Some time ago a dear friend and fellow ministry partner sat down with me and strongly yet lovingly urged me (and my wife) to go back to church. Even though he intimately understood why we left our traditional church, my friend sincerely believes that it is good for us and for the church that we be connected to a local body of believers. Since that time, we have been praying about and occasionally looking for a church that we believe fits the biblical qualifications of what a church is and does.
A variety of “good” reasons have come up why we think that we don’t need to be involved in a church to be the church. In some ways these reasons justify us being “churchless” Christians (Note the equivocation of “church” here. In this post, context should make it evident how “church” is used; primarily “church” means “traditional church.”). Many of our reasons are addressed in Why We Love the Church and, after reading a review by my good friend Louis at Baker Books, I decided to read the book by DeYoung and Kluck. To say the least, I was surprisingly encouraged and challenged.
This book is a candid, balanced, biblically thoughtful, historically informed, and pastorally sensitive corrective to radical Christianity that says “NO!” to traditional church. Honestly, many of my ideas and feelings about traditional church have been not only addressed but adjusted at several points.
At first I was reluctant to begin this book because of past hurts and pains with traditional church. Lord knows we have some deep pains (as you may) with churches. Not 20 pages in and it seemed this would be just an apologetic for “church as usual.” Statements like “I might as well have a basement without a house or a head without a body as despise the wife my Savior loves” (p. 19) made me uneasy, to say the least. After all, isn’t “despise” strong language? Must every gathering of believers be tied to or connected with a traditional church model lest they be accused of “despising” the church?
Thankfully, after moving into Chapter 1 it became apparent that Kevin DeYoung’s analysis (I’ll reserve comments to his chapters only) has most to do with the church being the champion of Gospel proclamation, rather than a mere change agent of society couched in biblical terms like “missional.” His call for the church’s faithfulness to believe, rely on, accurately proclaim and live out, pray for, train up families in, and trust God for the Gospel is hardly a point that I (or any responsible Christian) could argue. DeYoung insists that “proclaiming this message of redemption is the main mission of the church, even more than partnering with God to change the world.” Spot on, Kevin…spot on!! This book does not discourage transformational efforts in our communities and around the globe; only they need to be under the priority of Gospel proclamation. Even though not being in a traditional church for some time, my wife and I have always maintained: If we do not put the central message of Christianity at the heart of every activity, then all other efforts carry little weight at best and certainly have zero eternal value. After finishing this chapter, I had to keep reading.
Chapter 3 speaks to the relevance (or irrelevance) of the church. Church is boring, outdated, too big, abusive, inauthentic (fill in your own nomenclature). DeYoung challenges these charges while admitting some truth to them where appropriate. The audience here is individual churchless Christians asking that we consider what is really being rejected: the church or the faith; one institution (traditional church) for another (homeless shelters); genuine joy in the Lord if it does not share a cynicism toward church; an opportunity for growth by sticking with an imperfect church? Although my wife and I clearly have not nor could ever leave the faith because of an imperfect expression of it, I had to prayerfully consider the other questions.
“The Historical: One Holy Catholic Church,” Chapter 5 is a pointed response to some of the churchless books (which I’ve purposefully not read because my own cynicism has been sufficiently caustic at times) charging the traditional model with “pagan” forms of doing church. One of the net deductions of DeYoung’s research (and that of well-known scholar Ben Witherington, see here, here, here, here, and here) is that whether surrounded by four walls with paid staff or neighborhood gatherings and home Bible studies, we cannot escape pattern and structure. Thus in some sense, churchless Christianity may be cutting off its rebellious nose to spite its radical face. The last section of this chapter, “A Sorry Bunch of Christians,” has some keen psychological insights into how traditional-church-sucks types enjoy apologizing for the sins of the church rather than sharing in the Body’s burden as a family. This is worth considerable reflection and shows a great deal of maturity from the rather young DeYoung pastor of only 32 years.
Chapter 7 hit me the hardest. “The Church of Diminishing Definition” lays down solid responses to “churchless Christianity.” Rather than a “minimalist ecclesiology,” DeYoung argues for a “sharpened understanding” to the distinction between invisible and visible church. Admittedly, the visible church is an imperfect reflection of the invisible church, but “instead of using the invisible-visible distinction as a way to avoid church commitment, church-leavers would see the distinction as an impetus for patience with the [visible] church” (p. 163). As such, “we’d be more like the Reformers who never used the distinction to undermine the place of the organized church, but to emphasize the spiritual essence of God’s gathered people…[which] needs to be made visible.” Other important contributions in this chapter include:
- “Though individual believers are indwelt with the Holy Spirit as temples of God, only the church constitutes the body of Christ.”
- “…to say the church is the people of God is not the same as saying that wherever the people of God are there you have a church.”
- “The church manifests itself in churches. And churches do certain things and are marked by certain characteristics.”
- “The ‘revolutionary’ understanding of the church is right in what it affirms….but wrong in all that it leaves out.”
- “The Bible simply does not teach a leaderless church.”
- “We cannot throw out the pastoral office just because we prefer a ‘flat structure’ or just because some pastors are goons.”
- “The priesthood of all believers does not negate the need for authority structures in the church.” (p. 184, footnote 36)
Perhaps the strongest statement here, from a senior pastor of a mid-sized church no less, and one that clearly shows a striving for objectivity and balance is:
If house churches have good preaching, good leadership, good theology, intentional discipleship, appropriate structures, rich worship, and administer the sacraments and practice church discipline, then I don’t care if they meet in my basement. House churces aren’t the only way to do church, but done right, they are a way (p. 179).
The epilogue, written by DeYoung, basically makes an appeal to the Reformed (and in my estimation thoroughly biblical) principle of total depravity. At first I wondered how he would tie in the first point of Calvinism with ecclesiology, but within a few pages it made perfect sense to me. In a word, the church is full of “sinning saints and sinning sinners.” Consequently, we should keep our idealism in check and recognize that the Body of Christ, though redeemed for all eternity, is a work in progress. In fact, this is a common motif running throughout the entire book and clearly colors the authors’ view on the nature and function of the church. In a candid moment, DeYoung remarks:
This book is not meant to be an apology for nothing but more of the same; rather, it’s a plea for realism. Things are not the worst they’ve ever been. The end of the church in America is not nigh upon us. There are grave failings in the church, in the evangelical church as much as anywhere. We need better preaching, better theology, more love for Jesus, more involvement in our neighborhoods, more evangelism, more crossscultural missions, more generosity, more biblical literacy, less worldliness, less trend-tracing, and better discipleship…But in the midst of our struggles, we need to guard against wild hyperbole. We need to exercise more caution before we pronounce the end of the church as we know it. We need a little more humility before we announce everything must change. And we need more wisdom before we reinvent the church for yet another time–let alone before we pitch her to the crub altogether.
I especially appreciated the balance brought by this book. Where the church has failed, the authors make clear their agreement and lament her failures. Where the church has succeeded, they shine a bright light on the Bride of Christ showing all her radiant beauty. Perhaps one of the most important principles that I came away with was this: It is only as the church of Christ that it can properly discharge her mission for Christ in proclaiming the Gospel. Her identity defines her function.
Thanks to DeYoung and Kluck for sharing their burden for the Bride of Christ.