“The marvellous promise has been much to me these last days – the power given into the hands of the Church, even when it is represented by the smallest corporate capacity of ‘two’ for moving the unseen, ‘binding’ the forces of hell and ‘loosing’ the forces of heaven.” Diary, Lilias Trotter
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” Acts 2:42)
Last Sunday I stayed home from church. (Hacking cough, my excuse.) This would be my own personal retreat morning. Fortified with a steaming mug of coffee (perk, literally, of home) and surrounded with enough devotional material to carry me through a month of “personal leaves”, I settled into Dave’s large leather armchair (yet another perk!) ready for my OPR (translated: own personal retreat).
Thus began my bombardment, by some devious or divine conspiracy, of readings underscoring the necessity of corporate worship! Scripture Union Bible reading for the day: “Let us not give up meeting together (cough), as some are in the habit of doing (cough, cough,) but let us encourage one another.” SU commentary on passage: “Discipleship is God’s family affair, intimately and collectively, we are to trust God and encourage one another to do so.”
On to John Stott and his Through the Bible Through the Year. Sunday. “I hope that none of my readers is that grotesque anomaly – an unchurched Christian – for the New Testament knows nothing of such a monster!” Strong words. He elaborates: “No, we are not only committed to Christ, we are committed to the body of Christ. Indeed, we cannot be one without the other. For the church lies at the center of the purpose of God.”
I decide to tackle one of my personal favorites. Add some variety from A Year with C. S. Lewis. An April reading: “It was one of the Wesley’s, I think, who said that the New Testament knows nothing of solitary religion. We are forbidden to neglect the assembling of ourselves together. Christianity is already institutional in the earliest of its documents.” Starting to feel my personal retreat sabotaged! Why Lewis even goes on to pull in a childhood classic to extol the “unity of unlikes” found in the church: “A dim perception of the richness inherent in this kind of unity is one reason why we enjoy a book like The Wind in the Willows; a trio such as Rat, Mole, and Badger symbolizes the extreme differentiation of persons in harmonious union, which we know intuitively to be our true refuge both from solitude and from the collective.”
Truth is, I don’t really need convincing having been a creature of the church, for good and for bad, from my earliest moments on earth. But I do understand the problem. The organized church has all the elements inherent for potential agitation. Starting with people. (Go figure.) Sheldon Vanauken in his account of his journey to faith, A Severe Mercy, writes: “The best argument for Christianity is Christians. . . . But the strongest argument against Christianty is also Christians. . .” – and elaborates on the same. Furthermore, there are the aesthetics of worship – in style and in surrounds – which give countless opportunities to compel or repel our personal sensibilities. And the list goes on and on…
It’s really not so big a step to conclude, “I can worship better on my own (unchallenged company of one) and, even better, in nature (God’s sanctuary!).”
So why, church go-ers, do we hang in there (cough, excepting) with this odd assortment of folk who may be so unlike us, whom we might not even like or who might not like us?! And, why do we continue to endure an institution which potentially sets so many nerve endings on fire?
Because God told us to. Still, behind all God’s imperatives is good reason. We were created to live in community. Our faith thrives best in relation to others even when, at times, at odds with them. It is in relationship with others that we become complete – through study, fellowship, communion, prayer – as defined by the fledgling 1st century church. Not solely a solo act. Yes, corny as it might sound, we really do “need each other.”
Lilias’s dream was for a church visible in Algeria. When they purchased their first Arab home in the Casbah, she noted with joy the presence of a “dear crypt” that had been used for Islamic purposes. She envisioned the day when that holy space would be sanctified by the presence of believers worshipping Jesus Christ. Reality was, but for the occasional exception of a few timid believers who gathered in 2’s and 3’s, it would be another 100 years before that dream was realized.
Would it be extreme to suggest that now as much as, or more than, any time in our western culture the church visible – the family of faith – could be a lifeline? Nuclear families separated by geography and/or fractured by dysfunction crave the sense of belonging that the church was meant to provide. Much is being broadcast these days, in light of recent acts of terror, of the spirit of alienation that fuels radicalism. Perhaps our own personal “acts of terror” – unkindness, mean-spiritedness, lack of courtesy, ingratitude – are likewise fueled by a state of “disconnection” with family or community?
Listen. Listen burnt or burned out believers – or unbelievers – who have tested the church and found it lacking in love or acceptance or any other longing of the heart – listen to an invitation: Welcome to the family!
Christian, open your heart and arms to brothers and sisters, wounded and broken as yourself, and longing for connection. Reach out, in love, beyond the family.
Seeker, give the family of faith one more chance.
Inscription above the door of St. Stephens’ in London
O God, make the door of the house wide enough to receive all who need human love and fellowship, narrow enough to shut out all envy, pride, and strife. Make its threshold smooth enough to be no stumbling-block to children, nor to straying feet, but rugged and strong enough to turn back the tempter’s power. God, make the door of this house the gateway to Thine eternal kingdom.
Painting: Between the Desert & the Sea