What Is the Church?
Why do you go to church? Is it because you’re forced to by your parents? Or are you afraid of what your friends might think of you if you don’t? Or is it to satisfy the inner voice inside your head that would make you feel terribly guilty if you don’t, at least, attend one service every week? Unfortunately, these are, in fact, some of the reasons many “Christ-followers” go to church on Sunday. Instead of experiencing God and becoming more in-tune with his gospel, we’ve become nothing more than religious robots, just doing what we’ve been programmed to do: go to church, sing some songs, “listen” to someone speak for an hour, then go home and watch football. I’m not knocking football or watching football (not at all), but, again, why even go to church at all if all you’re thinking about is what you’re going to do after the preacher’s done? Why worship at all if you’re so consumed, not with your precious Savior and Redeemer, but what’s going to happen when you’re “done” worshiping? What good is that? What kind of worship is that?
Many if not the majority of churchgoers have such a warped view of what the church actually is and what it’s here for. We’ve wrongly — and shamefully so — succumbed to the philosophy that we must be entertained during our “service” for God, thus revealing our deep, inner-problem: narcissism.
It’s All Me, Me, Me
Modern society is so “me”-focused; everyone’s out for themselves. The thoughts of many aren’t in any way fashioned by what they can give, only on what they can get: “What can I get?” “What do I need?” “What’s in it for me?” “How can you please me?” etc. It’s no wonder, what with the pervasive marketing schemes being metaphorically forced down our throats that scream, “Have it your way!” and in the commercially-saturated society in which we live, that this ideology has crept into the church, and now has festered, like a cantankerous infection.
If you do go to church, though (and I pray that you do), what do you come expecting to hear? What are you hoping the speaker says and delineates and exegetes for you? Because of this “me-focused” infection, we’ve subsequently perverted the pulpit as well. Modern speakers have become masters at eisegesis: reading personal truths and opinions into a text and making it say what you want it to say. Our worship is all about entertaining and the pulpit for “bettering.” The majority of preachers, nowadays, have bought into this “me-first” philosophy and speak eloquently about how we can have our “best life now” and how “it’s your time!” This type of preaching is nothing more than “self-help” with a little Jesus sprinkled on top: it’s motivational speaking (or “life coaching”) impersonating the Word of grace — and, I dare say, nothing much makes God more sick.
The moralization of preaching has resulted in believers around the globe buying into this insane idea that a better version of themselves will fix their problems. “[We’ve] set out trying to create a better version of us, a more attractive version of us, a wealthier version of us, a version of us with a sweeter car, a version of us with a better house,” says Matt Chandler, “and we think, ‘We’re going to better ourselves!’” God hates this misuse of his church, his pulpit, and his Word! This pursuit of “becoming a better you” desecrates the gospel and degrades all that the church is supposed to be! We’ve become — rather, reverted back — to being idolaters of self, slaves to our own performance, caught in an endless cycle of doing more, performing better, becoming better. We’re like hamsters, sprinting on the wheel of performancism, doing a lot of “stuff,” exerting a lot of energy, but going nowhere.
So, how do we break this malaise? How do we liberate ourselves from the moralism and performancism and Pharisaism that has so infected, and, likewise, inhibited the church? By remembering, everyday, that the Bible is not about you!
The Crux of the Bible
The Scriptures aren’t about me, or you, or anyone, save Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Lord. The church isn’t about “becoming a better you!” The gospel isn’t about achieving “your best life now!” The Bible is not about you — the Bible is all about Jesus! “We are not at the center of the Scriptures. He is.” (Bethke, 85) To read the Bible as if it’s fundamentally about you is to fundamentally miss the entire point of the Bible! To read God’s Word as if it’s primarily about you is treat it as if it’s some sort of divinely-sent “self-help manual.” But, “the Bible is not first a recipe book for Christian living but a revelation book of Jesus who is the answer to our un-Christian living.” (Tchividjian, 31) All of Scripture, every page, points towards Jesus. The Bible is a Divine Portrait of the Perfect Lamb; it’s the consummate mosaic of the blessed Messiah.
The Bible is a record of the blessed bad. The Bible is not a witness to the best people making it up to God; it’s a witness to God making it down to the worst people . . . The Bible is one long story of God meeting our rebellion with his rescue, our sin with his salvation, our guilt with his grace, our badness with his goodness. The overwhelming focus of the Bible is not the work of the redeemed but the work of the Redeemer. (Tchividjian, 31)
Therefore, the pulpit isn’t a place to tell people how to live “better.” It’s not a platform upon which personal ideologies and opinions are proposed as dogma. It’s not a lectern for mere ciphering and memorization of cold facts and doctrines. Likewise, neither is the church a classroom, nor is it a casual conversation around the dinner-table, nor is it a group therapy session, nor is it a place where all the “good” people gather and group together. No, the pulpit — and the man behind it — and the church have a singular charge to which they’ve been entrusted: To tell people about the One who lived and died perfectly, righteously, and graciously for them; to show the world the “immeasurable” and “incomparable riches of his grace.” (Eph. 2:7) They exist to preserve the ministry of Christ, which was “to proclaim good news to the poor . . . to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18–19)
The church isn’t a gathering of “good” people — it’s a place where all the people who know they’re bad come to learn about the One who is good. It’s worship of the One who is perfection and holiness and righteousness and grace. The pulpit should be reserved for one thing only: To diagnose and deliver sinners by proclaiming the Word of grace.
The Preacher’s Job
The job of the preacher is to show you your need; to help you realize how dire your spiritual sickness is that you might cling ever tighter and in more haste to God’s grace. (Matt. 9:12–13) You might be lost, but Christ is the “hound of heaven,” seeking and saving the lost and undone. (Luke 19:10; Ezek. 34:11–12) “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak.” (Ezek. 34:16) The church and its pastor are called to say one thing, over and over and over again, in many different ways and from many different texts — namely, the good news of great grace. This is the only message worth trumpeting, and, likewise, the only message worth considering.
If you’re a believer coming to church thinking, “Hey, I’m pretty good; I’m not that bad . . . not nearly as bad as John Smith over there or Suzy Q. over there,” you’ll always leave church feeling unimpressed and unmotivated. However, if you come to church knowing that you’re merely a sinner saved and carried and secured by Jesus’s gospel of grace alone, you’ll leave feeling empowered, enabled, and emboldened to live for Christ. Remember, who was it that left the temple justified and full of mercy? It wasn’t the pious Pharisee that expounded all that he’d done, it was the penitent tax collector, who pounded his chest and cried, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:9–14)
Let it be known, that this is what the church is for. The church isn’t a “sanctuary for saints,” it’s a hospital for the broken. The church should serve as a home for the beaten and the spent and the weary; as a house of healing for the sick with sin; as a resting-rock for the exhausted; as a place of unconditional mercy for the messed up. The church isn’t a place where all the good people gather. As Francis Spufford says, it should be the headquarters for the “league of the guilty”:
Christianity isn’t supposed to be about gathering up the good people and excluding the bad people for the simple reason that there aren’t any good people . . . religion can certainly slip into being a club or a cozy affinity group or a wall against the world. But it isn’t supposed to be. What it’s supposed to be is a league of the guilty.
We are all guilty. There’s no one that’s righteous, “no, not one.” (Rom. 3:10) So, “what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded.” (Rom. 3:27) What becomes of our religious pomp and ceremony? It is vain, worthless, and done to no avail if not done out of pure, humble love and adoration for Jesus and all that he’s accomplished. Christ-followers are to be marked, chiefly, by those two traits: humility and love — for that’s what our Christ exemplified when he descended to earth for mankind’s deliverance. (Phil. 2:5–11) God’s great condescension to his creation wasn’t to bolster or prop up those who insisted upon their own goodness. He came desiring only that lost and fallen people — that is, everybody — would find their fill and joy, their all, in his boundless grace. “[He] came to liberate us, [to free us] from the weight of having to make it on our own, from the demand to measure up.” (Tchividjian, 36) Jesus came declaring hope and peace for those in desperation, for it’s in our desperation that the grace of the gospel of Christ is truly grasped and fully experienced. Why would the church demand anything more? Why should we preach anything else?
The Church’s Function
All that’s done in the church and spoken from the pulpit must be drenched in the gospel — in the good news of Christ’s “wonderful exchange” of sin for righteousness, of judgment for mercy, of wrath for love, of guilt for grace. It’s this that should serve as the maxim of every believer. It is this good news of Jesus Christ’s glorious substitution that serves as the missive we’ve been commissioned to carry and, what’s more, live. As the redeemed of God, we’re to be living reflections, walking, talking, breathing lighthouses, of grace. The good news of great grace should resound in the halls of every church and should shine forth as rays from the sun in all our endeavors. All that we are and all that we have we owe to the gospel of grace of Jesus Christ. The good news is everything to us!
Christ’s death is the Christian’s life. Christ’s cross is the Christian’s title to heaven. Christ “lifted up” and put to shame on Calvary is the ladder by which Christians “enter into the holiest,” and are at length landed in glory. It is true that we are sinners; — but Christ has suffered for us. It is true that we deserve death; — but Christ has died for us. It is true that we are guilty debtors; — but Christ has paid our debts with his own blood. This is the real Gospel! This is the good news! On this let us lean while we live. To this let us cling when we die. Christ has been “lifted up” on the cross, and has thrown open the gates of heaven to all believers. (Ryle, 143)
We have no other message and the church has no greater purpose than the proclamation of good news. Live it, breathe it, proclaim it.
Jefferson Bethke, Jesus > Religion: Why He Is So Much Better Than Trying Harder, Doing More, And Being Good Enough (Nashville, TN: Nelson Books, 2013).
J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels: St. John, Vol. 1 (New York: Robert Carter & Bros., 1874).
Tullian Tchividjian, One Way Love: Inexhaustible Grace for an Exhausted World (Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, 2013).