The Soapbox: The Church and “The Man” Part Three
My biology professor loved his class pet, Fifi. Fifi was a dissected cat, hung up above the pickling solution for us to stare at. I wrote a paper on the church for a college class that wound up becoming a verbal version of Fifi the cat. It was a painful Monday evening when Judge George Crawford thoroughly disemboweled my argument that the church as an institution is different from the church as a congregation. “It’s a well-written paper Mr. Brooks, but the church is the church is the church.” He was right. And I had to go back to square one.
One of the tragedies of our doctrinally illiterate Christian landscape is our confusion about what constitutes the true Church of Jesus Christ. Is the church a building? Is the church its elders? Is the church a group of individuals? Mirriam-Webster will tell you its all these things. But what Mirriam-Webster won’t distinguish is the difference between the true church of Jesus Christ and a “church” that is such in name only. There’s a large building in my town that has a steeple and a cross and a huge banner that proclaims “God Still Speaks Today.” Of course, they also have rainbow stickers and “LGBT WELCOME/OPEN AND AFFIRMING CONGREGATION” plastered on their marquee. A Seattle man made the news by claiming to be a vampire and space cowboy, so we know claims don’t always match reality.
While talking with a Samaritan woman, Jesus describes true worshippers of Him in John 4:24: “God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” That is to say, two elements must be present to make a church: worship in truth (i.e. the message proclaimed and believed is the gospel) and worship in spirit (i.e. that message must be internalized and believed from the heart).
It is fashionable to trot out the Crusades as proof that the Christian God is just as viscous and bloodthirsty as the god of the Muslims. That’s a result of failing to distinguish between true and false churches. The medieval Roman Catholic Church worshipped in neither spirit nor truth. Just because a church claims to represent our Savior doesn’t mean they actually do.
After the distinction between true and false churches, there is another line that needs to be drawn. There is a difference between the local and global church. “The church” in its local form is a gathering together of the redeemed who identify themselves as a group of individuals who gather together to worship God in spirit and in truth. “The church” in its global form is the sum total of all the redeemed in all the local churches worldwide. (There are unbelievers who identify with the local church, but that’s a whole different discussion.)
So what about The Church and “The Man” generation? When the disenfranchised rail against “the church” what do they mean by that? Church-skeptics’ attitude seems to boil down to this:
“I am disenfranchised with the global church because my participation in several local churches hasn’t met my expectations. Though these churches are gospel-centered, I cannot identify with them because they do not care about [AIDS in Africa? Adoption? Climate change? Cultural awareness?]. The pastor does not preach on these topics, and the people spend their time on less important matters (which often are parenting, discipleship, Bible studies, etc). I believe [insert issue here] to be a critical expression of a love for the gospel, therefore this congregation does not truly love the gospel.”
Underneath this mindset is deep-seated, selfish, consumerism painted up to look like holiness and piety. Why is this person disenfranchised with the church? Because the local congregation doesn’t share their soapbox. In reality, this is old-fashioned reductionism. The goodness and worth of the local church hinges upon one particular result of the gospel. Never mind that God is worshipped well in the church. Never mind that the pastor’s messages glory in substitutionary atonement, penal substitution, and the power of the cross. If the church truly cared about these things, they would care about [my soapbox]. And since they haven’t awakened to the importance of [my soapbox], the church is a failure.
I’ve been there before. I was led astray by an anti-materialistic mindset and became judgmental towards other believers because they bought more toys instead of supporting more missionaries. Do I still think that the church (on the whole) is sinfully materialistic? Yes. But am I really going to make financial sacrifice the one proof of someone’s love for the Lord and purity of ministry? I may pass that particular test. But if someone valued inner city ministry as the proof of genuine gospel love, I know I’d fail. We only soapbox what we’re strong in ourselves, which over-inflates our sense of spiritual maturity and feeds our arrogant glances upon those we perceive to be hopelessly earthly-minded. If someone were to have the soapbox of adoption, would you pass the test? What about evangelism? Or unreached-people missions work?
The truth is, most soapboxes are good things that the church should care and talk about. The gospel rightly understood makes us passionate about doing what we can to lift the curse in hearts and circumstances. But if you expect your pastor to lead the charge on your very good and just soapbox, you’ve missed the point of joining the church. It’s not that the pastor doesn’t care. It’s that his job and responsibility is to do what the Apostles did: devote himself to the ministry of the word and to prayer.
If you care about an issue, you take the initiative. Go and talk about it with your pastor. Chances are he loves what you love too, but it’s not his responsibility to start and lead every ministry in the church. Go with a plan of how you are going to lead this ministry focus. One friend of mine was inspired by the Moravians’ 100 year-long prayer session for their missionaries. He went to the pastors with his idea and led an 8-5 prayer continual prayer meeting for the missionaries we supported as a church. Some people signed up to pray, others didn’t. That’s okay. There are far more good ministry opportunities for the faithful to be involved in then they could ever hope to participate in. Lack of participation doesn’t mean lack of care or interest. A working father with five kids under the age of ten isn’t going to have the time that a single person does. His ministry is primarily to his family. And God rejoices in men who raise their children to fear Him.
It’s much easier to sit on the cushy couch of the critic and deride the church for its lack of concern for the world. But every believer is part of the church. Criticizing a local church without being involved is unvarnished hypocrisy. No church is perfect. No church could ever hope to meet all the ministry needs in this cursed and fallen world. By playing critic instead of participant, people deprive the church of their gifts and passion for ministry. It’s never easy to minister. Satan hinders ministry, he doesn’t hinder judgmental criticism. Please, work against him and not for him. Please, dream big and do something in the church.
This is part three of a series entitled The Church and “The Man”.
For part one click here.
For part two click here.