Who Needs The Church?

There is no small amount of anxiety in some evangelical circles concerning the continuing relevancy of the church. In a modification of Gandhi’s famous words we are told that people “like our Jesus but they don’t like our church.” In response to the current attitudes about the church within the culture there have been prescriptions for change and they are legion. I do not dispute the need for change within the church anymore than I dispute the need for change within my own life. I do however disagree with those who believe the church must be constantly reinvented in order to attain the ever elusive goal of cultural relevance. As Bill McSweeney of the University of York once wrote, “Who wants to belong to a church that has nothing to offer but a secular version of the gospels, that has lost its nerve to evangelize...?” The church will not find relevancy in aping the culture but in fidelity to the unchanging Gospel and the ordinary, God-given means by which the Gospel is to be advanced.

Pollster extraordinaire George Barna has for years tried to make the church more relevant. He has called pastors to see themselves as marketers even calling Jesus a master marketer. He has told pastors to place the “felt needs” of people at the forefront of their sermon preparation concluding that, as far as the sermon is concerned, “the audience is sovereign.”

Most recently, in his book Revolution Barna concludes that the days of the institutional church are nearing an end. Barna celebrates this reality, calling Christians who separate themselves from the church “Revolutionaries.” These Revolutionaries, according to Barna, “have moved beyond the established church and chosen to be the church instead.” Of course, this begs the question, “What’s the difference?” Throughout his writings, which have influenced many thousands of pastors, Barna demonstrates a deeply flawed doctrine of the church.

Barna writes: “Ours is not the business of organized religion, corporate worship, or Bible teaching. If we dedicate ourselves to such a business we will be left by the wayside as the culture moves forward. Those are fragments of a larger purpose to which we have been called by God’s Word. We are in the business of life transformation.” Barna believes that the only valid spiritual practices are those that can be done individually. But, as Michael Horton observes, this trajectory robs us of the great banquet that God has set before His church and places us instead at the self-serve buffet.

There is no salvation outside the church. That does not mean that the church saves. But when Jesus saves He grafts us into His body. We become a part of a community of people called the church made up of many local congregations around the world. This is the pattern set for God’s people since the apostolic period. The apostles did not plant local congregations in order to emphasize that the church was unimportant. They did not give themselves to build up local churches for the purpose of emphasizing the spiritual autonomy of the individual believer.

The church does not exist as a platform for my gifts and talents. The church does not exist primarily as a means for my own personal transformation. Certainly God gives gifts to the church and changes us deeply in the context of His church. But these are not ends in themselves. I am not placed in the Body of Christ so that I can merely become a better me.

In an article in the latest edition of Modern Reformation Michael Horton writes:
“Before long, it will be easy for churches to imagine that what happens on the Lord’s Day is less important than what happens in small groups or in the private lives of individual Christians. In fact, this is explicitly advocated today.

“In a fairly recent study, Willow Creek – a pioneer megachurch – discovered that its most active and mature members are the most likely to be dissatisfied with their own personal growth and the level of teaching and worship that they are receiving. From this, the leadership concluded that as people mature in their faith, they need the church less. After all, the main purpose of the church is to provide a platform for ministry and service opportunities to individuals rather than a means of grace. As people grow, therefore, they need the church less. We need to help believers to become ‘self-feeders,’ the study concluded…

“The individualistic emphasis of evangelicalism stands in sharp contrast to the covenantal paradigm that we find in Scripture. We are commanded not to become self-feeders who mature beyond the nurture of the church, but to submit ourselves to the preaching, teaching, and oversight of those shepherds whom God has placed over us in Christ.”

Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:23-25)