Had just an incredible blessing Saturday morning! My wife and I had breakfast with two other couples and spent over two hours just talking about big stuff, about family, about church, about Christ! I can't imagine much that is better than that, doing what Christians have been doing since the first days of the church: breaking bread together, praying together, encouraging one another. If that is not what church is all about, I am completely misreading the New Testament.
We got to talking about the church and about China because of a unique connection one of these brothers has with that nation. As the church grows, explodes perhaps is a better way to put it, in China, it does so under constant threat of persecution. I am not sure if that is as true now compared to how it used to be but still it is a totally different cultural context. Anyway, the point we got to was that when the church is under pressure and persecution you are not able to drive thirty minutes to the church of your choice. You might need to sneak over to the house of your neighbor who is a Christian, perhaps under cover of darkness and not after checking to see what denomination they are. Oddly (at least in our minds) history shows us that it is precisely under these circumstances that the church thrives and expands while in our "Christian nation" the church has been unhealthy for a long time (perhaps always) and is rapidly fading into irrelevance, a circumstance that most of the church is completely unprepared to deal with. Under pressure the church truly depends on one another and it is not a "can I borrow your chainsaw" dependence but rather "can you watch over my family so that they have food in case I am jailed" dependence. Fellowship is a matter of survival, not a matter of personal preference. Persecution compels Christians to set aside differences for the sake of survival.
In the west? Our association is completely voluntary. I am not compelled by any outside force to associate on other Christians and I am likewise not dependent in any meaningful sense on others. I can take my ball and go home if I don't like something and there are plenty of other gatherings that will accept me with open arms. I don't have any sort of commitment to the church because I really don't need the church in any appreciable sense. What we are left with are these very loose knit, competing organizations that try to guilt or blackmail people into "membership" so that they don't scamper off to the next organization. Many Christians are on a quest to find a church full of people just like themselves and they are not only able to do this but encouraged because there are not any external pressures that make "personal preference" irrelevant to community. We fight and feud over secondary issues but what would we do if survival itself was our primary concern? I am guessing that we would be less concerned about our neighbor's position on the end times and more on how we can support one another.
Our strongly held secondary positions: baptism, eschatology, soteriology, etc. are important and worth working through in the church but they pale in comparison to true unity with the community of Christ's followers. We don't advance the Great Commission by winning debates about baptism or smiting an Arminian with a clever argument about Calvinism. The greatest issue in the church is not whether T.D. Jakes was invited to a conference that few people paid attention to other than for the controversy and when we focus on that sort of stuff while the church is splintered and competing with itself speaks volumes about how disunified and divided we truly are. Is modalism a heresy? Yeah I think it is but so is division in the Body of Christ.
We are not really in community with one another when our "community" is based on a voluntary association that caters to our preferences that we call "church". I am quite certain that the culture my children will find themselves in will be very different than what I know and have experienced. The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that the future of the church, the actual church and not organized religion, in America is going to be far more difficult but far healthier in the years to come. The "visible church" in the West is way overdue for a winnowing and that day is coming soon. When it does, it will be the community of Christ that will be revealed amidst the persecution and an unmistakable witness will finally be visible. God grant us the strength to face those days without the crutch and hiding place of organized, culturally acceptable religion and instead finds us relying solely on Christ and the community He has created.