Is the community necessary? Why should I join a “small group” or even go to church? What benefit is there for me?
The answer is: There is no benefit for you! Christians don’t go to church because they benefit from it; they go to church because they are Christians. Without the exciting amenities, such as youth and children’s programs, men’s groups, women’s retreats, and the like, many leave a community of believers and look for something to benefit them rather than engaging in the community to which God has called them.
In Letter 16 of The Screwtape Letters, Screwtape urges his nephew Wormwood to move his patient to search for a suitable church. “[This] makes the man a critic where the enemy wants him to be a pupil. What He wants of the layman in church is an attitude which may, indeed, be critical in the sense of rejecting what is false or unhelpful, but which is wholly uncritical in the sense that it does not appraise–does not waste time in thinking about what it rejects, but lays itself open in un-commenting, humble receptivity to any nourishment that is going.” The same can be said of Christians who look for amenities rather than true engagement in a community. When Christians focus on self-benefits, they move away from God’s purpose for relationship in community. This is not the love of Christ.
Immediately, this may sound a little narrow-minded, but don’t misread what we are saying. Going to church does not make a person a Christians, being a Christian is the reason a person goes to church. Being proceeds doing. This is the direction it must go! Why? Because Christians–those who follow Christ–are the church. We do not “go” to church, we are are the church. This may sound like a semantic word game, but such a small change in thought a has huge effect on one’s outlook and motives.
So if we don’t go join the community for our own benefit (personal growth), what are we supposed to do? Personal growth is an important aspect of being part of a community. Again, we are not saying that personal growth is bad or wrong, we are just saying it is not the primary motivator for being part of the body of Christ. If it were, every Christian would quickly run into difficulty the moment he or she stepped through the door of the church. In Letter 2, Screwtape tells his nephew, “When he goes inside, he sees the local grocer with rather an oily expression on his face bustling up to offer him one shiny little book containing a liturgy which neither of them understands, and one shabby little book containing corrupt texts of a number of religious lyrics, mostly bad, and in very small print. When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbours. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like “the body of Christ” and the actual faces in the next pew. It matters very little, of course, what kind of people that next pew really contains. … Provided that any of those neighbours sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous.” When Christians focus on amenities and self-benefits, every double chin and every squeaky shoe makes church less “beneficial.” This cannot be the primary motivator for Christians in community.
When we come to the community, we should instead look for opportunities to bless others. Our focus should not be on ourselves, but on others. When we create communities with ourselves as the focus, we really isolate ourselves from others and thereby create a “community” in which we have an illusion of relationships. We only listen to others as long as they are willing to listen to us. We don’t really care what the other person has to say, we only care about what we have to say. We each give our input, but nobody really listens to one another. We only politely listen because if we do, then others will listen to us. In this model, we have not carried each other’s burdens.
As C.S. Lewis demonstrates in The Screwtape Letters, we are at war with principalities and powers that we do not see and most of the time do not understand. We undergo difficulties and struggles. Not just with frustrations and annoyances, but real spiritual warfare. We struggle with sin. We struggle with staying faithful to our spouse. We struggle to stay faithful to Christ. We struggle with temptation to kill (hatred). And the list goes on. The church should be the place where we can escape the enemy’s attacks and join with other believers for reassurance and strength.
We do so through worship and the sacraments. Joining with other believers to glorify God binds the community together. It is for this purpose that we exist. And it is in praying for one another and serving our brothers and sisters in Christ that we bear one another’s burdens. It is this act of unification that the enemy (satan) fears. This is what it means to live as the church and be part of the kingdom of God.
Read the next post in this series here.