Why the Church Is Important
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.
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.