The Church—Why Bother?
The Barna Research Group reports that in the United States about 10 million self-proclaimed, born-again Christians have not been to church in the last six months, apart from Christmas or Easter. (Barna defines "born-again" as those who say they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important today, and believe they will "go to heaven because I have confessed my sins and have accepted Jesus Christ as my Savior.")
Nearly all born-agains say their spiritual life is very important, but for 10 million of them, spiritual life has nothing to do with church.
About a third of Americans are unchurched, according to Barna's national data. Approximately 23 million of those35 percent of the unchurchedclaim they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their lives today.
I can easily put a face on that number. I think of Duncan (not his real name), a guy I got to know through coaching kids' basketball. When Duncan found out I was a Christian, he quietly let me know he was one too.
"Julie and I met the Lord through a Bible study," he said. At the time, he and Julie attended a Lutheran church. He stopped going when they got divorced. I was invited to the service when he got remarried, to Rene, in a lovely outdoor ceremony. I don't think the Lutherans quite connected with Rene, though. It's been years since the two of them have attended church.
Is Duncan a Christian? He thinks he is. He would even say that faith is important to him. But like 23 million other Americans, faith doesn't necessarily involve church.
Duncan is not a new phenomenon. We have always had people who kept their distance from the church, even though they professed faith. We have never, however, had them in such astonishing numbers. They represent a significant trend, one that almost defines U.S. religion.
I would call it Gnostic faith. For them the spirit is completely separated from the body. They think your spirit can be with Jesus Christ while your body goes its own way.
Not Funny to Luther
A joke: A man is rescued after 20 years on a desert island. His rescuer is astonished to find that the castaway has built several imposing structures.
"Wow!" the rescuer says. "What's that beautiful stone building overlooking the bay?"
"That is my home," the castaway says.
"And what about that building over there, with the spires?"
"That," the castaway says, "is my church."
"But wait!" the rescuer says. "That building over there, with the bell tower. What is that?"
"That is the church I used to belong to."
The joke expresses a certain spirit of U.S. church life. We build 'em, and we quit 'em. Somebody will leave a church even if he is the only member.
Until Martin Luther, the church was the immovable center of gravity. The church had authority over individual Christians: to accept them as they approached the church, to baptize them, teach them, and provide them the means of grace.
In the third century, Cyprian, a North African bishop, wrote about a doctrinally orthodox but schismatic bishop named Novatian. "We are not interested in what he teaches, since he teaches outside the Church. Whatever and whatsoever kind of man he is, he is not a Christian who is not in Christ's Church. He cannot have God for his Father who has not the Church for his mother."
Cyprian's viewsummed up in the slogan "No salvation outside the church"gathered strength in subsequent centuries as the church countered heresies and divisions. It became the universal standard. You were either inside the Catholic Church, Christ's bodyor outside of Christ.