It’s 10:15am on a typical Sunday in a typical American evangelical church. The service starts at 10:30. You’re visiting for the first time. What’s on your mind as you look for a seat in the main auditorium? What are you expecting as you arrive? How do you hope to be treated? What do you hope to be treated to? What are you hoping to see and hear and feel?
For some it might be a fresh encounter with the living God. For others, it’s a dynamic worship experience in song—edgy, but not over the line. Many are hoping for a come-as-you-are atmosphere that’s casual but not crass, personable but not pushy, inquisitive but not invasive. Some would love to find a community of other believers like themselves, at their own stage in life . . . but not at the expense of diversity, of course. Many will want a message that’s just biblical enough to count as a sermon, but so relatable that it feels like a walk on the beach, and brief enough to beat the lunch rush. What about you? What do you expect and hope for when you attend church?
Looking for iChurch
The therapeutic, technological, and consumer revolutions have colluded to convince us that church should revolve around . . . well . . . me. Chances are, no matter how well-taught or well-intentioned we may be, our expectations for a church have been shaped at least in part by a consumer culture and the therapeutic ethos. It’s an iWorld. The “i” in “iphone” has always stood for “internet,” but the genius of the vowel is in its polyvalence. Re-purposing it as the pronoun “I” or an abbreviation for ‘individual’ has proven irresistible. We keep it lower case, of course, because it looks more innocent that way. But that hasn’t stopped us from looking for iChurch—church that facilitates how I already live; a church I can have in my pocket. The air we breathe compromises our lungs with hazy hopes of finding a local church that combines the shopping mall, the rock concert, the movie theater, the radio station, the coffee shop, the rom com, and the self-esteem boost, into a one-stop shop. If only the church had a drive-thru . . .
Maybe that’s painting us all with too broad a brush. There are lots of healthy churches and lots of healthy Christians visiting and joining them. Still, the self-deifying spirit of our age militates against the Spirit who exhaled the Scriptures and breathes after the glory of God in the churches. Contrary to our consumer’s intuition, the church is not about meeting our iNeeds as we perceive them. It’s about something far bigger . . . and better! God calls the church “The people whom I formed for myself that they might declare my praise,” and those “whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made” (Is 43:21, 7).
We do not create the church for ourselves. God created the church for Himself. We don’t create ourselves for our own praise. God creates us for His praise (1 Pet 2:5, 9). Yes, He is our God; and that’s just it—He is our God.
A Breath of Fresh Air
Evangelicals need a breath of fresh air, and that may smell funny to us if we’re used to the smog. But the more we make of Christ in our churches, and the less we make of self, the more we find our contentment in God’s glory, our meaning in His significance. Jesus said in John 13:34, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Jesus does not want them to know that we are hipster cool, or tech savvy, or culturally adept, or surprisingly tolerant, or that we are even more humanitarian than everyone else. What He wants them to know—what they need to know—is the Jesus of the Bible. We follow Him.
Paul said in Eph 3:10 that God’s design is that “through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” We’re supposed to be a display of God’s wisdom, not our own. What a vision worth living for! But when the church is bent on impressing the world by aping its franchised model and niche marketing, God’s wisdom is obscured, not displayed. Besides, the more the church looks and sounds like iCulture, the less iCulture needs to come to church. What’s the world going to learn from the church if all the church is doing is learning from the world? Sure, all truth is God’s truth; but not all wisdom is God’s wisdom (Isa 55:10–11; 1Cor 2:1–16).
Sadly, churches that mimic the world’s styles (consumerism, entertainment, self-esteem) can easily find themselves mired in the world’s problems. But is this really that surprising? iChurch sells you a commodified Christ—accessorized to your tastes—at a deep discount, usually by a pretty convincing salesman. But you get what you pay for. Repentance is swapped out for an appearance of godliness without the power. Solid faith is exchanged for a subjective feeling. Discipleship gives way to decadence. Top-grain accountability is replaced with a threadbare anonymity. Relationship is reduced to recreation. And Christ is made the head of a country club. But hey, at least you’re going to church and reaching people . . . right?
The Way It’s Supposed to Be
Tragically, many of those now disillusioned with the failings of iChurch are quitting church altogether or (just as tragic) looking for another iChurch where they will be disillusioned all over again because they’ve never been taught to look for anything else. iChurch is all they know to want. This is not the way it’s supposed to be.
But then, how is it supposed to be? Ephesians 4:11–13, 15–16 says this about Christ’s design for the church:
He gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ . . . . Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
There’s more to church than meets the “i.” The purpose of the church—and your purpose in the local church—is to reflect the glory of Christ back to the Father for His pleasure and out to all creation so that the earth will be filled with His glory as the waters cover the sea. That’s what God is committed to (Hab 2:14). The church serves that glorious mission by preaching His word (2 Tim 3:16–4:2), exalting Christ (Acts 2:36, 42), reading and singing and praying and obeying his word together (1 Tim 4:13; Col 3:16; Eph 5:19; Matt 6:9–13; Acts 2:42; 6:4), equipping the saints for good works (2 Tim 2:2; Ti 3:8), making disciples (Mt 28:18–20), calling the nations to repentance and faith in Christ (Acts 2:36; 17:30), helping each other grow in Christ-like character together (2 Pet 1:3–11), warning and exhorting each other (Heb 3:12–14), disciplining members who sin without repentance (1 Cor 5:1–13), and speaking the truth of Scripture to each other so that we grow up together into the maturity of Christ as His body (1 Cor 12:27).
But who exactly are we supposed to do all this stuff with? A commitment to everyone in general is a commitment to no one in particular. As profound as it sounds to talk a big game about the universal church, it means far more, and takes far more, to commit to a local church. We make these general commitments specific and meaningful by committing to do the one-anothers of Scripture primarily (but not exclusively) with the concrete “others” in our own local congregation. We commit to believing biblical doctrine (explained in a statement of faith), and we commit to living in a biblical way (specified in a church covenant)—together, with one congregation in particular. Love commits. And local church membership is how we make those loving commitments concrete, visible, and actualized. Committed membership shows us who we’re supposed to know, and who is supposed to know us. The local church is a household of faith (1 Tim 3:15), complete with brothers and sisters, moms and dads (1Tim 5:1–2). What kind of dad would I be if I didn’t know which neighborhood kids belonged at my table come supper time, or which ones should be sleeping under my roof every night? What kind of son would I be if I showed no respect or commitment to my own parents?
Christian, quit looking for iChurch. Instead of attuning your ears to soothing preaching and exciting music, hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches (Rev 3:22). That is, after all, what you want to hear . . . isn’t it?