Coming to faith in Christ is an individual thing, and we rightly stress the personal commitment involved. In our natural desire to see people enter God’s Kingdom, it’s tempting to focus all our energies on outreach. Of course evangelism is vitally important – but the whole object of spreading the gospel is to build the Church. And this is not a collection of individuals, but a community. If we concentrate too hard on the means, we may lose sight of the goal. And if we lose sight of the goal, our service will lack enthusiasm and our witness will lack inspiration.
For most people in this country, ‘church’ means a building – somewhere that you go to for an hour on a Sunday morning (if you feel so inclined and have nothing more interesting to do), something that is in a separate ’bubble’ from normal everyday life. It can be quite difficult to break away from that way of thinking. But in the New Testament, the word that we translate as ‘church’ refers to an assembly of people. So ‘Church’ is not a building or even a worship service, but the local community of Christ’s people – which is itself a manifestation of the universal Church. It isn’t somewhere that we have to go but something we are called to be, seven days a week.
Reading through the book of Acts, one gets the impression that the first believers were caught up in the wonder of it all. Church was exciting; church attracted attention; churches grew and multiplied, seemingly without effort (Acts 2:42-47). But Church today seems to be a pale shadow in comparison. How many of our modern churches could be described as exciting places to be? How many of us are so keen to meet with our fellow-believers on a Sunday morning that we would overcome any and every obstacle to get to the church service? The problem is succinctly described by C S Lewis’ fictional demon, Screwtape: “One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans. All your patient sees is the half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate…” (C S Lewis: The Screwtape Letters)
Many Christians are tempted to give up on the Church altogether. It can easily be criticised for being wobbly on doctrine, morally corrupt, and dangerously complacent. The outside world sees it shrinking in numbers and influence (at least in the West), and increasingly dismisses it as irrelevant. But is this situation actually anything new? The Church has always struggled… against small numbers, against persecution, against slander, against false teachings, against division, against moral corruption, against complacency and against inadequate leadership. As we read the New Testament, we find that the apostles grappled with all these problems in their own generation – and yet that first generation of Christians somehow managed to ‘turn the world upside down’.
For all its faults and failings (and it has many), the Church is enormously valuable to God; we know this, because He paid a great price for us (Acts 20:28). And although we may not realise it, the Church is also immensely important – of cosmic significance, in fact (Ephesians 3:10,11). History is like a great drama, in which the world is the theatre and we are the actors, playing out the story of God’s great plan of redemption in full view of the whole of creation. We have to admit our inadequacy. “God underwent three great humiliations in His efforts to rescue the human race. The first was the incarnation, when He took on the confines of a human body. The second was the cross, when He suffered the ignominy of public execution. The third humiliation is the church. In an awesome act of self-denial, God entrusted His reputation to ordinary people.” (Dorothy L. Sayers) To be a member of the Church is actually a tremendous privilege. We are God’s grand enterprise, to which He has committed everything – up to and including His own Son. And He does not have a ‘plan B’.