Can We Have Religion Without the Church?

Americans today hold a paradoxical attitude toward religion: Polls show a rise in people's interest in religion--but at the same time there's a decline in church membership. This appears to be a contradiction. But the explanation is simple: A lot of people think they can have religion without the church. The baby-boomers have given up their beads and guitars, but they still harbor a deep distrust toward institutions--including organized religion. 81 percent say they can find their own religious truth apart from the church. Many Christians--especially evangelicals--see their faith primarily in individualistic terms, as the gospel of "Jesus and me." It's true, of course, that the gospel begins by restoring our relationship with God. But that's only the beginning. Listen to what Jesus said about the church. In Matthew 16, He asked his disciples, "Who do you think I am?" Peter burst out, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." It was a confession of faith inspired directly by the Holy Spirit. But notice Jesus' response. He did not say, "Peter, that's wonderful. Go your way and have an abundant life." No, immediately Jesus announced that He would establish His church--a new society of people who share Peter's confession. What does it mean to be part of this new society? Do we just join the neighborhood church? No, when we become Christians, we first become part of what theologians call the church universal: the whole body of believers throughout the ages and across the globe, of every nation and color. This universal body is broken down, however, into smaller units--the church particular. This is where the work of the church is done: preaching the Word, making disciples, and administering the sacraments. You can think of it like an army. At first, army recruits are an untrained mass. Then they are clustered into training units to learn the skills of warfare. Later they are stationed into divisions. Finally, when the army is fully deployed, it is able to carry out its task. It's the same way with God's people. Every Christian is a member of the church universal, which reigns invisibly in the hearts of all true believers. But to make that church visible to the world, we unite with other Christians into smaller units. That means, for example, a local congregation; it may also include command structures, like denominations; it may include special training forces, like Prison Fellowship, to equip the church's fighting units. Once we see this bigger picture, it becomes obvious that membership in a local church is not optional; it's the very essence of what it means to be a Christian. This has to be the answer we give to those who say it doesn't matter whether you belong to a church--the advice we give to friends who are church-hopping. As I write in my new book The Body, a casual attitude toward the church is the central reason we Christians have so little influence in society. Sucked in by the individualism of the age, we undermining the very instrument God has chosen to witness His kingdom to the world.


Chuck Colson


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