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Why belonging to a church is essential for a Christian

An interview with Collin Hansen about Rediscover Church

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December 30, 2021

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.

Photo Attribution:

Crossway

Jordan Wootten

Jordan Wootten serves as a News and Culture Channel Editor at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and a writer/editor at RightNow Media. He's a board member at The LoveX2 Project, an organization seeking to make the world a better place for moms and babies. Jordan is a graduate of … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24