Who Needs Church?
It was Sunday morning and we were driving through University City in St. Louis County. We were going to church. It was a bright, beautiful morning. We drove past well-groomed yards. Owners of those attractive yards mowed and groomed flower beds. Runners took advantage of the nice temperature. Bikers rode the trails in Forest Park. Walkers exercised dogs. People relaxed on patios, sipping their morning lattes. It struck me how many ways there are to enjoy Sunday morning that don’t involve church. With all the wonderful things a person can do on Sunday morning, who needs church?
Who needs church if there are better ways to spend my time?
Addie Zierman notes in an article that roughly 60 percent of her generation (the Millennial Generation) steps away from Christian community at some point. Her article is compelling to me because she writes as one who stepped away. She describes leaving for several reasons. She admits some were good and others were not so good. She doesn’t write to cast blame, but to add a firsthand account to the conversation.
She wasn’t alone in her exile from the church. She journeyed with others, whom she describes as, “The wounded, the cynic, the angry, the doubting.” Together they traded church for exercise. They encouraged one another as they tackled 5ks, 10ks, and marathons. They joined book discussions and felt strangely free to express their opinions. They slept in. They frequented farmers markets. They found companionship and camaraderie in bars. They went to dinner, concerts, and movies.
None of that surprises me. What did make me think was how Ms. Zierman describes coming back. She writes:
“We came back because we were beginning to believe that it might be here too. In these churches with all of their brokenness, all of their clunky programs and squeaky-clean sermons. We’d figured out that it still existed, and that it can be found in the most imperfect of people.”
I appreciate her point. She and her friends encountered humanity. We’re all imperfect people. Yet we’re still able to connect with one another in ways that are truly significant. You don’t have to be lonely. There are people who accept you, who want to know you, and who will listen to you. That lesson is true, beautiful, and valuable. It generated hope for Addie and her friends that similar connections might be made in the church.
But it’s what I didn’t hear in Addie Zierman’s article that has me pondering. Her account of Sunday mornings outside of the church is exclusively an account of the horizontal. I don’t want to downplay the horizontal, nor the lessons she learned. Nevertheless, I can’t help but wonder what she and her friends think about God. Are their thoughts about church limited primarily to the social dimension? Do they have any hope of encountering God on Sunday morning in church? Or do they have just as much hope of finding Him in all the other places she describes?
I don’t presume to know how Addie or her fellow pilgrims answer those questions. Her article didn’t explore the vertical dimension. Do we think, “who needs church” because the vertical dimension is missing? If there is no unique vertical dimension on Sunday morning, then who needs church? Most of the things she describes are fun and worthwhile. Why not spend Sunday mornings doing those things instead?
Another article I read this week presses the foundational importance of the vertical dimension. In so doing it demonstrates who needs church. James R. Rogers writes,
“My own inclination is that the Church needs to live out the fullness of her sacramental theology. The vertical dimension of baptism and the Supper are foundational: The grace that we receive from Christ by being united with him baptism and the Supper is critically important. The nature of this vertical dimension is worth arguing over.”
The Triune God is at work on Sunday morning as the people of God gather to worship! Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are present and working in ways that compel our participation. Who needs church? Every believer in Jesus. If we meet God on Sunday mornings, and if He works in us there in a special way, then we need church. If He speaks and reshapes us there, then we need church. If God extends grace on Sunday morning as we bow before Him, then church is for everyone who professes the name of Jesus. If these things are true, are the other ways we could spend our time on Sunday morning really better?
Who needs church? Are we missing the vertical dimension? If so, why is that the case? Have I missed the mark?