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When I was a kid, I had an uncle named Randy who joined our extended family as he married one of my aunts. Randy was a towering, immense man who wore his long, wispy black hair in a ponytail that snaked around one shoulder. Over the years he was around, when we’d take a family photo at Thanksgiving or Christmas, he’d always be there in the back-center of the group, hulking over everyone else.

After a while, Randy and my aunt divorced. In addition to all the difficulties of ending a marriage, there was an additional dilemma: what to do with these years of family photos? In all of them, Randy was inescapably there: back-center, in every last one. This, after all, was long before the days of Photoshop, which now enables us to digitally erase an inconvenient presence from a picture with a few swipes of the computer mouse and the click of a button.

My grandmother, ever a resourceful woman, came up with a practical solution. For the weddings and family reunions in the coming years, we’d see her pictures of our family at those holiday gatherings — with a big, round hole right in the middle where Randy used to be. Grandma just took some kitchen shears to those photos and scissored him right out.

Not Jared’s actual family!

Ever since, our family has literally had a Randy-shaped hole in it.

I think often about those old Randy-less pictures as I think about the morass of the Church in the West.

It’s not a secret that, in the wake of our various and sundry scandals over sex, money, and power, the Church has often not much resembled the One whose name we bear. And then there are the various disagreements in which many parts of the Church are embroiled.

Whether you’re a conservative worried about your congregation or denomination capitulating to culture, or a progressive frustrated that your ecclesial fellowship isn’t as inclusive as you believe they should be, the “uncle Randy solution” can start to feel awfully tempting. Why not take the proverbial scissors to the whole thing, and just cut it out of your life?

The “uncle Randy solution” entices both church leaders and ordinary attendees. At my current denomination’s national gathering, for example, I recently listened to the keynote speaker — a globally recognized church leader and missional strategist — confess feeling this same disillusionment.

Back at my own congregation, I talked just a bit ago with a new attendee, sorting through their agnosticism and spiritual longings, who remarked to me, “You know, I’m actually on board with the God-and-Jesus stuff we say in the Creed each week. It’s the line about the Church I can’t get behind. I just can’t say, ‘I believe in the Church’!”

Here’s the problem, though. After enough of the “Uncle Randy Solution,” our lives start to have a lot of holes. And not many other people.

No Private Salvation

In one of his lectures, the global church leader Lesslie Newbigin observed that, alone among the founding figures of the world’s major faiths, Jesus of Nazareth didn’t leave behind a book.

Jesus left behind a community.

This means that, since the very first Easter morning, the way that God saw fit to bring the good news of the risen Christ to a blighted world was through people.

People are God’s strange way of working in the world.

God came near us and disclosed himself to us by becoming a Person.

Jesus commissioned the news of grace to be carried to the corners of the earth by means of a community of people (and not an especially impressive one, at that).

Ivy League institutions have spent millions and millions of dollars, over decades and decades, to learn what we already all intuitively know: we absolutely need community. We’re neurologically hard-wired for relationality.

On our little branch of the Christian family tree, we Reformed Christians are especially aware that the agenda of our Creator, in coming among us in Christ, isn’t just to rescue isolated individuals, but to repair the fabric of our torn relationships with eachother and indeed to mend the whole creation. God means to reunite us to himself — and also to each other. To shape a “new humanity” — made up, not just of the people I like and agree with, but all the other sinners God is gracing and rescuing.

And so, getting involved with God — because of what God is like, and what we are like — means being involved with others. Newbigin wisely notices this connection. In his Gospel in a Pluralist Society, he addresses the question of why one needs to get involved with the inescapably muddled and imperfect people in the Church to encounter God. Newbigin notes that, in the logic of the Christian Gospel,

There is, there can be, no private salvation, no salvation which does not involve us with one another… God’s saving revelation does not come to us straight down from above- through the skylight, as we might say. In order to receive God’s saving revelation we have to open the door to the neighbor whom he sends…

In other words, if I want to open my life to experience God, I’ve got to open my door to the family of God.

I Believe in the Church

The “Uncle Randy solution” can feel alluring…

But: I need the voices of other actual people to announce to me the Jesus-story of God’s deliverance.

It takes another flesh-and-blood person to splash the baptismal water into my life, and those of my children; to promise us, “For you, Jesus Christ came into the world; for you he lived, for you he died, and for you he conquered death…” To pronounce that all of us marked by the waters of baptism are claimed by God’s promise and made his own.

I need the presence of another embodied soul to consecrate bread and wine, and offer it to me for me to partake of the holy mysteries of Christ’s body and blood at the Table.

And it takes other honest-to-goodness people to do all the rest of what makes up life in company with God’s family, too: assuring me of grace when I’m sure I’ve screwed up one too many times. Offering me wisdom when I’m in danger of doing something foolish. Showing up with wine or whiskey or a casserole on the best days, when there’s something to celebrate. And on the worst days, when there’s a tragedy to mourn. Disagreeing with me sharply, and then sitting down at table together. Helping me to notice my blind spots and question my assumptions. And all the innumerable other ways I need God’s people to help me learn the ropes of life with the Trinity.

There’s no app for that stuff.

That’s why, despite it all, I’ll happily stand to my feet this Sunday, with God’s people spanning the globe, even with all our hypocrisy, compromise, and disloyalty, clear my throat, and declare: “I believe in the Church.”

Jared Ayers

Jared Ayers serves as the senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church in North Palm Beach, Florida. Prior to this, he founded and served as the senior pastor of Liberti Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He is a graduate of Western Theological Seminary & the Newbigin House of Studies. Jared and his wife Monica have been married for 16 years, and have been graced with two sons and a daughter.


  • RZ says:

    Many profound snippets here, Jared. I am especially fixated on one. If anyone earned the right to author and edit his own book it was Jesus. It is a beautiful word picture that God is so deeply relational that God’s story had to be told by us. God self- restrains so we can grow
    closer. If God is so committed to interconnectedness, who are we to assume that we creatures are not?

  • Thank you for this writing. It makes me wonder how many times I’ve used the scissor instead of the glue. Thank you for this Lenten gift.

  • Mary Kok says:

    I’ve been thinking all morning about Micah 6:8, and how to have it continuously in front of me prevents me from “cutting out” other people or groups. If I apply it to most encounters, I think as a church person, people will be drawn to the church rather than feel alienated from it.

  • June says:

    Learning the ropes of life within the Trinity. What a sweet fellowship to consider as we plod along together. Thank you for all of this.

  • Steven Tryon says:

    HC Q&A 54 has long been a favorite and a consolation.

    Q. What do you believe
    concerning “the holy catholic church”?

    A. I believe that the Son of God
    through his Spirit and Word,
    out of the entire human race,
    from the beginning of the world to its end,
    gathers, protects, and preserves for himself
    a community chosen for eternal life
    and united in true faith.

    And of this community I am and always will be
    a living member.

  • Lynn Japinga says:

    I facilitated a classis clergy retreat earlier this week and the best part was the connections that people made. Someone noted that it would be hard to view other clergy as adversaries in classis meetings, now that they had shared their stories and gotten to know each other a bit more deeply.

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