We live at a dizzying moment in history. From the persistence of COVID-19 to the unrest in the Middle East to the natural disasters that continue to occur across the globe, it feels difficult at times to find any sort of stability. But there is a place where men and women can come to step out of the topsy-turvy disorder of the world and be re-ordered by the eternal God and his Word: the church of Jesus Christ.
In their book, Rediscover Church: Why the Body of Christ is Essential, Collin Hansen and Jonathan Leeman argue not only that the church is a community of stability in our unstable times, but that belonging to a church is essential to a Christian’s obedience and for their fruitfulness. Rediscover Church is a plea for Christians in America to discover anew the centrality of the local church in the life of the Christian.
Collin Hansen recently spent time answering some of our questions about the book.
The title of your book, Rediscover Church, suggests that it is a book intended for those who have some experience with church, even those we might call “nominal” churchgoers. Why this book, and why now?
We’re long past the time when we could assume even that dedicated believers in Jesus Christ understood why they should bother with church. The number who identify as Christians is far larger than the number who attend a weekly meeting. Even then, the bulk of the serving and giving in our churches tends to be done by only a few. Long before COVID-19, millions had already decided they didn’t need church. Then came online registration, social distancing, and masks. COVID-19 accelerated the long-trending separation between personal faith and organized religion. Our book aims to help these Christians remember, or learn, why the body of Christ is essential.
You structure the book around your definition of the church, covering each portion of the definition in the book’s successive chapters. What, would you say, is a church, and why is it important for Christians to understand this?
From the Bible we see the church is God’s plan for his people to grow in love for him and each other. So that’s important! We define a church this way:
A church is a group of Christians
who assemble as an earthly embassy of Christ’s heavenly kingdom
to proclaim the good news and commands of Christ the king
to affirm one another as his citizens through the ordinances
and to display God’s own holiness and love
through a unified and diverse people
in all the world
following the teaching and example of elders.
Part of the book’s argument is not that people should merely rediscover church, as in no longer ignoring it, but to rediscover how essential it is to Christian living (and obedience to Christ). To that point, you say: “a Christian without a church is a Christian in trouble.” Why is belonging (a word we’ll come back to shortly) to a church so instrumental to the Christian life?
Church is much more than meets the eye. It is, in fact, the apple of God’s eye, the body for which Jesus Christ gave his body. It’s essential. That’s why God uses the most intimate of human relationships, marriage, to explain what’s happening in your church. Look at Ephesians 5. Just as you nourish and cherish your body, so Christ nourishes and cherishes his church (Eph. 5:29). Or consider 1 Corinthians 12:27: “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” We belong to a church because God gave his body to gather into his church believers from every tribe, language, people, and nation (Rev. 5:9). And because we owe all to Christ, we share all with one another: “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor. 12:26). What Christian wouldn’t want to belong here?
It has become somewhat normative for people, when seeking a church home, to go “church shopping,” as you call it. To seek out the most charismatic pastor, the best programming, the most comfortable environment. Why is this “church shopping” approach inadvisable? When looking for a church home, how would you encourage people to go about finding a church to belong to?
The very language suggests the fundamental problem. When you’re shopping for a church, you’re asking what that church can do for you, not what you can do for the church. Shopping also suggests that church is a matter of mere preference, like choosing between brands of ketchup. And the customer is always right. Loyalty lasts only so long as the church continues to meet your needs. Instead, look for a church where you can serve. Look for church leaders who submit to the authority of God’s Word and put this Word into practice as they submit to one another in love and humility.
That word “belong” is an important word, isn’t it? What does the bible have to say about church membership, and how does the American church sometimes get this wrong?
Even when it’s not explicit in the Bible, membership is implied on nearly every page of the New Testament epistles as the way we commit to God’s people and they commit to us. Membership in the church is membership in a family. It comes with family obligations. It’s membership in a body. It comes with all the dynamics of being connected to every other part. Every biblical metaphor for the church helps us to understand what membership is, and all of them are necessary, because there is nothing else in the world like the church. Many American churches see membership as an unnecessary burden to the gospel. But the Bible depicts membership instead as the result of union with Christ. When we’re united to Christ, we’re united to each other, in a covenant of blessings and obligations.
On that topic, you argue that church membership isn’t just a sort of belonging but, in your words, “membership is a job.” Can you explain what you mean by this?
Church membership is not passive. It’s not just a status. It’s not like membership in a country club, a shopper’s club, or a gas station rewards program. It’s a job where you go to work. You need to get job training. You need to engage it with your mind and heart. You need to think about making a difference. Churches where members take this kind of responsibility thrive in countless ways, because they’re enacting the priesthood of all believers.
The COVID-19 pandemic has surely caused many churches to alter their typical way of doing things, with online services being one of those alterations. Though the online option undoubtedly benefited many while gathering restrictions remained in place, online services seem likely to stay. What do church members lose if they elect only to “gather” online and never in person?
The push toward virtual church, we fear, is a push to individualize Christianity. We can debate the wisdom of using such a tool for a limited time in emergency situations, like a pandemic. Yet to offer or encourage the virtual church as a permanent option, even with good intentions, hurts Christian discipleship. It trains Christians to think of their faith in autonomous terms. It teaches them that they can follow Jesus as a member of the “family of God,” in some abstract sense, without teaching them what it means to be a part of a family and to make sacrifices for a family. In that regard, pastors should encourage people away from virtual “attendance,” as much as they are able. The Bible’s command to gather is not meant to be burdensome (see Heb. 10:25; 1 John 5:3), but for the good of our faith, our love, and our joy.
The book also encourages readers “to rediscover the church as the fellowship of differents.” What does this mean, and why is it important?
It means that we are not alike, and we need each other. We have not been gifted the same way, and that’s how God intended it for our good. We confess the same belief in Jesus Christ, but we enjoy a diversity of experiences. This model does not offer the fastest way to build the largest church. But it’s the most durable way to build a healthy church.
It might seem easier to look for a church where everyone thinks, votes, and sins the same way you do. It’s better for your spiritual growth, however, to hunker down in a more diverse fellowship where you’ll learn:
To honor people whose abilities differ from yours.
To hope all things in love.
To maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
To respect the zealot or tax collector sitting next to you.
You want to find a church that grabs this world’s attention? Find a church that looks like the world to come.
There is a prevailing assumption among many churchgoers that church attendance is for observation and consumption. In other words, we go to church to be catered to. You, however, argue for something different, saying that “If you don’t participate regularly, you don’t get the formative experience of church.” How important is this word “participate”?
When you don’t participate, you don’t grow in biblical knowledge through the teaching or in relational depth through praying with others. When you don’t participate, you don’t learn to seek the good of others. Instead, you learn to judge the church for how it fails to meet your needs and how others fail to reach out to you. Neither of us has ever seen people rediscover church and get what they want from the community unless they consistently show up and ask others how they can help. So just show up! You’ll be amazed at what happens.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the likelihood that the difficulties of the last year will draw many believers, nominal Christians, and non-believers through the doors of our churches, what are your hopes for the church and its members? How can our churches best prepare to receive these folks who are looking to rediscover or discover church for the first time?
You can prepare by getting back to basics. The pandemic gives us an unprecedented opportunity to reconsider church. What should we eagerly resume? What should we drop and never do again? What should we start that we’ve never done before? But to answer these questions, you need to identify what a church is for, what your church can do that no social club or government or service program can match. When we get back to the gospel of Jesus Christ, then our churches can move forward — together — no matter the next upheaval. When our churches help visitors discover Jesus, then they’ll rediscover a church that stands out in a world desperate for good news.