The above graphic comes from a church down around Dallas, but if you’re a Christian and you use social media, chances are this isn’t the first time you’ve seen that slogan. (It may be the first time you’ve seen it used to advertise a sermon series, though. I have to admit, that amuses me.) I’m not sure how many times I’ve seen it, but it’s been at least twice this week.
In many cases, the people pushing this line clearly mean it in a rabbinic way, much the same as Jesus when he said, “If anyone comes to me and doesn’t hate his entire family, and even his own life, he can’t be my disciple.” Did Jesus really want us to hate people? No, he was using a typical rabbinic figure of speech: the idea is that our love for God should be so great that our love for everyone else, true though it is, looks like hate by comparison. (Given the propensity of people to declare that “If you loved me, you would . . .” and that if you refuse, you must hate them, this is no mere metaphor.) Similarly, in this case, the point isn’t to dismiss the importance of going to church—as noted, the graphic above is for a sermon series at a large church in Dallas—but to emphasize the truth that the church is much bigger than just a place to go on Sunday mornings. To quote from the description of that sermon series, “We are to be the church, we are to live dangerous lives for Christ, allowing ourselves to be God’s vessels for accomplishing extraordinary things.”
Though the intent is fine, this is a deeply problematic slogan, for two reasons. First, a lot of people do take it to mean that it doesn’t matter if you go to church or not as long as you do the right sorts of things. That understanding is deeply unbiblical. For one thing, it violates the clear command of Hebrews 10:
Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together (as is the habit of some) but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
For another, it collapses Christianity right back into works righteousness, and therefore legalism. Church is just about what you do, and if you do the right things, you’re a better Christian than all those people who go to church. The temptation here is that if you don’t go to church, you aren’t submitting yourself to someone else’s understanding of what it means to do the right things, so you can define them to suit yourself. The problem is, if works of the law can’t save us when the law in question is God’s own word, it’s a sure and certain thing that no other good works ever will.
Second, to pit being the church against going to church, even to stress the importance of the former, is self-defeating. To say that being the church (however we may understand that) is more important than going to church is like saying that Easter is more important than Christmas. There are a number of problems with that latter statement, but the most basic is a matter of simple logic: without Christmas, there could have been no Easter. Jesus could only die and rise again for us if he first became one of us. In the same way, we can’t be the church if we don’t go to church. Being the church begins with being part of the church, submitted to its authority and committed to its mission and ministry. It means buying in to the reality of living and working with people whose personalities and opinions aren’t congenial to us, even though they don’t want to do what we want to do in the way in which we want to do it, because they are our brothers and sisters in Christ. If we’re setting the agenda as it pleases us, it doesn’t matter how holy we can make that agenda look, we aren’t being the church.
None of this, of course, is to say that it’s enough merely to go to church, as many churchgoers seem to think. That attitude also represents a works-righteousness form of religion, and one which is self-centered and petty, to boot. The point is not to overcorrect, as we so often do. As Newton’s Third Law of Theology reminds us, for every error there is an equal and opposite error, and we need to try to steer a course in between. As such, I like this image from Rei Lemuel Crizaldo:
I’ll leave him with the last word on the subject:
To be the church, you have to get out of your private sacred spaces, burst your DIY spiritual bubbles, and GO to ‘church.’ That I mean being with other followers of Christ meeting in a specific place and committed to do something in His name. The church is but a community of ‘individual-s’ that inhabits a ‘space’ and yeah -a place.
So, this Sunday, or whatever day possible, DO go to church. 😉