In a recent CNN.com article Alan Miller took issue with the rising trend of young adults in America embracing a sort of generic spirituality, while eschewing more formal, organized forms of religion. Citing solid research and referencing popular books, Miller suggests that this movement is thoroughly entrenched in American life, but that it is also a “cop-out” and should be rejected. In spite of that, the “spiritual but not religious movement” continues to grow in popularity and, at least to some degree, seems to be a backlash against the excesses and inappropriate behavior that some religious organizations have embraced or engaged in, historically. Christianity is probably the most substantial segment of American religion to feel the weight of this rejection on the part of younger generations. Statistics constantly remind us that the younger the generation, the quicker they are leaving our organized faith behind.
If we are going to be honest about it, we have to admit that our Christian movements have, at times, fed the disenchantment through horrible behavior. Looking back through history to the crusades of the Catholic church, to the more recent examples of pedophilia among the Catholic church’s clergy, and even the rampant racism that used to dominate my own tribe, Southern Baptists, racism which has been publicly relegated to the trash heap in the last few years, but which still has a comfortable seat at the table in too many churches, it is easy to see why many would want nothing to do with it.
I want to suggest one biblical example, however, that indicates that rejection of the corporate expression of the church in the face of this kind of sin is not nearly as helpful to our spiritual condition as many might think it to be.
We live in America, the home of independent, “pull yourself up by your bootstraps”, self-success often best described by the famous Frank Sinatra song, “My Way“. We love the strong, able hero who can take on the world by themselves and succeed. Because of this ethos, we have so individualized every aspect of our culture that we have also individualized our worship. We can worship God and never be involved in organized worship. We do not need others to rightly honor him. But, is this what scripture indicates? See for yourself.
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. (Romans 12:1 ESV)
I want to call your attention to one small detail in this passage, one which various translations have unfortunately missed. Notice the plural use of the word “bodies”, particularly when contrasted with the singular use of the word “sacrifice”. If you were to read a different translation, say for instance the NIV, you would see both bodies and sacrifice as plural forms. Unfortunately, the NIV translators, among others, simply got it wrong. Bodies is intended to be plural, while sacrifice is intended to be singular. Why? Simply put, God’s design for our worship; for our sacrifice, is for each of us to come together, as individuals, and for us to form one corporate act of sacrifice; of worship, to honor Him. Simply put, God has designed us so that we need each other. Put another way, the corporate church is God’s design, not ours.
The corporate nature of the body of Christ can be foreign in such an individualized culture, but it is imperative in the Christian community. It is on this foundation that activities of the church such as church discipline, communion, baptism and more are built upon. It is because we have lost this corporate element in many of our churches that some of these activities have fallen in to disrepair or even disuse. Sadly we do not understand the biblical nature of the church which means we can quickly abandon the biblical practices of the church. We must resist this encroaching individualization of the body of Christ.
Yes, the organized church has made horrific errors. Yes, she has failed time and time again. Yes, there is need for great renewal and reform in many corners of, particularly, the Christian church. However, abandoning the church is not the answer. The church needs you, but maybe more specific to your life, you need the church.