I was asked to write to you about why I go to a Reformed Baptist church. The answer is simple: my church does what I need a church to do. Since you are probably told much about what your congregates need, I thought I might take the time to give you some inside information. Here are five things I as a lay congregate need church to do for me, and five things I can do without.
5 Things I Need Church to Do:
1. Preach the Gospel
I need to be told over and over again that I am a sinner, and that Christ died to save sinners. Both parts are crucial. Without an understanding of sin, its weight and its consequences; salvation becomes incoherent and Christianity is simply reduced to a set of arbitrary cultural signifiers. I’ve got my pick of cultural signifiers. I need to understand sin, I need to understand redemption, and I constantly need to be reminded of the reality of both. That is what Church offers exclusively over everything else that I could be doing on Sunday morning.
2. Administer the Sacraments
Once, I needed to be baptized. Now, I need to see other people baptized. I need the Lord’s supper. Often, if it is up to me. It is strange and beautiful that the only picture we have of Christ is the consumption of bread and wine. He must have thought that we needed those things to remember and understand Him. I’m inclined to agree with Christ. In a way I can’t fully explain, I need these things like you wouldn’t believe.
3. Teach me the Bible
The Bible is the most complex book I have ever read. The Bible is not just any book, but it is a book. I need men who are going to approach that Book with the intellectual rigor it deserves. The Lord has richly blessed us with a book that bears the weight of a lifetime of serious study. There are connections to be made, there are genres to be understood, there are symbols to be analyzed, there are cultural contexts to be applied, there are translation issues to be recognized, there are motifs to be united, and most of all there is the over-arching plot of redemption. I need church to help me understand those things.
The first sermon I really heard didn’t come from behind the pulpit; it was the love displayed by God’s people towards one another and towards me. Paradoxically, nothing destroys my pride like the unconditional love of God’s people. This love is not the same as flattery. It’s active and concrete. I need encouragement. I need instruction. Sometimes I may need discipline. I might need a ride to work. God’s people have offered me all of these things. God has offered me all of these things through His people. Never forget that I too need the opportunity to do these things for others.
5. Provide an Opportunity to Sing to God and About God
If I could sum up my advocacy for traditional singing, it would be this: every individual voice becomes so important, that no individual voice is particularly important. People forget themselves and remember Christ, good and bad voices swell together, and nobody is really paying attention to anyone because everybody is paying attention to everyone. Sometimes, I feel like it is not my voice coming out of my mouth at all, but all the congregation’s voice together. That is when I most understand why God commanded us to do this.
5 Things I Don’t Need Church to Do
Christianity is not a “brand.” Don’t treat it like it is. If you act like a salesman, I’m inclined to treat you like one and shop around. Your focus groups are pointing you to the middle of the road, which is a dangerous place to try to build a house. Stop looking for what I want and give me what I need, otherwise I probably won’t get either from your church.
2. Entertain Me
I am really good at entertaining myself. You are probably not as good at it. You don’t know what I want. I can listen to the music I like, watch the movies I like, and play with the toys I like at my house. What I can’t do is preach to myself and shepherd my soul. That’s where you come in. If your goal is my entertainment, send me an itunes giftcard and let me sleep in.
3. Be Just Like Me
I don’t know if I could bear to stay in a congregation that was just like me. Not because I hate myself, but because it would be perverse. Imagine a body made entirely of eyes, or tongues or livers. Gross. I love my congregation because most of them are nothing like me. Christ ministers to me through their experiences, idiosyncrasies, weaknesses, and gifts. I get to call people from a confounding array of backgrounds and circumstances brothers and sisters. Why would I want you to try and guess who I am and imitate it? I know me; we’ve already met. I need a body.
4. Make Me Laugh
The world we live in is a funny place, and God has probably blessed us with a sense of humor to retain our sanity in it. Because of that, sometimes things you say will be funny. We will laugh. However, the message of the gospel is one of eternal seriousness. If I am in danger of mistaking you for a standup comic, I am in danger of mistaking Christ for a joke. I’m serious about my soul, and I need you to be too.
5. Enlist Me as a Soldier in the Culture Wars
Our religion ought to inform our politics as it ought to inform our whole life. There are some political issues we should not be silent on (abortion comes to mind). However, the “culture wars” in America have duped Christians into enlisting in causes that have nothing to do with their religion. Worse still, it makes our religion into simply one aspect of a larger subsuming culture complete with its own schools, dress, music, television shows and diets. It doesn’t take a large jump before those things all become of similar importance, and Christ takes his place in the pantheon between Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck (or Obama and Al Franken, as the case may be). It’s the devil’s old bait-and-switch. Christ didn’t have a problem with the Pharisee’s actual righteousness, he had a problem with assuming that adherence to arbitrary cultural conventions was righteousness. Christianity is not a culture, it is trans-cultural. When we engage in evangelism, it should not be to make people more like us, but rather more like Christ.