I don’t remember whether I was watching a news program being broadcast outside in front of a crowd of people, or a sports show set on a college campus where a marquis football matchup was slated for later in the day. What I remember is a sign somebody was holding up so it would be in the line of view of the camera. Like all those “John 3:16” signs that get hoisted between the goalposts at stadiums when the extra point is kicked, this sign was yellow with black letters. It read:
JUDGMENT IS COMING!
YOU NEED JESUS...
NOT THE CHURCH!
There’s nothing new here. Homegrown American theology has frequently elevated individual spirituality over corporate faith. No religious sentiment is more American than the claim, “You don’t have to go to church to be a good Christian.” But I guess it’s been a long time since I have seen or heard that sentiment avowed so baldly. And the longer I’m alive, the more convinced I am of its absolute absurdity.
Jesus’ entire ministry, from start to eternity, has involved a community of followers. He promised his first disciples that the church – the ecclesia or “called assembly” – would endure no matter what. “The powers of hell shall not prevail against it,” he said. His band of disciples grew into the Jerusalem church, and the ecclesia movement immediately began spreading throughout Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. The early church’s most prolific missionary, Paul, did not evangelize individuals one at a time; he formed churches – alternative communities that professed the Lordship of Christ rather than Caesar. Nothing was more urgent for Paul than to establish Christ-centered communities that intentionally put into practice the values of the reign of God, over against the reigning values of Roman culture. Paul described every church community as a “body of Christ.” That’s not just poetry. He meant it. These assemblies were how the risen Christ was “embodied” in the world. Paul would find it utterly nonsensical to separate Christ from the church.