The Church Is Not a Community Center

I’ve lost about 20 pounds this year. I plan on losing more next year.

I lost weight as a direct result of my growth as a Christian. In youth group last spring we were talking about giving back to God because he gives so much to us and we asked, “What is something God gave us that we don’t always act thankful for?”

One girl said, “Our bodies.”

And like that I knew I had to take better care of my body. And so I do.

I’m telling you this story because I want to establish that I think that there isn’t a single part of life that isn’t influenced by our decision to follow God. Even the way we eat should be.

This is part of what the kosher laws taught. Even the most mundane tasks, the daily preparation of your meals, should be a reminder that you are bound to God. God definitely cares about the way we eat.

Last week I was sitting in the lobby of a mega-church and saw a sign for an aerobics class that is held on Thursday nights and I asked myself, “Does my conviction that God demands every part of our life be given to him mean I believe the church has the responsibility to organize aerobics classes?”

What is the responsibility of the church is a huge question that people have been asking for as long as there has been a church, and in my opinion the best answer has come from Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Life Together

 the goal of all Christian community: they meet one another as bringers of the message of salvation. As such, God permits them to meet together and gives them community. Their fellowship is founded solely upon Jesus Christ and this “alien righteousness.”

I love this. It is such a beautiful and perfect description of what Christians are to be like when they are together. We are to be constantly bringing each other the “message of salvation,” or the gospel. The gospel is that Christ has come as King to free us of our sins. Because of this good news we should constantly long to be together, because we are constantly reminding each other of this grace.

The church is where we who have already heard the gospel are reminded of the gospel by our brothers and sisters. It exists throughout time and space, as our dead brothers and sisters are still showing to us the message of the gospel. For instance, we have called here upon Bonhoeffer, martyred in 1945, to remind us of our need for grace and Jesus to create our community. Because of this the term “church” really shouldn’t be applied to buildings or even the congregations that meet in them. The church is all Christians in all places through all time.

Unfortunately, very few congregations operate this way. Instead of finding community in the gospel which binds us we create community artificially.

The gospel is forgiveness of sins. To accept forgiveness we have to accept that we need it, or that we have done something wrong. The gospel is good news, indeed, but it is bad news because it means we are not enough. And so we dismiss it in favor of viewing ourselves as a work in progress. If I could just learn to pray better, if I could just learn to handle my finances my better, if I could just take a class on dealing with conflict with my wife, if I could just lose some weight, then I will be fulfilled.

But the church is not a place to find this kind of fulfillment. That is good, because that kind of fulfillment will never come. The church is a place to be reminded of the message of salvation. That is, it is a place to be reminded time and time again of our own need for salvation. And we come together, all broken, all admitting it, and all reminding each other that Jesus was also broken, in a completely different way, to mend our brokenness. Community is found in our ability to be broken and healed together.

But that isn’t the kind of community we want in our congregations. We want the kind of community that comes from liking the same kind of music, or being in an exercise class together, or having similar hobbies. That is the work of a community center, and while the church is centered around community, the church is not a community center.

To admit our brokenness and to depend on Christ makes us whole and we begin to  see ourselves in a new light. We are broken, yes, but we are loved. Loved by God and loved by our community. And that realization changes us. We are of value not as a work in progress, but as a creation of a God who loves us. Ironically, it is only in admitting we are broken that we find our value. And once we see we are valued we are able to see, as I did, that Jesus wants every piece of our life.

But this doesn’t mean every piece of our life has to be done through the congregation. In fact, things should be done outside of it. As Christians we bring this message of salvation to each other, but we also bring it to those outside the church. So we go into our jobs, our homes, our aerobics classes and we bring the message that we are broken and being made whole not by our effort in our aerobics class but by our trust in Jesus.

Here’s another thing Bonhoeffer said about the church

The Church is the Church only when it exists for others…not dominating, but helping and serving. It must tell men of every calling what it means to live for Christ, to exist for others.

The church can’t just get together and remind each other of the gospel. It must go out and do it as well. The church does not have a mission to get together and do aerobics, but it does have a mission to take the gospel even to aerobics classes.