Part of me (rightly) thinks that I shouldn’t take a negative stance on this blog all the time and always correct what I perceive as being errors in common thought or practice. That can get annoying, and a bit depressing. So I try to maintain a balance. But some things just need to be fixed.
I think the most-needed fix in Protestant and evangelical thinking at least in America is its poor ecclesiology. I do consider myself Protestant and evangelical, and I’m satisfied with many of the things that these traditions have stood for. But much of the time we fail to grasp what the church is for in the first place.
Here’s just one piece of evidence of this: 80% of Americans claim to be Christian, but less than 50% of them are actually affiliated with a congregation, according to the most recent issue of Christianity Today.
Here in statistical language is the common view that what Christian faith is all about is a personal, one-on-one relationship with God. Who needs church, when you can cultivate that one-on-one relationship on your own with private Bible reading and prayer. If even that, but that’s another issue.
Sadly, even among those Christians who do regularly connect with a congregation, the same idea can be found. It can be seen in the worship leader who encourages everyone to ignore everything and everyone around them as the congregation sings praises to God. “This time is about you and God alone,” he says.
If this is really the case, why would anyone go to church? Probably the main reason for some people, or at least one of the reasons, is that the church gives you what you can’t give yourself–but still, only for the sake of that all-important one-on-one relationship with God. You can’t preach to yourself. You can’t play the guitar and lead yourself in a couple of praise songs. So go where the people are that can give this to you. It is a consumer mentality, and it’s a poisonous way of thinking when it has its way in the church. But that’s another issue.
What is so often overlooked but nonetheless so often emphasized in the Bible is that God’s work in the world has always been about making a people for himself (1 Samuel 12:22). The major reason why this has been ignored? It is probably due to what is often perhaps the central missing piece in the church’s conception of the story of God and the world, which is the story of God and the people of Israel.
The church has a tendency to muffle the Old Testament, to the point that the only things we can hear it saying clearly are those scattered verses that appear to prefigure Christ. Or, if not only this, the Old Testament merely provides a treasure trove of illustrations to pull from when a New Testament lesson needs to be expounded.
In this light, “tragic” probably wouldn’t be too strong of word to describe what has happened: The big story isn’t acknowledged. The record of God’s interactions and purposes for Israel aren’t seen for what it is, which is the very basis for everything that comes to us in the New Testament. The latter part of our Bible is itself the climax and preliminary fulfillment of the story of Israel which at the same time points us onward to future hope in the final fulfillment of God’s work in the world.
To take the people of Israel into proper account, we need to ask what are they for? If God is going to reign on earth (which is the actual point of the Bible’s story, not going to heaven when we die as often supposed … another issue), then this entails having people who worship him and acknowledge him as ruler and lord.
Once humans failed at this original commission (Genesis 3), God took the initiative and started something new with Israel. He would claim Israel for himself, to be his very own people. But, Israel never existed for its own sake. Though Israel would forget, and many Christians today don’t even realize, and the prophets try to remind us, the plan all along was to work through Israel so that all the world would come to know the God who has made himself known among them.
Jews and Gentiles together, worshiping the God of Israel — the God who, as it turns out, is the one God and creator of all. Humanity’s purpose, fulfilled in worship. Though not worship involving mere praise but the worship involving taking part in the original God-given tasks. But, yet another issue.
Being a Christian, then, means not that you know God all by yourself. But that you are fortunate enough to be a part of the people of God that he has been in the process of making, redeeming, and preparing for himself. And it is in this context that we best understand the biblical portrait of salvation.
Salvation is not the reward you get once you’ve set up your own relationship with God. Salvation is indeed a very important part of the story of God and his people, but it is important as the means by which we finally become the redeemed, rescued, and restored people of God that he has intended to have since Genesis 1-2 and didn’t give up on even after Genesis 3.
In other words, salvation is a means to an end, not an end in itself. It is corporate, not just personal. And, it is future, not just present. To be saved is to be finally be a part of God’s renewed humanity in God’s new world, and this we are still waiting for — though it is happening already.
In this light, with the way word “salvation” is so often passed around these days in the church, a dictionary wouldn’t be at fault if it defined it for us as having to do with an individual making a single decision for God so that that individual can go to heaven. This is a faint shadow of the full biblical picture of what it means for God’s entire creation to be rescued. I wish more of our discussions would at least start with Romans 8 than the ones that begin and end with a short-sighted reading of Romans 3. Not to mention, Romans 9-11 would make much more sense and would be seen as much more relevant.
It is the church that is now and will finally be known as the people of God. Though it wouldn’t be popular especially in many evangelical churches to teach that salvation is found only in the church, according to the story of God and his world, that is a perfectly valid point. God has not set up a system by which individuals can find salvation him and only then go about their lives. God has written a story in which he claims a people to be completely his. Think of the Exodus, the first great example of salvation in the Bible that turns out to be paradigmatic for God’s rescue throughout the ages. It was God claiming a people and rescuing them to bring them to himself.
I must say this at this point: YES, of course, God knows us and even requires us to respond to him as individuals. One of the great blessings of the Protestant cause is that it reminded us of this during a time when we sorely needed the reminder. But as things often go, a helpful emphasis becomes an over-emphasis. That God knows us as individuals is no less true though God’s ultimate claim over us is as a people. But yet again, having a purely one-on-one view of oneself and God is detrimental when it comes to understanding what being a Christian is all about.
So, more than half of American Christians lack a connection with a congregation. I hope what little I’ve provided here shows that this is a contradiction in terms. We are in urgent need of a renewal of our understanding of the church because with it comes an understanding of who our God is and what he is up to. About this topic more than most others I can think of, there is much, much more that could and needs to be said.