasons for the controversial nature of the subject of music in worship. Rather, it will seek to explain what we sing at Cornerstone, and why we sing it. If you are uncomfortable with our worship music, we hope you will at least consider why we do what we do. Our desire is not to point the finger at anyone else. We want to positively explain how we view music and singing in our worship.
What We are Singing at Cornerstone
We sing Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. We utilize the Trinity Hymnal along with a songbook made up of Psalms, hymns, and songs from the likes of Indelible Grace and the Gettys, among others. Please follow the links for more information about these sources. Of course, one of the best ways to understand what we sing in worship is simply to visit and experience it for yourself! Still, more may be said about what we sing in worship.
The Psalms were sung by the Old Testament people of God in worship. They are an important part of our heritage as Christians. Further, they reflect the variety of spiritual, emotional, and physical experience of God’s people. Life has its times of pain, sorrow, and suffering. It also has its times of joy, happiness, and celebration. In the Psalms we find joyous praises, painful laments, and songs of longing expectation. In this way, the Psalms train us to sing praise to God in every kind of life situation we face currently, and we will face in the future.
At Cornerstone we customarily sing accompanied by piano. We are not in principle opposed to other instrumentation. However, it is vitally important to us that instrumentation does not overwhelm congregational singing. For that reason we value simplicity in instrumentation. Accompaniment should advance our purpose of worshipping God in corporate singing; it must not overshadow the voices. If the instruments distract from singing, or if the instruments drown out congregational voices, we believe they have overstepped their bounds. Our hope is that accompaniment serves the congregation in singing exuberantly.
We sing to both traditional and contemporary tunes. If a hymn tune has survived from the seventeenth century, for example, there is likely good reason. It has stood the test of time. Usually such tunes are well-suited to congregational singing. Unlike many of the tunes written for worship in the contemporary setting, hymn tunes that have survived were written specifically to be sung by congregations. For that reason they are more likely to be singable by a congregation than a tune that was written specifically for performance by an individual vocalist, or even a smaller group.
At the same time, however, we are glad to sing tunes written in our own time. We believe that each generation within the church has written music worthy to praise God. So long as a tune is singable congregationally in a form suited to worshiping God, we embrace it. Nevertheless, some have visited Cornerstone and felt that our music is too “traditional” or too “outdated.” It is not our goal to have “traditional” music in the way that some people use the term. We are not interested in returning to some idealized glory day in the past when everything was perfect. Nor, on the other hand, is it our intent to impress with our musical sensibility. Instead our purpose is to sing the best congregational songs available to praise God. We seek to sing songs that reflect the heritage of the faith, including the best contemporary expressions.
Why We are Singing What We Sing
A vital principle that shapes congregational singing at Cornerstone is that worship is not limited to singing. We have an order ofworship that we believe reflects how God calls us to worship Him. Our service begins with God’s call to worship. It includes praising Him in prayer. We certainly do sing! We confess our sins and receive assurance of pardon in Christ. We listen to the Scriptures being read, we confess our faith, and we hear God speak through the proclamation of His word. We participate in the Sacraments, give thanks to our God, give our tithes and offerings, and receive the Lord’s benediction. All of these elements constitute worship, and all are important! We thus balance singing with these other crucial elements.
God is the primary audience in worship. We believe that the overarching purpose for corporate worship is for believers to worship their God. He has called us together to praise, honor, and glorify Him. Certainly we trust and hope that God will bring unbelievers into our midst. But even then, it is not our responsibility to make the Christian faith palatable. We should not seek to needlessly offend; we should certainly welcome hospitably. But if an unbeliever joins us in public worship, he or she should find us worshiping as God has revealed in His word. God’s preferences are the ones that should shape our corporate worship. Thus, we must aim to sing especially what pleases Him. We sing to worship the Triune God.
We also trust that the Lord works in us as we worship Him. Since He is our primary audience, and since He also works in us, we sing theology. For us that means the Scriptures as understood by a reformed Christian perspective. A song’s content is extremely important to us. It has often been said that what the church sings profoundly shapes her for better or for worse. The words of the song must accurately reflect our understanding of the Scriptures. They must speak truth about the Triune God whom we are worshiping. We emphasize songs that reflect the Triune nature of God. The song’s words must speak accurately about salvation, and about the nature of the Christian life. If they fail these criteria, we will exclude them from use in worship. No matter how wonderful a tune, how historic a hymn, or how popular a song, if it fails the test of truth content we will not sing it.
At Cornerstone it is fair to say that we highly value theologically rich and deep songs. Hopefully as a body our songs will reflect the breadth and depth of Scriptural truth. They should explore the variety of human experience in light of Scripture. What we sing should give expression to the profound nature of Scriptural truth. However, at times it is also appropriate for us to sing simple songs, including those that feature repetition. They can be a wonderful blessing for children, the aged, those who are in some way mentally incapacitated, and even the rest of us. Some Psalms model such repetition (e.g. Psalm 24, 29, 42, 118, 119, 136). While a full diet of such songs would be unbalanced and thus unhealthy, they have their place in our worship.
As mentioned above, we sing songs from the past as well as the present. Because each generation of believers may have its spiritual and theological blind spots, we believe it is wise for us to sing the best hymns and songs available from the past. We do not exclude the Psalms or hymns from the ninth or sixteenth centuries simply because they are not “current.” Nor do we exclude modern hymns or songs simply because they were written within the last few years. Likewise, it is also appropriate for us to give expression to what it is like for us to live as believers in our time. Assuming that a more recent song meets our content criteria, it is worth singing because it may give voice to our contemporary experience as believers.
Finally, our worship songs must be singable congregationally. Undoubtedly there is some subjectivity involved in determining what is corporately singable. It might even vary somewhat from one congregation to the next. At the same time it is probably also safe to say that much of what finds its way into current public worship was never actually written for congregational singing. Just because a song is wonderful when listening to it, does not mean it is suitable for corporate singing. Some tunes are so highly syncopated that they do not lend themselves to congregational singing. Similarly, a song may be so musically complex that it will be too difficult to sing for the average congregation. Our congregation is made of people of all ages. We aim to sing songs that everyone in the congregation is able to sing.
Invariably over time a congregation develops its own tradition with regard to worship music. Certain songs we sing become part of who we are as a people. Even though we have only been around for a relatively short time, that is certainly true for Cornerstone. What we sing now, in part, is a reflection of what songs we have come to value. That should not mean that we are unwilling to learn new songs. Nor should it mean that we refuse to be corrected if we are singing songs that fail to meet the above criteria. But it certainly does help to explain why we sing what we sing at Cornerstone.
This reflection was originally delivered during a 2012 Christmas Eve Service at Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Castle Rock, CO.
They say the subject of sin is hugely unpopular. I have no reason to doubt it; you can see why it would be. It implies that in spite of my best pretensions to the contrary, I am not the one in charge. It implies that I am accountable to someone outside of myself, someone who is greater than me—someone who’s over me. It implies that it is not actually okay to do whatever I want. It implies that I am a far worse person than I have ever dreamed. It indicates that one day I will stand before a Judge who knows me far better even than I know myself.
But for just a minute, think about this: what if it’s true; sin is real and I’m a sinner? Any comfort derived from dismissing the truth will only be temporary. Denial will probably be pretty unsatisfying in the present, much less in the future. We know from life experience that denying reality doesn’t turn out very well. In fact, it will be rather difficult to live consistently denying sin, because sooner or later we will see it in others, even if we do dismiss it in ourselves.
Deep Christmas Joy Requires Acknowledging Sin
The true joy of Christmas depends upon admitting our sin because Jesus came to expel the alien parasite of sin. Earlier we heard the angel’s message to Joseph in Matthew 1:21, “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Sin is kind of like addiction: the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. To receive God’s gift of His Son, we have to first admit that we need Him. We need Jesus to deliver us from our sin.
It is only against the inky black darkness of our sin that the brilliant radiance of Jesus shines. It’s only when we grasp something of just how horrific sin is, that we can begin to appreciate how magnificent it is that God became man to rescue us from our sin. It is only when we begin to understand something of how utterly helpless and hopeless we are in the predicament of sin, that we can appreciate how amazing it is that God sent Jesus to save us from our sin.
The Christmas Alien
When I mentioned earlier the movie The Host I failed to mention that it represents a distinct twist on the archetypal narrative of parasitic aliens. An alien is injected into Melanie Stryder. But an unusual thing happens. The alien forms a bond with her host. Through that bond she joins in the effort to aid humans in resisting the alien invasion.
The joy of Christmas is that God sent us an alien power when He sent His Son, Jesus Christ. He’s Emmanuel: God with us. He became one of us. He bonded with us: He sympathizes with our weakness; He understands our struggle with sin. But He is also far more powerful to defeat sin than we could ever be. We need an alien power to defeat the alien parasite of sin. Jesus humbled himself and became man for our sake. Because He loves us, He came to expel the alien parasite of sin from His creation.
We have a Savior who has done everything that we were powerless to do. By His life, death and resurrection all of our sins have been forgiven through faith in Him. We have a Mediator who has repaired our relationship with the living God, a relationship that was shattered by sin. Jesus came to expel the alien parasite of sin because what we experience now is not the way it supposed to be. Through faith in Jesus we experience a real measure of deliverance now.
Christmas Joy Opens into Eternity
But at the same time our deliverance is not yet complete. We look forward in hope to a day when Jesus will return and bring it completion. On that day He will expel the alien parasite of sin from the entire creation for good—for all eternity. The joy of Christmas is that through Jesus, God has given us the gift of Himself. There isn’t any greater gift! May we all know that joy this Christmas season! You can have that joy by putting your trust in Jesus now. You have to admit you are a sinner. You have to believe in Jesus and what He has done to save you from your sin. You have to turn from your sins to Jesus. Jesus has done the rest.
This reflection was originally delivered during a 2012 Christmas Eve Service at Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Castle Rock, CO.
Do you believe in aliens? There’s an entire genre of horror devoted to them. There’s also a subgenre about parasite aliens. They invade human bodies, and use them as hosts. I recently saw that there’s a new movie coming out in early 2013 called The Host. Parasitic aliens are injected into humans, and take over the earth. I believe in aliens—not the kind depicted in The Host, but something alarmingly similar.
If you follow the story of sin through the entire Bible, you will find that its alien to the world God created. Even for people who are uncomfortable with the idea, sin is depressingly familiar. But it’s never normal. It’s always a departure from the way things are supposed to be. As one theologian expresses it, “…sin is an anomaly, an intruder, a notorious gate-crasher. Sin does not belong in God’s creation….”
Sin is a horrific spoiler of the good, as the mass shootings we have witnessed in 2012 have grimly reminded us. The good news of Christmas is that sin cannot finally overpower the good purpose that God has for His creation. Sin is a parasite that depends on its host for survival. It’s power, persistence, and plausibility is stolen from its host. C.S. Lewis insightfully put this way: “Goodness is, so to speak, itself; badness is only spoiled goodness.”
Jesus came to expel the parasite of sin.
Christmas and Sin?
There is no doubt that sin is an unpalatable subject. But when you read the Bible, its impossible to ignore. Similarly, in the last year we have witnessed the theater shooting in Aurora, a mall shooting, and now the shooting in New Town. The problem is that if you dismiss sin, you are left with some depressingly soulless explanations of those despicable acts of evil. Sin perverts, pollutes, disintegrates, destroys, and devastates. It leaves us grieving.
In the movies I mentioned earlier, the aliens are unwelcome parasites. In the same way, few people actually welcome the effects of sin. But part of what’s so problematic for us is that we have welcomed the parasite of sin. We opened the door and invited it in. That’s certainly what we see with Adam and Eve. The same story unfolds in Genesis, and down through the rest of the Bible. Our problem is that we are just like Adam and Eve. It was not just they that welcomed sin; each of us does the very same thing.
Christmas Grief to Fuller Joy
To know the full joy of Christmas you have to grapple with the horrendous grief of sin. To personally know the fullness of Christmas joy, you have to personally recognize the hideousness of sin. Though sin is a parasitic alien, sin doesn’t sin. We sin. It’s us. We are the ones with the problem; we are the ones who need to be delivered. It’s one thing to have a category for sin that includes elementary school shooters and Hitler. It’s a very different thing to look into the mirror, and to have a category for what lurks below the surface there.
It is a general truism that we are strict judges of others, but lax judges of ourselves. Sin may describe the murderers, the slave-traders, and the Osama bin Ladens of the world; but I am none of those things. It’s relatively easy to see the sinfulness of real monsters; it’s even easier to think that I am innocent since I am not them. But the Bible explores the reality of sin in such a way that it compels us to grapple with our own personal problem of sin.
C.S. Lewis wrote a book called The Screwtape Letters. The premise of the book is that a senior demon, Screwtape, is mentoring his protégé, Wormwood—he’s mentoring him in the art of oppressing people. The objective is to keep people separated from God. In one scene Screwtape describes to Wormwood how a person can be drawn from God by nothing.
He goes on to explain how nothing is strong, powerful enough to steal away a man’s best years. By preoccupying his charge with nothing, Wormwood can make him too weak and befuddled to be concerned with God. The gratification of feeble curiosities, the drumming of fingers, the kicking of heels; the whistling of tunes he does not even like, or even the dim labyrinth of vapid daydreams—all of these things are effective in separating people from God. Nothing can easily come between a person and God.
Supra-earthly Christmas Joy
Some sin isn’t so obviously sinful. Lewis understood that at its core sin separates us from God. That, more than anything else, is what makes it so terrible for us. But the sinfulness of sin encompasses more than obvious evil on the human plane. Sin is rebellion against God. It’s perverted and disgusting to the core because it revolts against the holy, righteous, and good God. Whether the sin is murder, or indifference toward God, it’s cosmic treason.
There can be joy in gathering with family this time of year. There can be joy in giving and receiving gifts, and in the sights and sounds of the season. But you can’t experience the supra-earthly joy of Christmas, apart from wrestling with the hideous reality of your own sin. For some of us, our sin may be obvious. For others it may be less obvious: pride, arrogance, self-centeredness; or, simple indifference toward God. Either way, we are led to the same place: we have to acknowledge that we are sinners. We’ve shaken our fists at God. We need someone to deliver us from our sin.
In my earlier post, I noted that I used to be clueless that the local church is essential. As a pastor I’ve met many Christians who are not connected to a local body. Meanwhile, churchless Christianity seems to be hip now in some circles. Even people involved in a local church don’t always recognize how vital the church is for their Christian lives.
Why the local church, though? Why not connect to a church via the internet? Why not receive spiritual nourishment through recorded sermons? We can discern how important the local church is through the lens of Jesus’ incarnation. God’s work comes to us as embodied people. In an analogous way, the relationships He has ordained among His people depend upon embodied interaction. Your internet pastor isn’t likely to do your funeral or visit you in the hospital.
Here are three reasons we should recover the local church as a vital spiritual resource.
You Need the Local Church
People sometimes object that the local church doesn’t seem important in the New Testament. I remind them about the New Testament epistles. To whom were they written? The apostles mostly wrote them to particular churches and pastors of those churches. If you were alive in Paul’s day, you would have received his letters in the local church. The church’s organization is thus significant. Only people who were a part of local churches accessed the epistles that eventually became inscripturated.
Similarly, every Christian needs the word of God rightly preached and taught. It is to the church that God gives gifted people to carry out the ministry of His word (Ephesians 4:1-16). In the local church, ordained ministers proclaim the word of God. Notwithstanding differences in church government, ordination means that the preacher is accountable to elders outside himself. The accountability recognizes that he doesn’t preach for personal advancement. He preaches to advance God’s kingdom.
If a pastor fails to preach or teach what accords with the Scriptures it is the job of these elders to correct him. If he refuses correction they must remove him from office. He’s accountable because He is under Christ’s authority. As Americans we’re prone to idolize lone rangers and independent charismatic personalities. But don’t we all need concrete accountability when it comes to something as vital as the word of God? We find it in the local church.
The Local Church Needs You
Paul addresses spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12. Apparently some in the church at Corinth fell into the temptation to despise some spiritual gifts and exalt others. Paul corrects them. He reminds the church that, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ ” A plethora of forces condition us to think of the church mainly in terms of what it can do for us.
As I’ve already acknowledged, there is an important place for receiving ministry. It is one side of the coin. But there’s another side to the coin. Too often it remains outside our thinking. The local church needs each one of us. You don’t have liberty to pursue your own interests at the cost of the interests of your brothers and sisters. God does not call you to do your own thing to the detriment of your spiritual family. If you are absent from the local church, the church suffers by your absence!
The Local Church Is a Place Where Christians Work Out Their Problems
Glorification will take place when Jesus returns. In the meantime, even in the church, we have to deal with sin. Each believer has a biblical responsibility to repent of his or her own sin, and to pursue newness of life (e.g. Ephesians 4:17-32). We are responsible to one another as well. If someone offends you, you must seek to be reconciled (Matthew 18:15ff).
If you offend someone, you must seek forgiveness (Matthew 5:23-24). Your enemy is called to forgive your sin, and you must also forgive your enemy. I’m only saying what most readers have heard countless times. The local church ought to be the context in this fallen world where Jesus’ words are lived out. Believers simply don’t have freedom to avoid or flee the church to try to escape resolving relational conflict.
Someone might object that it is sometimes impossible to work out differences. That is certainly true. It is why we have church discipline. Fear of conflict is no reason to avoid the church. A certain measure of suffering tends to come with intimate relationships. When close personal relationships expose my sin, it is often humiliating. When someone sins against me, it can be excruciating. Forgiveness is anything but easy.
To avoid the suffering that comes from relationships, however, is not a legitimate reason to stay disconnected from a local church. A person would have to cut ties with everyone to avoid such suffering. Is that beneficial? Even if it were, where are you going to go to flee from your own sin or from God Himself? To avoid the church out of fear of interpersonal conflict solves nothing. Meanwhile, it forfeits the benefits that believers receive from active participation in Christ’s body.
Is a Local Church a Missing Spiritual Resource For You?
To the church God gives His word, the privilege to minister, and to receive ministry. It is also a meaningful context for mutual accountability and encouragement as we live in this sin-infested world. God calls His people to be united in a community that takes visible shape in the world. That there are challenges to such a life doesn’t excuse any believer from participation. If you are a Christian and stay disconnected from Christ’s body you are AWOL.
Based on their study of Scripture, the Westminster divines went so far as to say that the church is, “the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation” (Westminster Confession of Faith 25.3). How’s that for a strong statement of what’s at stake? Cutting yourself off from the local church is like cutting ties with your spiritual family. Within the context of American Christianity I fear that the church is missing this spiritual resource.
Many factors tempt us to view the church as something less than a necessary spiritual resource. God has organized the church in this world visibly under Jesus Christ. “Christian fellowship” through a few ad hoc Christian friendships cannot rise to what Christ provides. Such relationships are good and commendable as far as they go. But they aren’t the church Jesus establishes. God has promised the gates of hell will not prevail against the church.
In this post and my previous one, I’ve used the term, “spiritual resource.” In truth it is a woefully inadequate term. It fails to capture the essential nature of the visible local church. If you’re not participating in the life of a local church, you’re cut off from the visible body of Christ. You severed from a vital spiritual lifeline. It’s a lifeline that God graciously gives to His people. It is a lifeline that every believer needs.
Imagine owning a car without any access to gas–as in, there isn’t a drop to be found anywhere (kudos if you have an electric, but read on). Or imagine having home appliances–or an electric car–without electricity. What good would the car or appliances be? Gas and electricity in that scenario are missing resources without which the car and the appliance become basically useless. For some Christians, the local church is a missing spiritual resource.
I speak from experience. The church was a missing spiritual resource for me at one time. I knew fellowship was important, but figured all that required was relationships with other Christians. I knew my need for the word of God. But all my Christian friends and I had Bibles. What more did we need? I eventually came to understand that the organization of the church, under Christ as the head, supplied needs I had previously failed to recognize.
In bygone days many Christians seemed to have a better grasp of the importance of the local church for the Christian life. In my context, however, I’ve met several professing Christians who don’t belong to a local church, and haven’t for some time. I’ve met many others who, in spite of connection to a church, don’t see the local church as essential. Meanwhile, in the blogosphere now there seems to be a certain edgy hipness to severing ties with the local church. My personal experience, the cool factor of churchless Christianity, and my conviction about the essential nature of the church all motivate this post.
How the Church Becomes a Missing Spiritual Resource
It’s easy to see how the church can become a missing spiritual resource. Most of us have heard things like, “Being in a garage doesn’t make you a car, and neither does being in a church make you a Christian.” It makes sense as far as it goes. But we put our cars in garages for good reason. I lived in Oklahoma and have seen what baseball size hail does to cars. It can do a wee bit of damage. Does a Christian disconnected from the visible church make biblical sense? Such a thing is completely foreign to the Bible, except as an aberration (e.g.Namaan). Everywhere you look in the Bible, believers are united to a visible church.
Anyone who has been a regular part of a local church understands all too well how painful life in the church can be: collisions of inflated egos, interpersonal hurt, bitterness, massive leadership failures, and Christians acting like sinners in countless other ways are all too commonplace. Given the difficulties and ensuing pain we experience, it’s easy to write off the church as being devoid of any meaningful value.
A lot of people perceive church as being boring. Who wouldn’t rather be on the slopes, or at the golf course, or at the river, or at the mall, or really anywhere else on Sunday morning? If anything is deemed boring in the United States, you had better bring out the shovels because it’s time to bury it. One might get the impression that the unforgivable sin is being boring. A church can get away with all manner of things without any questions being raised. But woe to the church that fails to entertain.
Likewise, too many churches have drifted away from biblical fidelity. They no longer consider the Bible as authoritative for life and doctrine. For some Christians that drift has raised a sense that the church is irrelevant in the world. For others it has confirmed that the church has an inherent momentum toward unfaithfulness, and ought to be avoided on that account. To fill the void, parachurch organizations proliferate. Participation in these organizations can make churchless Christianity seem entirely plausible.
Even churches that hold to biblical authority may become so grossly introspective as to lose any real compulsion to reach lost people with the gospel. They can be so mired in internal concerns that they have no energy to expend on proclaiming the gospel to a sin-ravaged world. Meanwhile, other churches can succumb to the temptation to preach a gospel of salvation by conservatism, or salvation through the perfect family, or something similar.
Given these factors, and many more that might be identified, it’s tempting to view the church as more of a liability than an asset to the advance of the gospel. It can be difficult to discern any upside for connecting to a local church. Thus, for many professing Christians the church has become a missing spiritual resource. In my next post, I’ll put forward three reasons I believe it shouldn’t remain a missing spiritual resource any longer.