Wednesday, June 13, 2007

"Hostile to the church, friendly to Jesus Christ"

Scot McKnight posted the following quote today, inviting people to figure out who said it. I confess that I cheated and immediately looked it up. It's from John Stott in Basic Christianity:
“Hostile to the church, friendly to Jesus Christ.” These words describe large numbers of people, especially young people, today. They are opposed to anything which savors of institutionalism. They detest the establishment and its entrenched privileges. And they reject the church — not without some justification — because they regard it as impossibly corrupted by such evils.
Although Stott is a popular name in Christian thought today, I confess that I'm not terribly familiar with him and his work. But this quote is one that is worth reflection.

I believe that the institutional church is a necessary part of the Christian life. Whenever people tell me that they "can be a Christian without going to church," I fear that they don't know what they're talking about. It's not so much that I think that, if a person doesn't go to church, they cannot "be saved," but rather that I think that a person cannot hope to know who Christ is and follow Christ fully on their own, no matter how good they are at reading their Bible. We need each other! Through fellowship with other Christians, we learn more about who God is. (Disclaimer before folks start sending comments: Okay, so we can't ever know anything fully this side of heaven. I still maintain that there is an element of who God is that we cannot hope to learn on our own, that we do learn in fellowship with others.)

On the other hand, Stott (a recently retired Anglican clergyman and author with strong Evangelical ties) acknowledges that there are problems with the institutional church. Too many pastors more concerned with crafting a good sermon than with helping the parishioner that comes to their office in a time of great need. Too many church leaders who talk about the failings of certain church members behind their backs. Too many people who say all the right words about how people should live, but fail miserably at practicing what they preach. None of this is to say that this is equally a problem everywhere, but it's certainly common enough to scare a lot of people off.

Also, for me at least, some of this is personal: while I have a home church that I'm a member of, I haven't really felt it is a good fit for me, and my attempts to find a proper church home have been difficult. In some cases, there are theological issues. In others, it's how people respond when I show up (while it's good to be greeted, I don't want to be smothered). Although I definitely want to contribute to the life of the church community, I also need to protect my time and energy, as the church with which I'm a member has tended to suck all the energy out of me when I've let them (to be fair, they'd be horrified at this, and it's certainly not their intention). I've been part of the evangelical culture for long enough to know that some people will respond that I should just "suck it up" and "be committed," almost no matter what, but I don't believe that this is what God requires of his followers. (And I say this fully aware that God does ask his followers to give our very lives!)

So, how to reconcile the need to be connected with the need for proper self-care is a difficult one. I welcome comments, although I'm not interested in pat mantras. This is a topic for real dialogue.


  1. I don't know... I think you're dealing with two different things here: the Institutional Church and the Corporate Body aren't necessarily synonymous. And while there are loners out there, I have to say I remain convinced that the majority have problems with the particular institutional structures common in the Western Church, rather than the (structured?) fellowship of believers per se.

  2. I'm not at all sure I follow. What do you mean when you say "the Institutional Church and the Corporate Body aren't necessarily synonymous"?

  3. I'm thinking specifically about what you said here: "I believe that the institutional church is a necessary part of the Christian life. ... We need each other! Through fellowship with other Christians, we learn more about who God is."

    There's a bunch of examples of what I'm talking about over at Letters from Leavers. Basically, I think that much of the institutional forms we employ here in the West actually hinder fellowship, accountability, and Spiritual growth. Many people leave because they see this, but "the powers that be" either don't see what all the fuss is about, or have no desire to change. Because of that, those Christians who pick up on this tend to feel like there's no place for them in the current model, and look for fellowship elsewhere.

  4. OK. That's much clearer. I certainly don't suggest that "house" churches aren't really churches, but I'm definitely not keen on giving up on "institutional" churches altogether. There are several reasons for this, most of which aren't worth getting into right now. But I would definitely argue that, for all of their obvious problems, there are things about "institutional" churches that we need which tend to be lacking in "house" churches.



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