7 Compelling Responses to the Idea that Church is an Easily Substitutable, Extracurricular Group

In Joy Pullman's The Federalist article, "Crossfit Can Never Replace Church." she relates how some Harvard Divinity Students are equating Crossfit--an exercise club--with a religious / church experience, with religious rituals, community, and incorporation of family and children. 

As a sociological analysis, this is interesting, and it indeed fits into other analyses of how church is functioning for huge portions of young people in the US. For instance, Kenda Creasy Dean's work, "Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church" makes the case that one of the reasons that so many young adults leave the church after graduation is that they have not truly been taught Christianity, but Christianity light--something Dean calls "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism" (MTD).

MTD is the idea that (Almost) Christianity basically teaches that the goal of our faith is to be nice people, with little demands or claims on our lives. In this view, the church is but one extra curricular activity among many--easily dropped for more compelling electives when teens leave their Christian sub-culture. The church is replaced with club, sports, school, etc. If this is all the church is, then why could Crossfit not be a church or religious experience?

While as Christians, we intuitively know that this conclusion is wrong, does not a part of us wonder if, in effect, what we or others sometimes experience from church could be experienced elsewhere? After all, you can find a type of community, friends, a place to belong, and cheaper dues elsewhere, right? 

If we think that we could "drop out of church"--as so many do--and not really miss it that much, then are we really "doing church" the right way? The idea that there is "no salvation outside of the church" is not a new one. Note these quotes from Early Church Fathers:

Irenaeus (died A.D. 202):
“[The Church] is the entrance to life; all others are thieves and robbers.” (Against Heresies , Book III)

Origen (died A.D. 254):
“Let no man deceive himself. Outside this house, that is, outside the Church no one is saved.” (In Iesu Nave homiliae )

 Cyprian (died A.D. 258):
“He who has turned his back on the Church of Christ shall not come to the rewards of Christ; he is an alien, a worldling, an enemy. You cannot have God for your Father if you have not the Church for your mother. Our Lord warns us when He says: `he that is not with Me is against Me, and he that gathereth not with Me scattereth.’ Whosoever breaks the peace and harmony of Christ acts against Christ; whoever gathers elsewhere than in the Church scatters the Church of Christ.” 

Of course, biblically, salvation is emphasized as being communal, not mere individualistic. God created and called a people, Israel. Jesus called the disciples to himself, forming a community centered around the cross--he did not just call people to individual salvation. This principle was well illustrated in John's gospel account of Christ's death, in which Jesus told John that his biological mother, Mary, was now John's mother in Christ, and that John was now his mother's son in Christ-(John 19:26-27). The seven ones of Ephesians 4:1f show the common bond that bind all of God's people together--bonds of Spirit, faith, baptism, and more. And the image of the new heaven and new earth in Revelation is that of every nation, tribe, and tongue--a great people together--praising and serving God together (Rev. 5:9; 7:9).

So if the church is an essential part of our salvation, why are so many discarding it--and how do we change this? Here are some thoughts.
  1. As the article points out,  we should recognize that there are some who equate clubs to religion or church who may have never experienced the real thing, so they do not really know what it is that they are trying to describe or replace
  2. We should emphasize the communal aspect of salvation when sharing the gospel, as well as, as much as possible, share Christ communally with others; if we convert people to an individualistic salvation, then it should not be a surprise that people take their salvation and then go on their merry way--they do not know anything different; and the Christian community is part of the appeal and joys found in Christ and salvation and is often attractive to outsiders; that is why, whenever possible, I seek to share in seeker small groups, so that people can experience this Christian community, which helps them come to faith
  3. We should invite non-Christians to experience Christian community through service and worship and the like; this is postmodern culture is highly experiential, and this is often a better way to help people come to believe something than trying to give upfront rational arguments
  4. We should seek to be good examples communally for Christ, honoring the Spirit who is among us, for a bad communal witness can be detrimental to others wanting to be a part
  5. We should have people share stories and testimonials of how being part of a Christian community has blessed their lives

  6. We should teach about the responsibilities that we have as Christians to others in the Christian community, and how our presence or absence affects others
  7. We should emphasize Christ in all things; he is still what is most attractive about our faith; a Christian community forms around Christ, rather than the reverse; if we simply market a particular church, rather than promoting Christ and sharing how he is living among us, people can know and sense that and will be turned off

Why is church/Christian community important, and how can we best convey this truth?

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Comment by diana marley on December 3, 2015 at 2:25pm

If people (and Christians) would lose the idea that the church is a building, instead is a body of believers, maybe people would be open to the idea of how we are committed to each other, not just  to attend a meeting.  By our traditions we have made the laws (love) of God of no effect.  If they see how we serve each other and our community, the lesson would be visable to all.  Not just how pretty our buildings are or how many attend.

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