Last month I wrote an article challenging the increasingly popular statement, ‘I identify as a Christian but not a churchgoer.’ Numerous reasons are given for that sentiment, with people claiming: ‘The church hurt me,’ ‘Most Christians are too judgmental,’ and ‘I don’t need the church to have a relationship with God.’ In my article I argued that such a view of the Christian life – regardless of your reasoning – is disobedience to Jesus and discordant with the gospel. Theologian Millard Erickson wrote, “Christianity is a corporate matter, and the Christian life can be fully realized only in relationship to others.” The Christian life is inseparable from and unsustainable without Christian community. In this short post my challenge is not directed at to those with an anaemic understanding of the local church but an ungodly attitude towards it, which is hidden behind the pious veil of a love for missionaries.
In my previous post I made the point – Paul’s from Ephesians 2 – that as we are brought to Christ we are inevitably joined to other believers, becoming mutually committed to one other’s faith and spiritual maturity. The decision to withdraw from the local church is therefore the decision to withhold my God-given gifts from other Christians. Obviously, you can still be a part of the local church and contribute nothing to the lives of others; one of the ways to do this, without losing face, is to express a passion for missions. It is after all much easier to love those who are far away, in word (and rarely in deed). You might even pray for missionaries, give financially to their organisations, and insist that the local church remembers those in the field – all worthy efforts – yet overlook the Christians right in front of you.
Please do not hear what I am not saying. The local church must zealously support the work of missionaries; as John Piper says, Christians can either send or go but they cannot be indifferent to missions. That means our churches must be committed to training and sending missionaries (and church planters) or continually giving towards mission. However, I agree with Mark Dever, in What is a Healthy Church?, when he says it is impossible for us to love the church universal without first loving the church local and visible. He writes this, “If your goal is to love all Christians, let me suggest working toward it by first committing to a concrete group of real Christians with all their foibles and follies. Commit to them through thick and thin for eighty years. Then come back and we’ll talk about your progress in loving all Christians everywhere.”
What prompted me to write this post was the confusing paradox I have witnessed in some Christians: apathy to the point of spiritual abandonment of the local church alongside a fervency for the missionaries supported by our local church. How can this be? One of the answers is, in my opinion: in practice it takes less effort and personal investment to be committed to the work of missionaries than working in the local church. I fear that some (definitely not all) who pour themselves out for missions might in fact use that as a smokescreen for their unwillingness to get into the trenches. After all, a passion for missions is admirable and desirable, not to mention desperately lacking in most local churches. Therefore we must gratefully receive those with a concern for missionaries, but not if their love of missions is not coupled with a commitment to the life of the local church.
Dever writes, quite probingly, ”Committing to a local body…confirms what Christ has done. If you have no interest in actually committing yourself to an actual [local church], you might question whether you belong to the body of Christ at all.” Though typically sensational, Dever makes a challenging point as we conclude. Jesus insisted on perceptible and palpable love amongst his disciples, calling us to imitate his selfless and self-giving love (John 13:34; 14:15; 15:12), by which the world will know we are his disciples (13:35). Surely such love must begin at the local church.