Last week I finished Why We Love the Church: In Praise of Institutions and Organized Religion (WWLC) by Kevin Deyoung and Ted Kluck. In May of 08, I read their Why We're Not Emergent: By Two Guys Who Should Be--which I found extremely helpful.
Their new book was no different! Like the first, it was extremely helpful and the authors articulated a very thorough, witty, and biblical response to the popular attitude of contempt toward the institutional church. Up front, I highly recommend this book to 1) those who are presently weary of hearing all the moaning and groaning about the church's various "failures," and would like a helpful (and biblical) response to such pessimism, or 2) those who are presently moaning and groaning about the church's various "failures" and would like a helpful (and biblical) response to your pessimism, or 3) itinerant ministers. Here's why:
What is this book about?
More and more books are being written on the subject of the church. While you may think this is a good thing, think again. It is becoming increasingly popular to critique the church as becoming more and more irrelevant, oppressive, restrictive, and boring. Many popular authors have grown cynical towards the church and have advocated a "Church-less Christianity" that sees organized, institutional church gatherings as a place that kills, or at least greatly hinders one's ability to know God and find true spirituality. "The church is no longer where we run in order to be saved, but, we are told, where we must run from if we are to truly find God" (160). Instead of weekly gatherings in a church building, three people gathered at Starbuck or on a golf course talking about spiritual things is the way to go.
Invisible, universal church: In. Visible, local church: Out.
What really matters in the minds of a growing consensus of Christians is that God is "bigger" than going to church every Sunday; God is at work in so many other (and equally edifying) ways than sitting in pews or listening to a lecture sermon each week. As we sit in our pews and listen to predictable sermons about things we already know, somewhere in the world somebody or some group of people are starving, dying of AIDS, being oppressed, etc.
As true as this may be, it is only a half truth, and it's not a sufficient reason to forsake the institutional church altogether. As much as ditching the church for churchless devotion may seem to liberate and increase one's service to God, it actually lessens and weakens it.
But the church does have it's issues. The authors acknowledge that the traditional church is often caught being culturally backwards. They also admit that there is room for change, renovation, and toleration in the minds of traditional church goers on the (non)essentials of what it means to be a faithful church. They take an honest look at church-as-we-know-it and affirm that it is flawed and full of sinners thinking sinfully.
But, that's the catch.
This side of heaven, that's how it's supposed to be! Thus, the response to the church's shortcomings is not to bail, but to stick it out and love the church through all it's failures and shortsightedness. It is in this way that the Lord purifies the church and grows individual Christians in character and selflessness. Though one shouldn't excuse the church's sin and negligence due to her unglorified state, one should not expect the church to be perfect. Abandoning the church for it's weaknesses actually lessens inward transformation instead of strengthening it.
In a piercing statement concerning those who have been hurt by church, Deyoung writes:
"In all honesty I can say that in the times I've been hurt by church people or been disheartened, the biggest problems, in the end, proved to be those that came from my own heart. This is not to discount external pressures or difficult situations or the ways in which Christians can hurt each other. Yet even with all these outside factors, my main issue has been [me]. I respond in sinful ways. I feel sorry for myself. I lose faith. I doubt the Word of God. I don't want to forgive. I stop hoping. I get embittered. I grow lazy. I don't stay in step with the Spirit. These are my sins from my heart. Others can make life difficult for me, I can make it unbearable" (84).
How is this Book Laid Out?
The book is laid out in 8 chapters. Deyoung writes four chapters as does Kluck. Deyoung's chapters address and engage the topic of the church under four categories: The Missiological (ch 1), the Personal (ch 3), the Historical (ch 5), and the Theological (ch 7). Kluck takes a more anectdotal and opinionated approach in his chapters that helpfully serves as an alternative (and more biblically guided) way to critique yet praise the church. His last chapter, in my opinion, was his best and encouraged me tremendously (especially the part where he encourages book-lovers to put away their books and just read only the Bible for a year straight!)--there are tons of outlines and marginal notes in that one!
I highly recommend this book to all. It is literally FILLED with insight and wisdom! In my copy, almost every page is filled with underlines and marginal notes like, "Yes!!," and "Excellent," and "Amen!!" The authors are clear, witty, and biblical. They write in a down-to-earth manner, and are pastoral as well as culturally savvy. WWLC is an enjoyable read. The writers are gifted, eloquent, and adorn their insights with penetrating rhetoric. I found myself rarely checking the time or the number of pages left as I sometimes do with other books. Those who advocate "church-less Christianity" certainly have their work cut out for them. As in Why We're Not Emergent, these guys articulate their position in ways that I want to adopt as my own. Go out and getcha one today.
Itinerant ministers, who have subtly abandoned the local church under the clever guise of love for the univeral church (not to mention the marketing of thier own name), would do well to consider the contents of this book. It will challenge you to get off the road, trust that the Lord doesn't need your "weekenders" to strengthen the church, and do the unglamourous work of week-in-week-out soul care of a local body. Here's a quote for you:
"At times, conference speakers can think of themselves as real sacrifical road warriors, out there serviving travel-related issues all for the sake of "The Kingdom." But sometimes . . . we are reality-averse wussies who just want to leave their parenting problems, marital challenges, and church frustrations behind so that we can have people say encouraging and flattering things about our book or speech" (61).
A-freakin-men to that!!
On Church Growth and Faitfulness:
"There are conservative churches who wear smallness as a badge of honor. Because they sense the real danger of measuring success by numerical growth, they think tiny churches are a sign of faithfulness and big churches are sellouts. Their pastors at times sound as though they're channeling John Owen, and their engagement with culture consists in explaining how modern-day Armenians differ from theological Arminians. They talk in the cadences of another century and specialize in preaching to the choir. There are churches out there that not only don't grow, they are frankly proud that they don't. The church in America can shrink until it shrivels and dies as far as they are concerned. They are interested in truth not results. There is much I admire about this attitude. It is refreshingly nonfaddish and unconcerned about worldly success. But those who hold this attitude are often blind to the ways in which they make it unnecessarily hare for people to feel at home in their churches. They can be inflexible about the wrong things and unable to see how this unbeliever is not always entirely to blame for disliking the church" (33).
On the UnChurched "Liking Jesus but not the Church":
"If outsiders are into Jesus, we'd be foolish not to use that as a starting place, but we'er kidding ourselves if we think most nonChristians (or Christians for that matter) have any idea who Jesus really was and the claims he made. . . . But the Jesus they like is almost certainly not the Jesus who calls sinners to repentance, claimed to be the unique Son of God, and died for our sins. He is almost certainly a nice guy, open-minded, spiritually ambiguous, and a good example. He is guru Jesus who resembles Bono in a bathrobe. If the church is the problem, it is likely because the church gives shape and for an an otherwise malleable and hollow Christ" (78).
"I like people who are honest with their feelings and open about their struggles. But, godliness demands a lot more that just being real. In fact, godliness demands that we stop acting like we want and start acting like Christ. I sometimes find, especially among my peers, that authenticity is not a self-abasing means of growing in holiness, but a convenient cover for endless introspection, doubt, uncertainty, anger, and wordliness. So that if other Christians seem pure, assured, and happy, we despise them for being inauthentic" (89).
On Church Discipline:
"Relationships are indispensable, but not enough. No matter what the teachers of tickling ears say, we do have rules to follow. . . . The church, as the gathering of those who love Jesus, should be pure, holy, loving, and true. . . That's why discipline has traditionally been a mark of the church. Discipline promotes the purity of the church and vindicates the honor of the Lord Jesus Christ. Yet how can there be discipline without a church? How can there be accountability if church is not in any way an institution with standards and dogma, but only a gathering of two or more Christians in the park?" (178).
On Reality in Church:
"As evangelicals we've become addicted to "happy ending" stories where we go through "x" (hard thing) and then start praying and then--Shazam!--God makes everything better and we have a nice, utopian story to tell where we are the hero who ends up with the great job, the great family, the time off, the free plane ticket, the lost purse, or the great healthy kids. The fact of the matter is, sometimes (often) the happy ending is in heaven, and the getting there is a really difficult but formative part of our sanctification. And sometimes what God wants in the interim is for us to find our happiness, holiness, and identity in Him, rather than our perfect testimonies" (193).
More on Authenticity:
"Sure, a lot of the Christian pop culture stuff is pretty cheesy; it's certainly not gritty or raw. . . . But a lot of the other stuff out there is pretty vile. Maybe church-goers would stop harping on young people to listen to Smile FM around the clock if the cultural hipsters stopped congratulating themselves for liking Eminem and his manufactured authenticity, as if being real about life is an excuse for being perverse. Maybe churchgoers can learn to overlook some strange tatoos and hair configurations if their counterparts will learn that swearing, drinking alcohol, and doing whatever else seems fetchingly rebellious and oh-so-not suburban middle class are not the leading indicators of spiritual maturity. . . . And in our hypertherapeutic culture, we all need to realize that sometimes being in touch with our pain and being real about our doubts and authentic about our struggles is a form of narcissism and self-absorption more than maturity" (220-21).
The Final Word:
"Don't give up on the church. The New Testament knows nothing of churchless Christianity. The invisible church is for invisible Christians. The visible church is for you and me. . . . Find a good local church, get involved, become a member, stay there for the long haul. Put away thoughts of revolution for a while and join the plodding visionaries. Go to church this Sunday and worship there in spirit and truth, be patient with your leaders, rejoice when the gospel is faithfully proclaimed, bear with those who hurt you, and give people the benefit of the doubt" (226).
Go to Church.