What is the church and what is not the church? That is the question. As people are skipping Sunday School, they are instead looking for belonging and purpose in new places like CrossFit and Facebook. But church is not a place or social club, and no attempts to replace it can provide what the church alone is commissioned to be. The rise of substitutes must not be confused with the original.
At your local CrossFit gym, called a “box,” people show up consistently to participate, not just consume. Their commitment is evident in how they live changed lives, hold one another accountable and become a community of “true believers.” They share the “good news” of what they have found—consistently sharing about the transforming power they encountered with everyone they know. In short, they’re evangelical . That may sound churchy, but it’s not the church.
Based on research by Casper ter Kuile, a ministry innovation fellow at Harvard Divinity School, this “Church of CrossFit” mentality is no surprise and not all that unique (except the day after soreness). People are gathering to find connection and fulfill their felt needs in new ways—but those new ways are not a replacement for the Church.
Just as the Bible is a book that Christians consider holy and distinct from all other writings, the Church is a distinct reality that has both temporal and eternal realities. The Church was called into being when Jesus Christ started making disciples and the Church was born on Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended upon the believers after his ascension into Heaven. The Church is, by definition, an assembly. Many people think of it as a physical building but it’s actually described in the Bible as a body, even a bride.
As the Body or Bride of Christ, the Church is One indivisible eternal reality. There are lots of churches in the world, but there’s only one Church in the universe.
This distinction has been described by theologians over time as the visible and the invisible church. Where the visible church is divided over many things, the invisible Church is unified. Where the visible church is temporal, the invisible Church is eternal. Where the visible church is flawed, the invisible Church is perfect. The visible church is intended by God to be a living demonstration of the fullness of the beauty and truth of the Gospel, but often falls short of that calling. But that failure does not mean that just anyone or any gathering can rightly be called a church.
In some cities it feels like there’s a church on every corner and yet a quarter of the U.S. populace is disconnected from organized religion of any sort. That’s more than 100 million people who reject the church, but who have no less need for community, meaning, purpose, accountability and love than those in the church.
Substitutes are increasingly offered as online, digital agoras – meeting places where people never actually meet. Digitally, we can witness and participate in non-profit effort to bring clean water to a village in Africa without ever leaving the comfort of our couch. And while we’re told the names of the people benefiting from our generosity halfway around the world, we don’t know the names of our actual neighbors.
The founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerburg, in observing our growing isolation— feels the social networking site is poised to help fill the void. “It’s so striking that for decades, membership in all kinds of groups has declined as much as one-quarter,” he said during a rally for Facebook users . “That’s a lot of of people who now need to find a sense of purpose and support somewhere else.”
Zuckerberg is right in observing the need, but he’s wrong to think that Facebook (or CrossFit) can fill the aching void in the human heart. Almost three-fourths of Americans confess they feel lonely at least once a week. When life is saturated with the social, why is that? Because we know the difference between real relationships and vacuous substitutes.
As human beings we were designed to be in real relationships. Yes, with one another but also with God. The calling of the Church in the world is to be a people, a place, a community, a family, the household of God, to which widows and orphans and prodigals come home. It is supposed to be something that it often fails to be but the substitutes are not church and we ought not confuse the issue by acting as if they are.
Christians need to confront the truth that somewhere along the way the church lost the sense of herself. Her affection for Christ waned. Her allegiance to Christ alone flagged. Her witness to His transforming, redeeming power was muted. Seeking to become something other than she was called to be, many churches took on personalities other than Christ and agendas other than the Kingdom’s advancement amidst the kingdoms of this world. No wonder people wandered away in search of alternatives to the church that had become less than the Church.
People are looking for someone or something to make sense of everything. But every attempt to integrate around something less than the Gospel is going to disappoint. CrossFit reduces the gospel to the physical. Facebook reduces the gospel to the social. Others reduce the gospel to the self, the temporal, financial or personal. Eventually, every lesser gospel falls short and people move on to seek to fulfill themselves with something else.
The Church actually has what the world needs: Jesus. Ultimately, Jesus is the only sufficient point of integration and that’s been His role in the universe since before there was time. When the Church reduces Jesus to less than He really is, the world looks for what it needs in other places.
The time has come for the Church to reclaim her calling and become the community of believers, the household of God, the body of Christ the world so desperately needs.
Carmen LaBerge a writer, speaker and host of the daily Christian talk radio show The Reconnect. The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Faithwire.