We live in a generation of religious cynics. That's not altogether a bad thing - there are a lot of "religious traditions" that have been elevated to the level of inspired Scripture, and we rightly question why we should do things just because "that's the way they've always been done." For too long, religious ritual was confused with authentic faith, and a generation hungry for the real thing starting looking for more than "religious tradition".
I belong to that hungry generation. "Generation X" the scholars call us -- kids raised in a post-Watergate world where things were no longer so black and white, where we are surprised not when leaders let us down, but when they don't. We tend to eschew political and denominational labels and instead seek leaders and churches who will "walk the walk". In the "church world" this trend has resulted in an exponential growth in the number of nondenominational churches in the United States: in 1990 194,000 people identified themselves as "non-denominational Christians"; by 2008 that number had increased to over 8 million in this ARIS study. Overall, I find this encouraging. Many of these non-denominational churches (including the one I attend) teach from Scripture, are active in the community, intentionally seek unity with other churches, and in general "walk the walk".
But recently I notice a more disturbing church-related trend. Some GenX leaders and plenty of younger individuals in their teens and 20s (the "Millennial" generation they are called) are ready to toss church "under the bus" if you will. Corporate worship is considered fine, but placed on a par with enjoying God in nature, spending time socializing with other believers, or reading a book by an inspirational writer. Serious study of Scripture with other believers, developing what the Bible calls "sound doctrine" and many Christians call theology, is considered sub-par to private emotional experiences.
Please don't misunderstand. Scripture makes clear that the heavens declare the glory of God, and we miss opportunities to worship Him if we only look inside church walls. He wants us to enjoy each other, and to use our gifts to edify others as well. We should study Scripture alone as well as with others, and if our relationship with God is never emotional, then we are missing an important element.
Likewise, if we reject church and our corporate worship and fellowship and study, we will never experience Christianity the way Jesus intended. As Paul notes in 1 Corinthians 12, we are parts of one body. A random, missing appendage will never function as it was intended. And yes, that body goes beyond individual expressions in local churches. One local church will never achieve the fullness of what it means to be the body of Christ -- for that we need all believers, in all places, and in all eras, and all denominational backgrounds, united by one Spirit to worship one Lord.
But since a significant portion of the New Testament is comprised of epistles written to specific, local bodies of believers, with many other references to specific, local bodies of believers, I believe we can safely say that the New Testament pattern is for "the church" to find local expressions and for Christians to gather with other believers regularly for intentional worship and study of God's Word. Hebrews 10:25 is the classic command to worship with others.
However, my defense of church goes beyond the command to gather with other believers. Like C.S. Lewis in the quote above, I find "the church" a place where people from different educational and work backgrounds, from different social and cultural settings, from different ages and ethnicities and countries, come together not to be identical, but to celebrate that with all these differences, we still worship One Lord, have One Spirit indwelling us, and have One Heart to glorify the One Who saved us. Last Sunday at church, I hugged a sweet 80-something lady, swung a four-year-old in the air, discussed the situation in Eritrea with a brother from Cameroon, and lamented over the pending move of a couple from Hungary. I messed up the recording of a sermon by my pastor who works at UPS, and caught up with a friend who works a farm with her husband. On the surface I had more differences than similarities with all these people, but we had a unity that went beyond any differences. Some of my "heroes" in the faith are those people like Lewis mentioned, those saints in "old elastic side boots" - boots worn from use in kingdom purposes, with holes in the knees of their pants from hours spent in prayer.
A sweet young friend in Niger wrote of her joy at finally getting to attend a church service. She lives out in the village and sees the stars all the time. She loves nature and helps provide food by gardening. Yet her joy reached new heights when she praised God with other believers - 8 languages all together. This is the church! She didn't have to tell me that the church she went to was imperfect. I know it was - it was comprised of humans. Yet God designed it for a purpose, and just reading about it was beautiful.
One of the Scriptures that never fails to surprise me time and again is Ephesians 3:8-10:
"To me the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ, and to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God, who created all things; in order that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places."
I always reread that verse to see if it says what I think it says. Yep, it does. God's wisdom is made known through the church to rulers and authorities in heavenly places. Something about the church shows God's wisdom to spiritual beings. I've been in a lot of churches over the years and frankly, church would not appear at the top of my list of "Ways to show wisdom to spiritual beings." It might not even break the top 100!
And yet ... the wisdom of man is foolishness to God. For in this ragtag bunch of humans trying to worship God, with all our differences and failings of the flesh, God's wisdom is revealed. I don't know how. But there is something powerful at work -- something that cannot be conquered by the gates of hell (Matt. 16:18). As "the church" moves to advance the kingdom of God, darkness is pushed back. That promise isn't made about great social organizations like Habitat for Humanity, political parties, or even nations. It's only made about the church - that messy group of people all over the world, manifested in local bodies of believers, who sometimes have little in common besides Jesus.
And that's reason enough for me to defend church.
let us go to the house of the Lord.
Our feet are standing in your gates, O Jerusalem.
Jerusalem is built like a city that is closely compacted together.
That is where the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord,
To praise the name of the Lord according to the statute given to Israel.
There the thrones for judgment stand,
the thrones of the house of David.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
"May those who love you be secure.
May there be peace within your walls and security within your citadels."
For the sake of my brothers and friends I will say,
"Peace be with you."
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God
I will seek your prosperity.