Sometimes you have to suffer as much from the church as you do for it, said Flannery O'Connor. Some of my friends share her sentiment. Caught in the crossfire of church conflict, they considered giving up on the church entirely. Bruised and abused, they wondered, Is it worth all the hassle? And they asked me, "Church—who needs it?"

"I gave up my faith in the church a long time ago, even though I still believe in it." I told them that my faith isn't ultimately in the church. "That is misplaced faith, idolatry. My faith is in God. But I still believe in the church because it is central to what God is doing in the world—forming a reconciled and reconciling people who are a light to the nations."

One of the besetting sins of American Christianity is its failure to take the church seriously, to see its essential role in the mission of God. There is in the United States a growing phenomenon of Christians unconnected to any church, a gap between what George Gallup calls "believers and belongers." A simple comparison of the number of people who say they believe Jesus Christ is God or Son of God (84 percent) with the number who attend church regularly (43 percent) illustrates this gap. And, church-growth specialists tell us, younger believers have little sense of belonging to any church tradition. The "Jesus and me" spirituality of parachurch Christianity has triumphed over the corporate consciousness of the historic churches. Is this not a contradiction of terms: a churchless Christian? A freelance disciple? To become a Christian disciple means not just deciding to follow Jesus, but also joining with a community of disciples bound together by their common commitment to their Lord.

Sometimes we get things turned around: ...

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