“Why should I participate in church? What does the church offer that I can’t find elsewhere?”
Before I could respond, my friend proceeded to explain how he has experienced God, Jesus, Spirit, worship, purpose, spiritual growth, healing, community and opportunities to serve others in meaningful ways outside of the church. By the end of our conversation I was wondering if it really was important for people to be part of a local body of Christ.
Last week, a Scripture passage turned a light bulb on for me regarding this matter. In Matthew 5 Jesus calls his followers the light of the world: “You are a lamp placed high on its stand to provide light to those around you. Let your light shine so others will glorify God” (my paraphrase).
What became clear to me was that Jesus wasn’t telling his disciples to let their light shine as individuals, he was telling them to be the light of the world—together—as a group. This is why he called them a “city on a hill” in the same passage.
When individuals let their light shine by being generous or loving, people around them don’t typically respond by glorifying God. They respond by thinking, “Wow! What an awesome person!” Meeting someone who shines with goodness isn’t a “God moment” for most people, even if the “shiny” person gives God the glory for whatever great thing he/she has done. Lovely people aren’t that rare and they don’t always believe in God, let alone give God the glory.
On the other hand, a group that is full of diverse people who have genuine relationships with one another—and together they shine with light, love, peace and unity—that is a miracle in this day and age. For instance, if I stumbled upon a faith community in the United States where Democrats who champion Bernie Sanders and Trump-supporting Republicans not only tolerate each other, but sincerely love and support one another, well, that would come closer to proving the existence of God than any apologetic argument I’ve ever heard.
Everywhere I look, I see division. I see “groupthink” tribes at war with other “groupthink” tribes. But in Christ we see our unity with everyone and everything, including our enemies. That includes those “awful” people who belong to that “godless” tribe we abhor. Yet in Christ we see unity is the truth, and all the divisions between us are illusions and lies.
Paul says in Ephesians 2 that “Christ is our peace, he has made us one, and broken down the dividing wall of hostility between our groups . . . he created in himself one new humanity in place of our divided humanity” (my paraphrase).
A church is the body of Christ when congregants embody this new united humanity. When a church manifests this miraculous oneness in Christ, its light shines in a way that glorifies or magnifies God. To magnify God is to make God’s presence more visible to the world around us. That’s what magnify means. A magnifying glass, for example, makes things that are hard to see more visible.
So why do I need to be part of a church community? In part, I would answer this way: My participation in a local church is choosing to share life with people I did not—and would not—choose if it were up to me. This is important. Church resembles family more than friendships or social networks. God brings groups of people together from “warring” tribes and groups we find annoying or offensive, to create micro-cities where “enemies” do life together in a way that reveals this new united humanity in Christ. This radical way of “being human together” results in God’s presence being made more visible to the world around us. Our love for one another seems supernatural.
Churches that don’t embody this miraculous united humanity in Christ don’t magnify God. When a church doesn’t provide light to the world around it, eventually Christ removes its lampstand (Revelation 2:5).
However, churches in which everyone looks, thinks, believes, worships and votes the same don’t magnify God either. Uniformity is not unity. Homogenous churches are just another “echo chamber,” intensifying the segmentation of our fragmented world.
In the body of Christ we don’t find our unity in our commonalities and affinities with similar kinds of people. Our unity arises through mutual submission and interconnectedness to the same divine Spirit. It is this miraculous unity in diversity—in Christ—that magnifies God’s presence and makes the genuine body of Christ unique and important for us to participate in.
Troy Watson is pastor of Avon Mennonite Church in Stratford, Ont.
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