Why the Church Is Important
The institutional church is for every believer.
Tony Campolo. Excerpted from Letters to a Young Evangelical. | posted 5/01/2007 09:00AM
Dear Timothy and Junia,
Right now I want you to do some careful thinking about the role that the institutional church will play in your lives. Many young Evangelicals are a bit leery of getting too involved in the life of a local congregation. Some can tell painful stories of bad experiences with institutionalized Christianity.
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In America, Evangelical churches have often been bastions of conservatism, providing support for the status quo. For example, many of our leaders were reluctant to lend their support to the civil-rights movement when their help was desperately needed. More recently, some of our leaders have allowed male chauvinism to continue unchallenged. Unfortunately, these kinds of lapses have earned Evangelical churches a reputation for being reactionary and even contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ. When secularists are asked about Evangelical churches, they often say that they consider our churches and other Evangelical institutions to be anti-gay and sexist.
It is certainly true that our congregations have, at times compromised the radical requirements of discipleship prescribed by Christ, and you may find yourself put off by the church because of its failure to be faithful to his teachings. But I would urge you to consider this fully, and to think about the words of St. Augustine: "The church is a whore, but she's my mother." That statement brilliantly conveys how I feel about church. It is easy for me, like so many of the young Evangelicals I know, to note the ways the church been unfaithful as the bride of Christ. You don't have to look too hard to see that the Evangelical church in America has a great propensity for reducing Christianity to a validation of our society's middle-class way of life. Unquestionably, the church too often has socialized our young people into adopting culturally established values of success, rather than calling them into the kind of countercultural nonconformity that Scripture requires of Christ's followers (Romans 12:1-2).
Why, then, do I encourage you to participate in organized religion and commit yourself to a specific local congregation? Because, as Augustine made clear, the church is still your mother. It is she who taught you about Jesus. I want you to remember that the Bible teaches that Christ loves the church and gave himself for it (Ephesians 5:25). That's a preeminent reason why you dare not decide that you don't need the church. Christ's church is called his bride (11 Con 11:2), and his love for her makes him faithful to her even when she is not faithful to him.
Through the ages, God has used the church to keep alive and pass down the story of what Christ has done for us. It is the church's witness that has kept the world aware that Christ is alive today, offering help and strength to those who trust in him. The story of Christ would have been lost during the Dark Ages if the church had not sustained it in monasteries where the Scriptures were laboriously hand-copied while barbarians were tearing down the rest of Western civilization. Church councils have protected Christianity from heresies by examining new theologies. Today, it is against two thousand years of church tradition that our modern-day interpretations of Scripture are tested. In short, it is the church that has preserved the Gospel and delivered it into our hands.
Where would most of us be without the church? Most Evangelicals have the church to thank for the Sunday-school classes that taught us what the Bible says and paved the way for our eventual decisions to commit our lives to Christ. Stop and consider the importance of the church's worship and liturgical functions. Even if we Evangelicals aren't likely to call them sacraments, as the Roman Catholics do, we still recognize the importance of certain ceremonial rituals. For instance, baptism is an important public declaration of faith that initiates new members into the fellowship our churches. In baptism, new Christians become part of a body of fellow believers who are called to spiritually encourage one another and hold one another responsible for consistent Christian living. The extent which churches live up to such obligations varies from congregation to congregation.
Holy Communion is another ritual of our church that cannot be taken for granted. Even if most Evangelicals view the bread and wine as only symbolic of the body and blood of Christ—and there are many Evangelicals who view them as more than that—the role that those symbols play in our lives cannot and should not be minimized. Holy Communion focuses our faith Christ's sacrificial death, which delivered us from our sins and signaled his conquest over the demonic forces of the universe.
My earliest memories of church services involve the sacred specialness of Communion Sundays. Before I understood any of the theological underpinnings of Communion services, I sensed that there was some kind of mysterious blessing in the air on these days. I felt an awe and reverence falling upon the congregation, and I was aware that something special, something with inklings of the supernatural, was happening. I realized early on that there was a sacred meaning to the bread and wine that demanded a hushed solemnity from everyone present.
Sitting with my parents at a Communion service when I was very young, perhaps six or seven years old, I became aware of a young woman in the pew in front of us who was sobbing and shaking. The minister had just finished reading the passage of Scripture written by Paul that says, "Whosoever shall eat the bread and drink the cup of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord" (1 Corinthians 11:27). As the Communion plate with its small pieces of bread was passed to the crying woman before me, she waved it away and then lowered her head in despair. It was then that my Sicilian father leaned over her shoulder and, in his broken English, said sternly, "Take it, girl! It was meant for you. Do you hear me?"
She raised her head and nodded—and then she took the bread and ate it. I knew that at that moment some kind of heavy burden was lifted from her heart and mind. Since then, I have always known that a church that could offer Communion to hurting people as a special gift from God.
Some claim that they can worship alone, and I do not question their claims. Indeed, those who cannot be alone with God are not fit for community. But the positive experience of worshipping alone does not contradict my argument that something different happens when Christians come together in corporate worship. The sociologist Emile Durkheim recognized that at such a gathering a unique feeling of oneness often emerges—he called it "collective effervescence." He meant that there is some kind of shared emotion and psychic power that can be experienced only in communal worship. It doesn't always happen, but when it does, those who share in this ecstasy keep coming back for more.
I belong to an African American church, and on those special days when the congregation "really gets down, and the Spirit breaks loose," as my pastor says—those are days when that collective effervescence is especially evident people say afterward, "Oh, we had church today, didn't we?" For them, on those days the church becomes something more than a gathering of people in a sanctuary. It becomes a happening. But such happenings would never happen if there weren't "an earthen vessel," as Paul called it, to contain them. That's what the church is. In spite of all of its flaws and shortcomings, it is the "earthen vessel" that can serve as a home for sacred happenings and the special fellowship that the Greek New Testament calls koinonia.
At Eastern University, where I teach sociology, we have weekly chapel services. Attendance is voluntary, but students have been showing up in such large numbers over the past few years that we have had to move our weekly worship services from the school chapel to the gym. It's not the speakers that draw the crowds, but the worship. These worship services feature "praise music." As an old guy, I have difficulties with this new praise/worship music, but the students love it. I see them with their hands lifted up and tears running down their cheeks as they sing love songs to God, and I realize that they are experiencing God in a way that transports them from the gym bleachers into a mystical community of holiness. I become aware of that collective effervescence wherein God's presence becomes uniquely real. There and then, I am grateful for the corporate worship that makes such things possible.
There is another reason that the church should play an important role in your lives: the church is Christ's primary instrument for bringing about social change and transforming the institutions of society to conform with his will. It is through the church that Christ has chosen to bring all principalities and powers into submission to himself (Ephesians 1:21-22).
When the apostle Paul used the phrase principalities and powers, he was referring to all of the suprahuman forces that influence what we think and do. Some Christians limit the meaning of these words and think that Paul was referring only to evil spirits (i.e., demons). Undoubtedly, that is part of what Paul meant. Evangelicals, especially in this postmodern age, are ready to affirm that there are demonic forces fostering havoc and evil in the world. It should be noted, however, that modern scholars such as Walter Wink and John Howard Yoder have pointed out the phrase's broader meaning. Principalities and powers, say many Biblical scholars, also include such social constructions as television, government, economic systems, and the arts. These and all other social institutions, they argue, should be understood as superhuman forces that influence human behavior. What Paul tells us in Ephesians 6:12 is that we members of the church are supposed to wrestle with these principalities and powers so that they might be transformed into institutions that enact God's will.
Allow me to give you some examples of how ordinary Christians are doing extraordinary things as they work to bring the principalities and powers under the lordship of Christ through the church. Christians in England, working together across denominational lines, have seriously influenced international policies regarding Third World debts. When the heads of the G8 nations held a summit in the city of Birmingham in 1998, Christians mobilized tens of thousands of church members to hold a prayer vigil in front of the convention hall where the meetings were held. Clare Short, who was then Britain's secretary of State for international development, told me that it was that church-sponsored prayer vigil that moved the world leaders to make the first efforts toward debt cancellation.
The collapse of apartheid in South Africa offers another dramatic example of the church's bringing principalities and powers into submission to God's will. Archbishop Tutu, the leader of the Anglican church in that country, was able to make the church into a force for justice. There can be no question as to the crucial role the church played in challenging the racism that had made black Africans into less than second-class citizens.
As young people rebelled against the oppression of the South African police, they found in Tutu a spokesperson and leader for their movement. American author (and my friend) Jim Wallis describes how, on one occasion, Tutu met with thousands of freedom-seeking young people in the cathedral of Cape Town. The atmosphere was electric with anticipation as Tutu took his place in the pulpit. He pointed to the policemen who had positioned themselves along the walls of the cathedral to intimidate the crowd. Then he lovingly spoke to the police: "Come join us! You know we will win, so why not be part of the victory?" Then he led the thousands of young people in singing freedom songs. The congregation rose to its feet, swayed to the music, and started dancing in the aisles. There was no containing these young people, who were celebrating the coming end of apartheid. The dancing spilled onto the streets, and passersby joined in. Thus, a revolution was fueled by a church that was willing to challenge oppressive principalities and powers that had once seemed unshakable.
In addition to such direct campaigns for social change, there are a host of other ways in which the church has been a powerful force for positive societal transformation. Consider what has been accomplished because of missionary work in developing nations.
Schools created by missionaries have educated most the significant leaders in Africa, Latin America, and Asia The professional elites in developing countries—the doctors, lawyers, engineers, and entrepreneurs—almost all owe their training to church-sponsored education. Kofi Annan is one example. In Latin America, even Marxists have to give credit to church schools for training their leaders. Fidel Castro readily testifies that his revolutionary ideas came from his childhood training in Jesuit schools. And I haven't even mentioned all the incredible work missionaries have done in the fields of medical care and agriculture in developing countries
Some people mock the missionary efforts of the church and claim that they have been destructive of indigenous cultures. There is some truth in what these critics say; missionaries have often made the mistake of imposing Western values and lifestyles on native peoples. But today's missionaries are much more cross-culturally sensitive than were their predecessors, and they are often trained in cultural anthropology so that they can contextualize the Gospel in ways that both employ and preserve the best of native cultures.
While I think that cultural sensitivity is essential, l don't believe that every cultural practice should be tolerated simply because it is indigenous. For instance, certain cultures allow the ceremonial sacrificing of children, and others call for the circumcision of girls upon entering puberty. I believe unequivocally that such practices should be eliminated, and I think you will, too. Likewise, I have no qualms when it comes to challenging the treatment of women in Islamic countries governed by sharia law or what remains of the caste system in India. If the work of missionaries undermines cultural patterns that are cruel and dehumanizing, I'm all for it. The sooner, the better.
There is little doubt that the tentacles of Western technology, and the social changes that come with it, sooner or later will reach out and affect every tribe and nation on earth. Given that expectation, I would prefer that preliterate societies first encounter the West via missionaries, who have the best interests and salvation of indigenous people at heart, rather than via commercial forces whose only concern is the maximizing of profits.
There is one scary thing about our desire to change the world into a societal system that is ever more like the kingdom of God. This is the triumphalist tendency, increasingly evident among us Evangelicals, to use political power to impose our will on the rest of the nation and even the rest of the world. I see this happening especially among Evangelicals identified with the Religious Right who exercise their significant influence to try to force their agenda on others. There is incredible danger in this. I hope you can understand that Evangelicals' God-ordained identity as a servant people is compromised when we adopt coercion as our means for bringing others into compliance with God's will.
Young people often tell me that they are wary of the institutional church because they believe it is filled with hypocrites. Well, it is. What these people fail to understand, however, is that it is because the church is filled with hypocrites that they'll be right at home in it. If they don't think their own lives are filled with hypocrisies, then they are blind to the truth. We in the church mad no bones about it. We acknowledge our hypocrisy. We believe that everyone is a hypocrite, if by "hypocrite" we mean someone who does not live up to his or her declared ideals and does not practice what he or she preaches. Most of us in the church recognize that we fall short of our goals, but we acknowledge our shortcomings and have come together to help one another overcome our failures. As the old saying goes, "We're not what we ought to be, but then we're not what we used to be." The apostle Paul spoke for all of us in Philippians 3:13-14 when he acknowledged that he wasn't perfect but was still striving to become what God wanted him to be. I guess what I'm trying to tell you is the same thing I'd tell anyone else: if you ever find the perfect church, don't join it—because your joining will ruin it!
In spite of all its flaws and shortcomings, I still believe that the church is filled, for the most part, with decent and caring people who will be there when you need them. The loving fellowship that the church often provides is exemplified in a story that a Presbyterian pastor once told me about his early days of ministry at a small country church. One day, a young woman came to the church to present her child for baptism. She had given birth to the child out of wedlock; in a small rural community, a woman who has done this can easily find herself shunned. The day of the baptism, the woman stood alone before the congregation, holding her child in her arms. The pastor hadn't recognized the awkwardness of the situation until he asked, as is customary in a baptismal service, "Who stands with this child to assure the commitments and promises herewith made will be carried out? Who will be there for this child in times of need and assure that this child is brought up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord?" At that moment, he realized that there was no godmother or godfather on hand to answer the question. But, as though on cue, the entire congregation stood and with one voice said, "We will!"
Those who think that church people are all bad should have been around on that Sunday, when they would have had a chance to see the church at its best. They would have seen the church as a nurturing community. That kind of church is worth your time.