The Body of Christ is grossly undernourished.
Instead of meat on our bones and a healthy glow to our skin, the Body so often seems to suffer from ceaseless striving, weak knees, and flagging zeal. And no wonder: Christians grow in spiritual stamina through fellowship with the Lord and His people, and—alarmingly—that’s what’s missing most from the contemporary church.
Added to the continuing lack of satisfaction and spiritual vitality among church members, the U.S. Census Bureau reports a startling number of churches have closed over the past decade. Each year, approximately 4000 shut their doors, compared to the 1000 being planted. What’s going on? Why is the American church suffering such an apparent lack of vigor? Surely the reasons abound, but one cannot simply chock up the stats to the increase of evil or the waning of righteousness in the earth. Sometimes the reasons are difficult to face, even counterintuitive—yet what if the answers are right under our noses?
One such reason is simply the increased pace of everyday life. The press for time has gotten worse; it is not your imagination. As the middle class in America shrinks, the demands of the workplace have heightened and leisure seems nonexistent. Everywhere I turn people tell me they are doing the work of two or three people. Instead of doing a quality job, increasingly the demand for efficiency has taken precedence. In fact, we must spell Efficiency with a capital “E,” for it has become yet another god to which the world bows.
Sadly, in the church it is no different. The hardworking 20 percent—you know if you’re part of this stat—can operate in such a flurry of busyness that we cry out daily with T. S. Eliot (in “Choruses from the Rock”): “Where is the life that is lost in living?”
Unfortunately, the reason this happens is often obscured by pressing needs and excellent intentions to meet them. It’s hard for local churches to keep from getting completely swallowed up in tending to missions, making a positive difference in their immediate locale, or the urge to increase numbers, but when they do, the focus on fellowship is almost always forgotten. In the meantime, all these great intentions leave Christians depleted and with little more than crumbs to give to each other. This lifestyle can sap the very joy of knowing Jesus, steering our attention away from the entire reason for our gathering.
So how do conscientious Christians keep from losing ourselves in the Sea of Responsibility or keep from getting swept away in its daily undertow? We run to and fro, busy about “the Lord’s work,” and before long we wonder, “Where is our joy?”
The fellowship of the brethren, I believe, is God’s answer to that situation. Through it, He gives us a place of refuge where followers of Jesus are motivated by purposes much higher than efficiency, productivity, and success. While there are many important works of service in which to involve ourselves, our true purposes are situated in relationships that fulfill our calling to love God and one another.
Jon Zens, author of the book “58 to 0: How Christ Leads through the One Anothers,” writes of the numerous times the New Testament calls God’s people to love one another, compared to the relative lack of mention of church leadership, hierarchy, vision, pews, and church business. The difference is eye-opening, and when we attempt to accomplish mighty feats ‘for the sake of the kingdom” without having first done the “better part” of loving Him and walking in His love toward each other, we often accomplish neither.
Unless we take time nurturing the brotherly and sisterly love among us, into what will we bring the lost? Are we just a Christian club? Are we a social experience with a sprinkle of prayer, like a condiment? Certainly a nourishing meal consists of more than salt or pepper. But we don’t take time to BE the church because we think there are more important things to do.
As we spend our time giving and receiving the bread of life, we are nourished with true food. Sometimes the only thing we have to give is crumbs, but properly gathered, even crumbs that fall off the master’s table can be life-sustaining. Sadly, too many of us hold back our crumbs for want of a loaf. We think, “What do I have to give? Is my small portion even worth it?” Yet the act of sharing multiplies what we have, creating strength and nourishment for our souls and those to whom we give.
Speaking of crumbs, do you recall what happened after Jesus and his disciples fed the 5000? Twelve baskets full of leftover bread were collected. Perhaps the most amazing detail to recall was that there was absolutely no planning for that feast. In fact, the only thing they could scrounge up was a young man’s lunch. He had a five fish and a couple of barley loaves. Scripture records that the loaves were given to Jesus and they became sufficient to feed the crowd (Matt. 14: 16-20). That’s right: A few crumbs of the Bread of Life lavished on one another in faith are like gourmet nourishment for the Body. Muscles grow. Weak knees are strengthened. Life is sustained.
The key is giving Jesus: the actual Bread from Heaven. Without this giving and receiving of Christ amongst each other, the church remains undernourished, sometimes so depleted that it more resembles a hospital than a vibrant, life-giving community of faith. What, then, will we answer when we hear that inner voice whisper, calling us to account for how our days are spent? When we consider our place and purpose in the Sunday morning ritual, will we smile quietly with the knowledge and satisfaction of knowing others and being known by them? Will we breathe deeply and rejoice in the simplicity of the love and life we’ve found amidst all the busyness, or will we question with Eliot, “What life have you, if you have not life together? There is not life that is not in community, and no community not lived in praise of GOD.”
Image courtesy of Rakratchada Torsap at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
Stephanie Bennett is a professor of communication and media ecology in South Florida. Dr. Bennett welcomes dialogue at Steffasong@aol.com.
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