When considering the role of the church in our lives, it’s always important to consider the age in which we live. As discussed in the previous blog, I believe that it is self-evident that we live in a deeply anti-authoritarian age. Outside the church, this is often observed within national politics where disrespect and irreverence towards government officials has become commonplace. Within the church, this anti-authoritarianism rears its head in our skepticism for the church. In other words, the anti-authoritarian culture outside of the church has produced an anti-institutional and anti-polity culture within the church.
There are a large number of trends which have conspired together to produce this culture. Mark Dever provides a useful list
Since the dawn of the seventeenth-century Enlightenment, the Western mind has been trained to doubt all external authorities.
Since the middle of the nineteenth century, scholars in theology departments of elite European universities have assumed that the churches of the New Testament were in a state of flux, their polities were inconsistent, and they offer no normative model for today. And when biblical norms vanish, pragmatism steps into the void.
Church leaders in the twentieth century, therefore, found themselves enticed and eventually intoxicated by the methods of the booming American marketplace.
Beginning in the 1950s, the so-called neoevangelicals separated themselves from their separatist and fundamentalist parents by establishing their own seminaries, magazines, evangelism organizations, publishing houses, and other parachurch institutions.
We can also add other modern influences such as the Internet, social media, and MP3 sermons-on-demand, but the net result is that we have inherited a significant amount of historical baggage that has trained us to view the institutional church with a matter of indifference. It’s tempting to start this series by blaming crooked prosperity preachers, CEO-style megapreachers, and fundamentalism for the trends that we see, but that would be nothing more than blame shifting. It’s best to look at ourselves in the mirror first.
Lord’s Day Worship
The Lord called me to Himself about 16 years ago in an old-fashioned tent revival when I was in high-school. I was born and raised in a Pentecostal background in which my individual religious experience (which was called the “baptism of the Holy Spirit”) was prized above all others so it should not be surprising that this was the essential lens in which I viewed Christianity during my younger days. All of my spiritual disciplines were geared towards obtaining this experience, including corporate worship on the Lord’s Day. In those days, I didn’t consider myself as a member of the covenant community that gathered together to worship our Triune God; rather, I saw Lord’s Day worship as the best time to have my personal experience with Jesus.
Over the course of my young life, I’ve realized that although very few individuals would assent to the core tents of Pentecostalism, I’ve learned that many Christians have adopted this basic idea of seeking their “personal Jesus”. This has led to two polarizing and unbiblical responses to Lord’s Day worship: the first is to neglect public worship since you can “meet Jesus” at home and the second is to use public worship to “get what you need for Jesus”. The writer to the Hebrews give us a beautiful picture of what goes on in public worship.
But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than the blood of Abel.
Dear Christian, is this how you view the church? The church is called Mount Zion because it is beloved of God, chosen by Him, and is the place of His habitation. It is within the church that His word and ordinances are administered. It is within the church where He communes with His covenant people – not in a “personal Jesus” manner. Do you see the church as “the perfection of beauty and the joy of the whole earth”? The church is the city of the living God, which is built on Christ. As John Gill describes, the church is
… pleasantly situated by the river of God’s love, and by the still waters of Gospel ordinances; it is governed by wholesome laws, of Christ’s enacting, and is under proper officers, of his appointing; and is well guarded by watchmen, which he has set upon the walls of it; and it is endowed with many privileges, as access to God, freedom from condemnation, adoption, and a right to the heavenly inheritance.
The church is His building because He dwells, protects, and defends her. Hence, we are not just speaking about the church as an organism, but we are speaking of her as an institution.
Now, it’s important to understand what the writer to the Hebrews is specifically referring to. These words can be applied to the universal church, but his context is the local church. Yes… it is your local church that is place of His habitation; it is your local church in which we partake of ordinances and enjoy communion with Him. I must emphasize this because we have romanticized the universal church, while neglecting the local church. We have warm feelings in our heart concerning the church triumphant as seen throughout the book of Revelation, but that same raptured joy is not expressed towards our own local church today. Do you realize that your local church is the dwelling place of the Prince of Peace and is being encamped about by “myriads of angels”? When you gather with your local church, you are gathering also with “the spirits of the righteous” made perfect and at the table, you are communing with the risen Lord Jesus.
This is what actually occurs in the gathered worship of the local church, but our culturally-trained anti-institutional skepticism blinds us from seeing the glory of God’s local church. Until we love the local church and see her as she truly is, we will continue to drift away from her.