How to be the church we were meant to be

The Southern California June drizzle declared war on my frizzy hair. I sat with three other fourteen-year-old retreat-goers, and we eyed the straws and gumdrops in front of us. In our freshman awkwardness, we tried to look more bored than the person next to us. We waited for the middle-aged church lady to give us instructions.

“Each group will use the gumdrops and straws to build a church. The group that builds the largest church will win a prize,” The woman announced as she held up four Snickers bars. “You have ten minutes. Get started.”

Eight separate groups of creaky-voiced boys and brace-faced girls began sticking straws into gelatinized sugar. Tall, wobbly towers sprang up around us. Our group members just stared at one another. Competitive by nature, my ears had perked up as soon as the lady mentioned that a winner would be declared. I had an idea.

“Hey! Guys! Since a ‘church’ is actually made up of the people and not the building, let’s build a bunch of gum-drop-and-straw people!” My group members indifferently nodded. They either thought I was an idiot or didn’t care, but they bought in and soon we had erected 8 adorably sticky gum-drop people. I was very pleased with myself. Game on, people.

“Time!” Ten minutes had elapsed and I couldn’t wait to blow this lady’s mind with our out-of-the-box game move. She made the rounds, stoically measuring each group’s “church.” She approached our table and I excitedly studied her face, waiting for the light bulb, the excitement, the congratulatory smile. Instead I was met with confusion. “What’s this?”

“Well,” I beamed, “You said to build a ‘church,’ and a ‘church’ is the people, not the building, so…” I did my best Vanna White as I pointed to our sad little straw men, brutally slain by the expression on this woman’s face.

“No… That wasn’t what we were going for.” Just like that, I set up my own literal straw men, and she destroyed them. (Could I at least get some bonus points for irony?)

At fourteen, I gave lip service to the idea of the people comprising the church, and yet the closest I got to living that out was through a failed straw man illustration at a church retreat. I grabbed a nugget of truth and ran with it only far enough to hopefully win me a Snickers bar.

I thought I understood what it meant to follow Jesus. I never missed a Sunday service, I didn’t use profanity, I prayed before meals. I would gladly dig my Conservative heels in during political debates with friends, using the Gospel as a bludgeoning tool for the “unsaved.” And of course, I thought I was perfectly fine. I was saved by grace, through faith. So there I sat, lazy and complacent with my golden ticket of salvation, waiting blissfully for the rapture. “I’ll just be over here, watching homeless people and orphans around me from a comfortable distance.“ “Don’t want to get too close, because, well, safety.” “I don’t feel called to serve ‘those people,’ “I’m busy with school/work/kids/life, maybe during another season when I have more time.” Can you relate? On and on we go, rationalizing why we don’t have time for the only work we were ever created to do: love God, love people.

Children starve, homeless people freeze, orphans dream of adoption in our own city…while we sit idly by, calling ourselves “Christians,” a label we think we deserve because we avoid orgies and certain four-letter words and we vote Republican. We join bible studies and hear Beth Moore speak and we play worship music in our air-conditioned cars while we drive our kids to another extracurricular activity.

The idea of the believers being the church is not new. The early church looked less like a weekly country club gathering and more like people who were actually being the hands and feet of Jesus. And yet here we are, two thousand years removed, we “Christians” sit complacently for an hour in our Sunday best, surrounded by people exactly like you and me.  We check the box and then congratulate ourselves for raising well-behaved children. When did we start relegating “church” to a building where we attend a one-hour service on Sunday?

Seventy-seven percent of Americans call themselves Christians. Can it be true that eight out of ten people love their neighbors as themselves? Does your city live out the gospel? Are eight out of ten of your city’s inhabitants feeding the hungry, adopting the orphans and caring for the sick? If the church is an overwhelming majority, then why are kids still hungry in our city? Does your neighborhood look like the hands and feet of Jesus, moving to meet needs? Does your household? Do you? If we are honest, I think we are failing at doing the “good works which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:10)

So we, the church, have failed and we fall short, but we already intimately know how beautiful and mysterious God’s grace is. Let’s accept it again and watch in awe as it covers these very failures to unimaginable depths. All of them: my complacency, my selfishness, my greed, my ambivalence to suffering, and on and on forever. No one can fail so badly that God’s grace doesn’t cover us if we seek Him. But the story doesn’t end with epic failures on our part, mind-blowing grace on His, then us grace-recipients sitting idly, clutching our golden tickets of salvation. Let’s live this thing out, let’s work out our salvation in fear and trembling, letting God work though us to fulfill His purpose. (Philippians 2:12-13)

Ok, so we are the “church.” You and me. We are saved by His grace, through faith. And we’re not supposed to just sit here. So what are we supposed to do?

“You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.” Galatians 5:13

“Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:16

“But be sure to fear the Lord and serve Him faithfully with all your heart; consider what great things He has done for you.” 1 Samuel 12:24

Let’s seek out the needs around us, matching our abilities to those needs. Let’s connect with our neighbors and love them like we’re commanded. We’ve started believing these weird lies, like the only way to serve Jesus and love others is to dig wells and build homes in third world countries. How beautiful that our brothers and sisters in Jesus are serving people this way. As someone who cannot distinguish a wrench from a ratchet, I will not likely be erecting a home for anyone who wants a non-collapsing roof. I’m good at other, less build-y things.

But if I match my skills and capacity with the need around me, I will identify needs and rise to the occasion. I can make a meal for someone who is sick. I can invite my depressed neighbor over for coffee. I can host lemonade stands with my kids and donate the proceeds to charity. I can take my kids to the park in a poorer part of town and bring extra snacks to share with kids. There is need all around us. If the church outnumbers the non-church, we should be resounding voices of willing hearts, eagerly seeking opportunities to show Christ’s love.

It’s great that we attend our Sunday services, rocking out to the worship music and nodding along to the sermon for an hour…but a week has 168 hours. What are we doing with the rest of them? Where’s our fruit? Let’s be the church that we were intended to be. Let’s move.

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