As a member of a church's staff, I'm regularly skimming articles, blogs, and sometimes whole books on the general category of church. A majority of the opinions expressed center on a common idea: how to "do church well." No matter the end, whether for the purpose of faithfulness or attendance, church culture today is obsessed with the right models, the right nomenclature, the right strategies, etc. And, perhaps more often than not, the ideas that are produced and circulated are reactionary to the growing pushback against the church.
The ever-popular sentiment in today's society goes something like this: I'm cool with Jesus. I believe in him—believe that he was real and that he died on my behalf. I even try my best to obey his teachings. I'm just not okay with the church. The reasons offered for this discontent usually fall into some version of these reasons: It's old-fashioned or It's full of hypocrites or It's too "institutional." People are less and less interested in local church and more and more interested in wilderness Christianity, where their Bible and the mountains are all they really need to experience God.
AN IMPORTANT CAVEAT
Of course, this pushback, while misplaced, is understandable. The church's track record has not always been spick and span. Its resumé hasn't always been one that we'd want to turn in. The Crusades were not mere hiccups. There are blemishes that the church won't be rid of on this side of glory. Daily, there are those affiliated with the church that cause pain and injustice. The church is full of sinners.
But, of course it is.
The church is full of sinners because it's full of people! People are hypocrites. People cause pain. People are messy. When Jesus promised to build and sustain his church (Matt. 16:18), he didn't intend to create a shiny, spotless sub-culture, but a family of people—real people—dedicated to a common mission. The church isn't founded on or upheld by our ability to be good. It's founded on and upheld by Jesus' ability to be perfect. It's not resting on our shoulders, but on his. And it's a burden that he gladly bears.
"DEFINE THE RELATIONSHIP"
The thing is, to have a relationship with Jesus—to follow Jesus—means to love the things that he loves. Which means, we can't let Jesus into our lives and leave the church at the door. Jesus and the church are one. They're married. And not figuratively married as in "really, really close," but actually married. His people—those whom he saves, those who decide to follow him—they're his bride. Revelation describes the church's reuniting with Jesus like this:
Let us rejoice and be glad and give the glory to Him, for the marriage of the Lamb has come and His bride has made herself ready. It was given to her to clothe herself in fine linen, bright and clean; for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints. Then he said to me, “Write, ‘Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.’” (Rev. 19:7-9)
When Jesus promised to go and "prepare a place" for us in his Father's house (Jn. 14:1-3), he was referencing the traditions of a Jewish wedding, where the groom would leave his bride to prepare a place for them to live that attached to his father's home. Elsewhere, Jesus refers to himself as the bridegroom of his people, i.e., the church (Matt. 25:1-13; Jn. 3:29; Mark 2:19).
The church is not primarily an institution. It's a people—a people that are married to Jesus. And while that people has formed structures and organized practices over the centuries, it remains a people first. To have a relationship with Jesus is to join that people. To follow him is to be a part of his church.
MARRIAGE: A COVENANT COMMITMENT
The thing about marriage—real marriage—is: once you're in one, you surrender the option to leave it. The commitment to a spouse isn't circumstantial, it's covenantal. When you covenant with someone, you're committing to the relationship, not a personal agenda. Jesus made a covenant to his church—he promised to build it and sustain it (Matt. 16:18), and he promised to be with it always, to the end of time (Matt. 28:20). When we begin our relationship with him, we're making a covenant with him as his bride. As we become a member of his bride—the church—we surrender our own preferences, our own agenda, and our own rights in order to better love and serve our groom.
A covenant is both legal and loving in nature. It's too serious to be merely emotional, but too loving to be merely contractual. It represents a binding, yet sacrificial and joyful agreement, wherein two parties commit to one another. When we join Jesus' family, we're making a covenant as a member of his church. Our dedication to the relationship is not based on whether or not our needs are met.
Imagine attending a wedding where the officiant led the bride and groom in vows that ended in "...till death do us part...or unless you don't live up to my expectations, in which case, I'm out." Surely, the ceremony would not end in the joyful eruption and celebration that we love so much about weddings. The beauty of a wedding lies not in the decoration or even in the individuals that are participating, but in the commitment that they make to one another and the love that they've decided to show the world—a love that's unconditional.
WHAT KIND OF BRIDE?
When we choose to follow Jesus—when we accept the free gift of life that he offers—we join the church. We're his bride. We're married to him. The only question, then, becomes: what kind of bride are we going to be?
Every day, individuals who claim to follow Jesus believe to be opting out of church, when, in fact, as members of the church already, they are simply choosing to be an unloving bride in one way or another. The brother or sister who chooses not to "go to church" on a Sunday is not opting out of the church, but instead opting out of the privilege of gathering together to worship our great God. The Christian who avoids a church community isn't simply distancing himself from other people; he's distancing himself from the way Jesus designed his bride to flourish.
Church isn't something that we do. It's something that we are. If we've decided to accept Jesus as Lord, then being a part of the church is simply an undeniable reality. We can avoid church gatherings, avoid communal accountability, avoid growing in truth together; but, when we do so, we're not avoiding "church," we're simply saying "I don't feel like being a good member of the church." If we want to leave church at the door, then we have to leave Jesus with it. But, if we invite Jesus into our lives, we invite ourselves into the church.
A LOVING BRIDE
How, then, do we live as a loving bride? What are ways in which we can faithfully uphold our end of the covenant commitment to our groom, Jesus?
- Worship him.
One of the best ways to love someone is to let them know how much they mean to you. Worship is often discarded as a lofty idea, but, in reality, it's simple. It's derived from the word worth-ship—literally meaning, "to ascribe worth to something." When we worship Jesus for what he's done for us, we're simply saying, "I value what you've done for me enough to show you how much it means to me."
This is why, at BridgePoint, we gather together to worship. We want to come together and show our God how thankful we are for his sacrifice. We don't do church, we gather as the church to love our groom well.
- Serve him.
Another great way to love someone is to serve him. Find whatever it is someone is doing, and help him accomplish it. When we enter into a marriage with Jesus, when we join his church, we have the opportunity to join what Jesus is doing in this world.
Here at BridgePoint, we join in Jesus' mission of making disciples as we pursue others in hope of sharing the good news that we've been given. Jesus wanted people to know him, not because of what they could offer him, but because of what he graciously offers them. We strive toward the same purpose: to introduce people to Jesus and to what he has freely given.
- Reflect him.
They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery for a reason. To model one's life after someone is an expression of admiration and love. We choose to reflect the way Jesus lived—the way he interacted with others. He ate with them, prayed with them, and celebrated with them. He wept with them, journeyed with them, and sacrificed for them. He did life with others well.
We seek to imitate Jesus in this and live in healthy community with our brothers and sisters who are a part of Jesus' bride with us. As we live alongside and love others, we honor Jesus and the example he set.
Being a part of the church isn't about services, programs, or events. It's not about attendance. It's about Jesus. When we gather together to worship, we're not doing so to entertain or "feed" ourselves, but to ascribe worth to our Creator. When we serve on mission, we're not doing so out of an obligation to the church, but out of a joyful response to how Jesus has served us. When we live life in community, we do so in order to experience Jesus through our relationships with others.
Jesus loves us unconditionally—without conditions, he's willing to do anything for us. He's proven that. He's upheld his end of the covenant to his bride. Let us love him well in return.