Essential Tools

In our journey of understanding better what followers of Jesus should believe about Him and the Christian worldview, we have so far talked about God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, and people. This week we are turning our attention to another essential doctrine that involves getting people together in groups to advance God’s kingdom. This week we are talking about the church. Why does the church matter so much? Read on to find out more. Thanks for reading and sharing.

Essential Tools

I love fresh pineapple. I love fruit in general, but truly fresh pineapple may be one of my favorites. Pineapples, however, are not the easiest fruits to enjoy. It’s not like an apple that you can pick off the tree and go to town on. It’s not even like an orange that, though not something you can just pick up and eat, is usually ready to go after a few seconds of peeling. If you want pineapple, you’re going to need a knife. The treasure is hidden under a thick, spiky shell that is going to require a bit of work to get through to enjoy the literal fruits of your labor. 

Well, while I am sure there are folks who are pineapple cutting pros out there, who would quickly and easily put my pathetic knife skills to shame, I usually wind up making more of a mess when I try cutting them entirely with a knife. What I eventually discovered after years of frustration, though, was that I was pursuing my fruit-slicing adventures without the aid of an essential tool. Once I got my hands on a pineapple slicer/corer, my life was changed forever. Now, all I have to do is cut the top off, and I can get right to work. With my handy-dandy little tool, I can get nearly all of the good pineapple out of the shell while at the same time cutting it into rings and avoiding the core entirely. One cut after finishing gives you a perfect stack of pineapple rings. Seven cuts and you’ve got a whole bowl full of uniformly sweet and delicious pieces of pineapple. 

Have you ever tried to do something without the aid of an essential tool? It makes your life much more difficult than it needs to be. Instead of easing through whatever it is to move on to the next thing, your work winds up taking twice as long, gets bogged down with way more frustration, and the futility factor shoots through the roof. It’s like trying to go somewhere in a car without an engine. Sure, you can probably get it done (as long as you’re mostly just going downhill anyway), but it’s going to be entirely more difficult than it needs to be. 

This morning we are in the second-to-last stop in our teaching series, What We Believe. For the last five weeks, we have been talking through some of the historic, orthodox beliefs about some of the core areas of Christian theology. We have so far covered what Christians believe about all three persons of the Trinity and people. What has prompted this whole journey are the results from the Lifeway and Ligonier Ministry survey, The State of Theology, that were released to the public last fall. This biennial survey seeks to get the thoughts and beliefs of U.S. adults on a number of questions related to Christian theology and ethics. It’s essentially a tool aimed at giving the church a behind-the-scenes peek at how we’re doing on advancing the Christian worldview into the culture around us. 

These most recent results hit us with the rather uncomfortable reality that we’re not doing so well. The culture is steadily leaving behind its Christian worldview foundations and embracing a much more robust pluralism that is influenced by a number of different worldview movements both religious and non-religious. Now, this isn’t all bad news. The truth is that our culture has never been explicitly Christian in spite of its obvious Christian worldview intellectual foundations. As the people around us become more and more clear that they aren’t Chrisitan in their thinking or behaving, that gives us who are concerned about advancing the Gospel a better picture of the real shape and scope of our task. Suffice to say now: It’s a lot bigger than we imagined not all that long ago. The United States is one of the richest, most potentially fertile mission fields in the world. 

What has been a great deal more disturbing though—and what is the primary driver for this teaching series—is what the survey revealed about the beliefs of professed followers of Jesus when it comes to these various matters of core doctrine. What we have seen over and over again on this journey is that professed Jesus followers in our culture are not only thinking as wrongly about these various questions as the world is, but where we are wrong, we tend to be even more confident in our false beliefs than the culture around us is. Now, as I have said more than once on this journey: You are an above-average congregation. I know that your thinking on all of these matters is above board. But given the percentages reflected in these data, you know some folks whose thinking isn’t. 

Well, having talked about God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, and people, this morning we are going to turn our attention to yet another major area of Christian doctrine: the church. There were a couple of statements on the survey relating to the church. One simply inquired as to whether or not a follower of Jesus should be a member of a church. The culture in general pretty overwhelmingly said, “No,” while followers of Jesus offered up an even stronger, “Yes.” It is the next statement, however, that should grab our attention. The statement itself reads like this: “Worshiping alone or with one’s family is a valid replacement for attending church.” Again, the culture around us is fairly convinced that, yes, this is absolutely the case. That shouldn’t surprise us, though, because the culture doesn’t see the point of being a member of a church in the first place. 

Here, though, is where we run into some trouble. When you filter the data for the responses of professed followers of Jesus, you will find a bit more disagreement. That’s good. We should expect to see a pretty healthy dose of disagreement with that idea because it’s not correct. Yet while there are indeed fewer people who agree with the idea among the followers of Jesus surveyed, there aren’t that many fewer. And, kind of like we’ve seen a couple of times along the way, the level of strong agreement among followers of Jesus with the idea that worshiping at home or with family is a valid replacement for attending church is actually higher than the culture at large—39% to 35%. Listen: When the world has a better grasp than the church on the importance of Jesus’ followers engaging regularly and consistently with the body of Christ, and the fact that, no, there isn’t actually a valid replacement for that, we’ve got a problem on our hands. 

Clearly, though, this idea has some legs. So, before we go any further this morning, let’s pause for just a second and reflect together on why. Why do so many people—including so many followers of Jesus—think about actually going to church and conclude, “Meh”? A pretty sizable majority believe it is important to be a member of a church, but on the questions of whether and how actively they should be actually engaging with the church where their membership lies, a majority—including a majority among Jesus’ followers—could take it or leave it. The idea is good, but the practice itself doesn’t matter so much. Again: why? 

Well, for starters, being an active, engaged member of a church is inconvenient. You have to be there even when you don’t want to be. You have to show up when you’re hurt and angry because of someone else in the church and the church is the last place in the world you want to be. You have to give of your time, talent, and treasure when you could use all of those things to accomplish stuff for you a whole lot more effectively. There’s a ton of pressure to pretend like you have everything together even when you don’t because everyone else looks like they have it all together (even though they’re really only just pretending too because they feel the same pressure as you). And, to top it all off, there’s just so much else going on. Sports, vacations, work, festivals, work around the house, running errands, and even the occasional lazy Sunday morning that just feels so good. 

But still, there’s that ought attached to churchgoing. If you are a follower of Jesus, you ought to be there…every time the doors are open no less. Okay, but why? Well, because you should be worshiping regularly. At the very least, you have to keep up appearances so no one else in your community asks uncomfortable questions. Perhaps. But if we’re really only here to worship together, I can worship at home. I’ve had some pretty profound spiritual experiences when I’ve been all by myself. I daresay, some of the most profound spiritual experiences of my life have taken place somewhere other than in a church. If that’s really all going to church is for, then I can get that in other places. In fact, sometimes I think I’d prefer to get that in other places. And if God is interested in my connecting with Him, and if I can really connect with Him in places other than the church, then surely He’s okay with my swapping out engaging with the church from time to time for worshiping alone or with my family. Besides, if God wants me to engage with Him as authentically as I can, then if I’m not really feeling it, I probably shouldn’t go to the church and fake it. It might actually be better for me to substitute private worship for public. 

At least, that’s all how our culture is inclined to think these days. And we could probably get away with this too if it weren’t for the Scriptures. The Scriptures? Where is church membership and being at church every time the doors open found in the Scriptures? This is just pushy pastors pushing preoccupied people to fill the pews so they don’t have to preach to empty rooms, and so there are folks to fill the plates when they’re passed. Well, the joke’s on you. We don’t pass the plates anymore. But, you’re also right. You won’t find the phrase “church membership” in the Scriptures anywhere. You hardly find the word “church,” and where it does appear, it definitely does not mean the same thing we normally think of when we hear the word. So, why make such a big deal about all of this? Because the guys who contributed to the New Testament didn’t have a category for a committed follower of Jesus who was not actively and intentionally engaged on a regular basis with a body of Christ. That’s why they didn’t talk about it. They simply assumed it. They didn’t consider that something that even needed to be discussed. If you were a follower of Jesus, of course you were an active and engaged member of a church. There wasn’t any other kind. 

Yet for all of it’s not being mentioned specifically anywhere, we nonetheless find plenty of evidence that staying engaged with the body of Christ was nonetheless something the various New Testament authors considered to be pretty important. Throughout Luke’s history of the early church in Acts whenever we find believers they are gathered together in the context of a church where they are regularly engaged. The apostle Paul talks frequently about the importance of the body of Christ and the unity of purpose and spirit that should characterize it. One passage that has always stood out as particularly important to me, though, comes from the letter Hebrews. 

Hebrews is one of my absolute favorite letters in the New Testament. In my own devotional times, I spent a little over half of last year working through it verse by verse. Much of that work wound up on my blog. In any event, the writer of Hebrews had basically two purposes in his writing. First, he wanted his audience abundantly clear on the fact that the new covenant we have with God in Jesus is superlatively superior to the old covenant He had with the people of Israel through the Law of Moses. Second, he wanted them to know what to do in light of that (namely, remain faithful to our great, covenant-making God). 

The big application section begins with a big celebration of the faithfulness of the lineup of well-known characters from the Hebrew Scriptures in Hebrews 11. Just before that, as he is wrapping up a long argument about the superiority of the new covenant to the old, the author offers two final thoughts to his readers. One is a warning against falling into deliberate sin and what that says about our status before God. It’s a really uncomfortable passage. He sets this up, however, with a short reflection on how we should respond to the greatness of the new covenant and its mediator, Jesus. If you have a copy of the Scriptures handy this morning, take a look at this with me in Hebrews 10:19. 

The section here starts with one of those great, big “therefores” that usually means you’re going to be reading back through several chapters’ worth of information. In this case, I’m going to ask you to take my word for it that what he has been talking about is the superiority of the new covenant to the old, and specifically the sacrifice of Jesus to cover our sins and allow us access to God to the sacrifices of old. In light of all of that, “Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have boldness to enter the sanctuary [that is, to enter into the presence of God] through the blood of Jesus—he has inaugurated for us a new and living way through the curtain (that is, through his flesh)—and since we have a great high priest over the house of God…” In other words, “In light of everything I’ve been telling you, here’s what you should do.” He’s going to give us three things here. 

First: “…let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed in pure water.” That is, since we can get to God through Jesus, then let’s get to God through Jesus. Perhaps to put that another way: Given that we have this incredible privilege of direct, unmitigated access to God the Father through Jesus, let’s exercise this privilege. This kind of access to God was something every faithful and righteous Jew desired, yet knew he was never going to really experience. Under the old covenant, only a priest ever got to go behind the curtain into what they believed was the presence of God. This only happened once during the year, and only for a short time. And just in case you missed something in all the purification rituals you went through to prepare for that moment (which any one priest would only ever experience once and then only if he won the lottery system they had) and God struck you down on the spot, they tied a rope around your ankle to pull you out so they didn’t have to risk going in after you. Experiencing God’s presence was a rare thing reserved for a select few under the old covenant. In the new covenant, it was available to everyone in Christ. Perhaps to put all of this one other way: If you have the privilege of driving the company Ferrari to and from work, drive the company Ferrari to and from work. 

Here’s the second thing in v. 23: “Let us hold on to the confession of our hope without wavering, since he who promised is faithful.” Now, out of context like this, what the author writes here sounds trite. It’s encouraging sure, but it can comes across more like bumper sticker theology than something deeper or more meaningful than that. When you put it in the context of the rest of the letter, though, you quickly see that the author has spent quite a lot of time building up just how faithful the one who promised us really is. After all, if He was sufficiently committed to our being able to access the presence of God that He was willing to lay His life down for us, I’d say He has earned the benefit of the doubt from us. If you have indeed put your trust in Him to gain access to God, don’t back down from that. He sure won’t. 

There’s one more thing here. If the first two things the author here instructs us to do in light of the incredible access to God we have in Jesus are to get close to God and stay close to God, the third thing here answers the question of how. Look at this with me now in v. 24: “And let us consider one another in order to provoke love and good works, not neglecting to gather together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day approaching.” 

Those first two things directed our attention upward. This last one directs it outward. You see, getting and staying connected to God in Christ is not something any of us can do on our own. On our own we make choices that are self-destructive and which hurt the people around us. We put ourselves first more often than not even if we do that under the guise of putting others first. We separate ourselves from the people around us so that we can hide our sin. None of those things will help us get and stay connected to God in Christ. If we are going to stay connected to God in Christ, we have to stay connected to people. But not just any people will do. We need to stay connected to people who are similarly committed to getting and staying connected to God in Christ. There’s just a bit more here. Not only will not just any group of people do, not just any group of people who are similarly committed to getting and staying connected to God in Christ will do. What we need is the church. When the author exhorts his readers to not neglect gathering together, he’s talking about the church. His point is that we aren’t going to stay properly connected to God in Christ apart from the church. 

The life spent following Jesus—the Christian life—is not a solo venture. It is a team sport. Too many followers of Jesus are confused on this point. They think they can follow Jesus just fine without the church. Now, this doesn’t mean they don’t think they need the church at all. As you saw in the survey, a strong majority of believers recognize the importance of being a member of a church. It’s the whole being regularly and actively engaged with the church that’s where things start to get fuzzy. Listen: For the guys who contributed to the New Testament, being a member of a church and being regularly and actively engaged with the church were simply two different ways of saying the same thing. For them, one without the other doesn’t make any sense. The very idea of having a list of people who are considered “members” but who are never present with the body for worship or fellowship or encouragement or accountability wouldn’t have even registered. They didn’t have a category for that. They would call those people potential prospects. 

To help you get your hearts and minds around this idea, let me borrow a bit on the illustration of the church Paul used with the Corinithian believers. He described the church in terms of a body. A few months ago I watched the Netflix series, Wednesday. It’s about the various high school adventures of Wednesday, the daughter of Gomez and Morticia Addams. One of the main side characters of that series and a beloved member of the Addams’ family was Thing. Remember Thing? He’s just a hand. He’s a remarkably capable and resourceful hand. But he’s not more than a hand. That’s it. In the context of that particular storytelling universe, he makes sense. In real life, that would be disgusting. It would be monstrous. Nobody aspires to be just a hand. And, by the way, Thing couldn’t be just an arm or an ear or even a foot. That just wouldn’t have worked. A body part that is not fully connected to a body will quickly atrophy and die. A body part can only be healthy when it is intimately connected to the body. The same goes for individual parts of Jesus’ body. 

What all of this boils down to is a very simple, yet powerful idea. This is an idea that directly, vigorously contradicts the notion that worshiping alone or with family is a valid replacement for regularly attending church. That idea is this: There’s no substitute for the church. Yes, you can have profound spiritual experiences apart from the church. Yes, you can have worship services that aren’t with your church. You can serve people in Jesus’ name without the church. You can exercise your spiritual gifts apart from the church. But if you are sincerely interested in being a growing, committed follower of Jesus, that won’t happen without the church. There’s no substitute for the church. 

There are certainly going to be occasions when a follower of Jesus can’t gather with the body on a given Sunday morning. If I’m being totally honest, those times should be more infrequent than not, but they are going to happen. Sometimes there will even be seasons when that can’t happen at all. It is incumbent upon the church body to bring the fellowship and worship and encouragement and accountability the church provides to their folks in those seasons. But the notion that anything—even personal or family worship times—could ever be a replacement for regularly attending church, let alone a valid one, is not one that has any bearing in reality. There’s no substitute for the church. 

And listen: I know most of you don’t need to hear any of this yourselves. After all: you’re here. Given these percentages, though, I can almost guarantee you that you know somebody who needs the reminder. You may have family members who need to hear it. They probably won’t like to hear it. They’ll either ignore you or angrily accuse you of nagging them about it. And you certainly don’t want to go down that path. But you also can’t let them develop the idea that there’s any kind of a valid substitute for regularly and actively engaging with the body of Christ. There’s no substitute for the church. And if we are really going to live that as faithfully as the writer of Hebrews here seems to think we should, that’s going to mean making some sacrifices. It will mean saying no to things you would otherwise be doing. It will mean missing opportunities that seem golden. It may even mean angering or letting down friends and family so that you can keep the commitment that matters most. This is because there’s just no substitute for the church. 

Let’s wrap up this morning by getting really practical, and then we’ll get out of here. If being regularly and intentionally and actively engaged in a body of Christ is so important, how can we be sure we are doing it? How can we avoid falling out of regular fellowship with the church? I’m glad you asked. Here are five practical things you can begin pursuing today. Start by making sure you are there more often than you aren’t when gatherings are held. If the church has something going on, be there. Next, get on some sort of a service team or group. People who are invested have some skin in the game. Until you do, you won’t get invested or connected. Third, explore what your spiritual gifts are and make sure you are putting them to work for the building up of the body in love. God designed you in a specific way to benefit the church. Learn what that is, and pursue that path with diligence. Fourth, be an active part of a smaller group than the worship gathering on an equally regular basis. If you aren’t feeling connected and you aren’t actively engaging in all the opportunities to connect the church offers, that’s more of a you problem than a church problem. Finally, be financially invested in the church through your practice of sacrificial generosity. This, of course, cannot be considered a substitute for actually engaging with the church, but it is a great way to deepen your connection. 

There is no substitute for the church. Acting like there is is like pinching off your air hose while diving and then wondering why you can’t breathe. If you are a follower of Jesus, you need to stay engaged. There’s no substitute for the church. Your becoming who Jesus made you to be and the church’s advancing the Gospel effectively are at stake. There’s no substitute for the church. There’s simply no other way to get and stay connected to Jesus. There’s no substitute for the church. 

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