Thursday, February 7, 2019

Love Letters to the Church

One week from today, we'll pause to celebrate love wherever we find it. It's a day that reminds us about the best and most beautiful of human experiences, an experience that draws us toward a hope we've almost forgotten. For we are, after all, a people made by Love for love. And this makes it a good time to pause here, as well, and celebrate what it is that we love about the church. 

The church, at least in America, gets kind of a bad rap. Even, surprisingly, from Christians, who are deciding in not-small numbers that they don't really need the church any more. (Not true, but a lot of Christians still try to make this argument.)

After all, the church is fundamentally flawed: it's full of human beings who are fundamentally flawed, so the church herself is a place where the worst of who we are sometimes seems on full display in stark contrast to all the things that we profess to believe and to be. And indeed, it's the contrast that makes the church seem worse than she really is, for how can a people who claim to be about Truth still lie to one another? How can those who claim unconditional love play favorites? Why are there cliques in churches if we're all brothers and sisters? 

Because of the bold nature of our claims about what it means to be human, to be faithful, and to be God's people, the church can sometimes look like a disastrous failure. 

That is, of course, without grace. 

And so you hear things like, "I don't need the church. I love God, and I worship Him in my own way. The church is just religion, and I'm not religious." You hear things like, "Oh, yeah, I left the church a few years ago and it was great for me! I love God more today than I ever have. I feel closer to Him without all His people getting in the way." You hear things like, "You don't need the church to be a good Christian. I can love people without spending my Sunday mornings in some building." 

These kind of statements are applauded, particularly where we have highly individualized and privatized the faith, but let's be clear - they were never God's idea. God has always been the God of a people, not of a person, and it's central to His design that we be in worshiping communities. It was true of Israel. It was true of the early church. It is true today. 

And hey, there's a lot to love about the church. 

Yes, really. 

That's a bold statement to make, given what we hear about the church today. It's bold, given what we know about the church today. It's bold, given what you may not know about the church today, which is that the church today is a church in transition. In a lot of places, the church as we know it is dying. Something else is springing up, something that's not always quite church but may still be distinctively Christian. Regular church attendance is down in a majority of congregations. Buildings are becoming shared-use facilities. Sometimes, even shared by more than one congregation, just trying to keep the mortgage afloat. More and more Christians are opting to stay in rather than to go out, streaming the church of the day at their own convenience, rather than joining in a worshiping body in their neighborhood. Some are traveling great distances to be with a certain community that is not even part of their natural community, and neighborhood churches are suffering the most. 

And yet, there's a lot to love about the church. 

The basis of a lot that we're going to look at in the next week comes from Revelation, from an exiled John who was cut off from the churches that he so dearly loved. He was an outsider looking in at a time when the church was undergoing tremendous transformation, establishing itself on a new law and a new Love after generations of being the Temple. There was a lot for John to criticize in the church - and he did, boldly - but there was a lot to love, too - and he never missed an opportunity to tell them so. 

Our churches have had plenty of our criticisms; it's time for a little love. And there's no better time than now. Let's not miss our opportunity to remember the best of who we are. 

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