Good Questions: Does Church Matter?

Reflections from Dr. Howell

Why bother with church? has always been a challenging question. For all its glories, the church can be such an embarrassment to itself. And it can be a lot of trouble… The pandemic, I believe, sharpened the question. Some folks missed being together in church terribly; but others didn’t mind, discovered they preferred church online, or just drifted into more leisurely Sunday morning activities. One guy told me “I learned I don’t like people as much as I thought I did.”

Maybe the question of liking matters. People tend to gather in churches with people they like. But then it becomes more social than holy? or if you don’t feel liked, you quit? I think God made church as a place to stretch, to invest yourself in people you wouldn’t hang around with normally. Christian hospitality isn’t welcoming people like you; it’s welcoming everyone, especially the “other.”

I know it’s a stretch, but I bet many of us wish church were more diverse, a space where we could defy my repeated warning: if you only hang around with people like you, you become ignorant and arrogant. In church especially, we grow toward God by hearing what God is saying to people who hear God differently.

Isn’t our homogeneity one reason people are cynical about church? Not that they need more reason to scoff. There are so many Good Questions out there about church. I try on my good days not to get defensive, but to welcome the questions and the questioners. If Jesus thought a Church might be forged to continue his work, he’d have predicted we’d be as misunderstood and persecuted as he was. I just hope we might be misunderstood and persecuted for the reasons he was, not for being irrelevant or boring or judgmental.

Church isn’t easy. Scott Peck asked a counselee why she stayed in her marriage. She replied “For the friction.” Friction is uncomfortable; sparks fly. But friction, if you stick with it, creates warmth, and polishes.

In my podcast, Lillian Daniel spoke of people who brag about being “spiritual but not religious.” The peril of being religious on your own and in your own way is it becomes thin, and narcissistic. Church exists to challenge, to take us deep into what we might ignore. T.S. Eliot asked, “Why should men love the Church? Why should they love her laws? She tells them of life and death, and of all that they would forget. She is tender where they would be hard, and hard where they like to be soft. She tells them of evil and sin, and other unpleasant facts.”

Church is an institution, with bills to pay and other mundane things. And clearly, Church-as-institution is in decline, with shrinking numbers and abandoned buildings. But the purpose of the institution? Not to make us feel good or merely find comfort, although at our best we do such things. Church is a school, where desires are reshaped, where holiness is practiced, so we’ll get the hang of how to be the Body of Christ out in the world, as individuals, and together. We aren’t members of a club, but of a Body. Chris Green, in my podcast about the Bible, put it concisely: “The Church is the availability of Christ to the world.” A huge, daunting, unmanageable task! And a real thrill, a dignifying privilege.

Why bother with church? It’s to dare to grow, to be part of making life and salvation and hope available not just to ourselves but to the others out there. Every church is a sign of defiance against a cynical, crazed, vapid culture. And every time we back out of the driveway to come, or tune in on the computer, or give our money or time, we are part of a march, a protest against a hollow, purposeless world. We dare together to change the world. We say it all the time: Hope is Here. Where else is such hope?