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We believe that
since this holy assembly and congregation
is the gathering of those who are saved
and there is no salvation apart from it,
people ought not to withdraw from it,
content to be by themselves,
regardless of their status or condition.
                                                                                                 The Belgic Confession, Article 28

 

“There is no salvation outside the church.” Allow me a few caveats and nuances, and I’ll gladly affirm this. Of course not in a way that causes salvation to be derived from church membership. As if the Lamb’s Book of Life is equivalent to those who have that little asterisk indicating “confessing member” by their name in the congregation’s photo-directory. Rather, the connection flows somewhat the other direction. Membership in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church derives from salvation. Salvation is inherently social. It happens as part of a group, in community.

You may think that as a pastor, I have a vested interest in this. I have devoted my life in this blessed and hulking wreckage we call the church. Now I want to be sure that others must suffer the same pleasure. Perhaps.

People post on Facebook, “Going to church no more makes you a Christian than being in a garage makes you a car.” I sigh.

When I think about why people are not involved in church, my mind doesn’t first go to “because of its sullied reputation” or “boring worship.” Nor because people wonder “is Jesus relevant today?” or “can I believe when there is so much pain and tragedy?” Instead, I think it has something to do with the fact that church requires constancy and tenacity. Church can be like a glacier, grinding imperceptibly forward. In our fast-paced, stretched-thin world, the grind is just hard to bear. Community is strenuous, and difficult to sustain.

Yet at times, I want to claim this glacier-like commitment, and the complicated, intertwined, Trinity-reflecting relationships, and the real-world friction and collisions, the incarnational tangibility of the church—all of this is where we are really most formed as followers of Jesus. We often derisively label this all “institutional” or “inward” or “maintenance,” but we do so at our own risk. The church may be about many noble activities, from justice to evangelism, mission-trips to musicals, but it is the constancy and tenacity of simply holding together community that both takes a toll and shapes our soul.

Recently though, I’ve had three different encounters that have caused me to wonder about my focus on church. Three different sets of friends that I’ve wanted to grant an exemption to my “go to church/be the church” insistence.

Tom is an older man. Gifted, intelligent, and a follower of Jesus. My dime-store psychologist credentials speculate that he struggles with mental illness. In the rough and tumble life of the church, he is quickly bruised. He often feels judged or neglected. Then, when he is at the top of his game, he can be irritatingly demanding, overflowing with unrealistic expectations, disappointed by the lack of commitment in others. When I ask him about church, he responds, “I just don’t think I’m cut out for church.” I want to give him a pass.

David and Kim know about constancy and tenacity. For twenty years, they were pillars of their church, holding it together as their children grew up. Finally, that gasping, tiny church breathed its last. Now as empty nesters, Dave and Kim tell me they’re “on sabbatical” from church. Do they still love the Lord? Of course. But they talk about needing to rest and recover, to be free, not wanting to be the hub of the wheel again. That doesn’t sound unreasonable to me.

Cole and Lauren are young professionals living downtown in a smaller city. They work hard. Their loft is in close proximity to several of the sorts of church they say they’re disposed toward—progressive, open-and-affirming. Their fear? They’re young. They’ll be pounced on if ever they dare to darken the door, overwhelmed by expectations. Young-people! Fresh meat! Strong workers! Signs of the future! They say they can’t handle all that. They wish they could just observe, partake from comfortable distance, at least for a while. What do you say?

People ought not to withdraw from the church, content to be by themselves, regardless of their status or condition.” Hmmm. Help me.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

4 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    What I face every day. Thanks, S V-M. If you can help Steve you can help me too.

  • Al Janssen says:

    This reminds me of Gerhard Lohfink's book, "Does God Need the Church?" (The title of the Dutch version is "Is Church Necessary?" — which is what first drew my attention). It's a very good book. I'm also reading James K. A. Smith's book on worship, "Imagining the Kingdom," which talks about habitus. There is something in the practice of churchgoing.

    And how can I avoid Van Ruler's masterful "Waarom zou ik naar de kerk gaan?" "Why should I go to church"? which, unfortunately, is not in English (yet).

  • Paul Janssen says:

    Then there is the widow who, having grown up in the church, and having sat in the same pew for 54 years with her husband, can no longer come, at least for now, because of the overwhelming sadness that prevents her from what she believes is true worship.

  • Sarina Moore says:

    I'm not sure that I have any help to offer, other than to say that "this blessed and hulking wreckage" is a phrase I will repeat to myself for the next decade or so. Muttering it under my breath as I teach, as I drive the carpool, as I slide into church at the last possible second before the sermon begins: a wreckage–aren't we all?–awaiting restoration.

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