Question 1: Why should I go to church when Christians overwhelmingly went for Donald Trump in this past election? Why should I care about being connected to other Christians when they are so proud, xenophobic, homophobic, self-centered, uninformed about basic facts, and opposed to helping the poor?
Because God didn’t include a clause about any of those things in the Bible.
Question 2: That’s a dumb answer.
That’s not a question. This is a catechism. Try asking a question. Or a series of questions!
Question 3: Okay, one by one. Why should I go to Church?
Because the Bible commands us to worship God corporately. If you are a Christian, you are a member of the Body of Christ whether you like it or not. The corporate gathering of believers allows us who believe in Christ to hear the Scriptures proclaimed, fellowship, celebrate the Lord’s Supper, pray, and sing.
Question 4: But I can worship God and study the Bible in the privacy of my own home, fellowship with other people, and serve the poor on my own. Why do I need to go to church for any of those things?
Because not going to Church at all cuts you off from the accountability, fellowship, discipline, teaching, and grace that you can only receive there. The vast majority of people are very bad at worshiping God and studying the Bible on their own. They are often prone to coming up with half-cocked answers to questions without thinking to consult people smarter than them that already wrestled with these issues a long time ago. Going to Church doesn’t necessarily stop people from believing goofy things, but it certainly helps cordon off some of the craziness.
You might think that the rituals and forms of liturgy that are used in church are just dead. It’s true! But, as Frederick von Hugel (via Eugene Peterson) says, the bark on the tree is dead. But the dead bark protects the growing life inside.
Left to their own devices, people will serve the poor when it is convenient to them with whatever time or money they have left over. The Church’s care for the poor is rooted in our understanding of what Christ has done for us and tied to our eschatological vision for God’s Kingdom, which necessarily demands far more of us.
Similarly, people will gladly fellowship with other people like them. If you don’t go to church to avoid dealing with people you don’t like or don’t get along with, you will generally end up hanging out with people who reinforce all of your in-group prejudices. If you’re rich, you’ll never have any contact with poor people unless you’re in a position of power over them. If you’re not rich, you’ll still cut yourself off from people you have a hard time dealing with. Church is one of the few places where your privilege has a chance of being erased when you’re sitting next to someone who has far less privilege than you.
Question 5: Doesn’t the Church do a terrible job of all these things?
That’s a leading question, but this is a catechism– and it’s one of the more pressing questions today– so we’d better answer it. Unfortunately the answer is “yes”. Israel– the people of God who prefigure the Church– are constantly unfaithful to God’s commands and are specifically called out on numerous occasions for ignoring the plight of the poor among them. In the New Testament, the Church is also rebuked for similar behaviors.
Throughout history, the Church has not had a stellar record, either. Time and time again, Christians have found many ways to theologically justify indifference towards the poor or simplistically ascribe poverty to moral failures committed by poor people.
Question 6: You’re really not making the case here. Wait! Has to be phrased in the form of question… um. If Christians should help the poor, why don’t they do it more?
Christians don’t want to help the poor because Christians are sinful humans. Finding excuses not to help people is normal human behavior. Sin finds ways to help us justify to ourselves that people don’t deserve help and blinds us to the systemic injustices that create and reinforce structures of poverty. Every Christian is being transformed into a new person by the work of the Holy Spirit and every church is full of Christians in that process; some are not quite as far along in that process.
A distinction has to be made, though between “not wanting to help the poor” and “disagreeing on how to help the poor.” Serious, thoughtful Christians can disagree on the role of the government in alleviating poverty and should discuss this in detail instead of slinging out-of-context verses at each other. There are Christians who hide behind theological smokescreens to justify indifference, but there are also Christians who will blindly sign up for whatever political agenda is trendy, regardless of whether or not it actually helps the poor.
Furthermore, church history also points us to the undeniable fact that churches and Christians have been instrumental in fighting poverty since the inception of the Church and continue to give billions of dollars every year to work that meets basic needs at home and around the world. It isn’t always done with the best intentions or best practices, but millions of people in need find assistance through Christian churches and programs. Christians have also been at the forefront of virtually every major anti-poverty movement in the West (except for Marxism-Communism) advocating for structural change of one sort or another.
In short, if you are concerned about social justice, it makes no sense for you to disconnect yourself from the one of the most important institutions that has given the poor and oppressed a foundation for social solidarity.
Question 7: Isn’t it disingenuous for conservative, evangelical Christians to claim all of those benefits across theological traditions– especially when their tradition is chock-full of some of the worst examples?
Are you saying that you’ve actually been complaining about conservative, evangelical Christians this whole time?
Question 8: So what if I have? Aren’t I supposed to be the one asking the questions?
You got me. Yes, it is disingenuous for conservative, evangelical Christians who try to claim the successes of all Christendom and then play the no-true-Scotsman card when they’re pressed on the historic injustices their theological and historical forebears have been implicitly or explicitly supported. They also do it the other way around by trash-talking “liberal” theologians and then trying to claim Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as modern heroes.
However, we are all members of one body, so we have to take the successes and failures all together. The eye may think the hand is totally unwoke and the hand may think the eye is a porridge-for-brains liberal squish, but because we are all covered in the blood of Christ, we cannot divorce ourselves from one another no matter how much we may want to. There are parts of the Body given over to serious idolatry and self-deceptive rejection of the Bible’s teaching, but we can’t reckon with those sins unless we are willing to relate to one another as brothers and sisters. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to be nice, but it does mean that there’s no way forward without acknowledging that we’re part of one Body. And participating in that body.
Question 9: I suppose you’d say the same thing about racism, xenophobia, and homophobia, huh?
Well, it’s worse there. There are some unique ways in which churches and Christians reinforced (and continue to reinforce) racism in America or the ways in which white, European Christianity played a role in numerous abuses throughout history. That legacy has to be acknowledged, apologized for, and meaningfully addressed in a way that secures justice where there is injustice. However, the Scriptures contain rich resources for dealing with these issues and there are plenty of churches that are working for justice and reconciliation.
There have been many mistakes, missteps, and blatant sins along the way in this area and others. The accountability that Christians are supposed to provide one another sometimes backfires– to horrific effects. When individual sin is magnified by institutional power, it multiplies the number of people wounded (or even killed) by the Church. That sinfulness and tendency to hurt others exists inside all of us, though– we have to look at Jerry Falwell, Jr. and say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” If you’re going to avoid church because you think you’re too good for it and can keep yourself from hurting people on your own, you’re kidding yourself.
The normative pattern of human behavior throughout history is much more like the places that refugees and immigrants are fleeing from than a nation that can even debate how to help them. From the earliest days of the Church until now, churches have intentionally crossed cultural boundaries to proclaim the Gospel and led the way in many movements against racial or ethnic discrimination. Again, countless churches and Christian organizations provide all sorts of necessary services to refugees and immigrants all over the world. Here, the institutions associated with the Church multiply and strengthen the capacity to love.
Question 10: Are you telling me that I should go to one of those squishy liberal churches I was taught to fear growing up?
If that’s where you can worship God and love others, yes. They certainly need more people! Their theological drift has caused them plenty of headaches over the years, but we wouldn’t be having this conversation if conservative churches’ problems with praxis weren’t causing heartaches. There are many faithful, orthodox churches to the left of where you grew up, and (just like many generous, thoughtful conservative churches) they have often been doing the sorts of things you say you wish the church would do for decades.
There is, of course, a difference between an amorphous blob of heretics and a confessing church that ordains women and mostly votes for Democrats. Your high school Worldview classes may not have been able to parse this difference, but it’s important. Stick to the living Body, don’t attach yourself to a plastic mannequin. If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, you can sleep in on Sunday mornings.
Question 11: Speaking of heartaches, what about homophobia in the Church?
Just like with race, churches and Christians have added more grief to LGBT people who were (and are) already struggling with heavy burdens. There’s no excuses here: Even the most eloquent gay voices for a traditional Christian view of sexuality will say that they’ve been hurt by other Christians because of their sexual orientation. There are a lot of churches that are starting to find their way, but it’s an uphill battle where pastoral care usually takes a backseat to culture-war skirmishes.
Question 12: Do you really expect anyone to come to church when you’ve admitted that Christians have screwed up left and right and are still way off the mark in a lot of ways?
I do. And not just for the reasons above. Every haughty pronouncement you’ve ever seen coming from an old white man on television, every coded (or explicit) instance of racism you’ve witnessed, every idiot who talks about loving Jesus in their profile and hating Muslims on their timeline, every ugly display of privilege unchecked– it’s all real, it’s all there, and it’s all evil.
The problem is that it’s in your heart, too. It may take a different form or it may be in check for now. But you carry the same malignant virus of evil that every human being is born with and must face; there is no cure but the blood of Jesus and the church is the most critical place to get our dose. The wrestling you experience in your own heart with sin is reflected in the corporate wrestling of the Church against the powers and principalities of every era.
Time and time again, God’s people have given themselves over to idolatry and prostituted their worship to a strongman because they were afraid. Many prominent American evangelicals have played the whore with Trump and God has noticed. He’ll do something. However, in a slightly different set of circumstances, most people would choose a Trump-esque figure if he played to the right fears and prejudices. Even you.
Church is where we do that corporate wrestling, where we are drawn into God’s presence and worship Him in the rituals that form us and administer His grace to us. Church is how we hold one another accountable for our sins and give others the opportunity to illuminate the idols in our lives. It is guaranteed to be painful, like surgery and strong medicine in the Body. But there is no other way.