Do I Have To Join a Church?This question is asked more by young people than those who are older. And it's a good question. These paras are excerpted from my book GROW! Meditations and Prayers for New Christians (JBCE)
Shalom! Rowland Croucher
Can you be a good Christian outside the Church? That's like asking 'Can a nose be a nose without a face?' When asked this question, a pastor reached for a live coal from the fire, put it onto the hearth, where it blackened and lost its heat. He then restored it back to the fire and it soon burned brightly again.
According to sociologist Robert Bellah, 81 percent of Americans agree that 'an individual should arrive at his or her own religious belief independent of any church or synagogue.' Many who claim to be Christians are arriving at faith on their own terms - terms that make no demands on behaviour.
A woman named Sheila, interviewed for Bellah's Habits of the Heart, embodies this attitude. 'I believe in God,' she said. 'I can't remember the last time I went to church. But my faith has carried me a long way. It's "Sheila-ism." Just my own little voice.' 
The church has four functions, essentially:
Worship - everything we do for the glory of God, individually or collectively;
Community - all we do to enhance the lives of one another;
Formation - the process of individuals' being formed into the image of Christ;
Mission - everything done for those outside its membership.
A healthy church does all these effectively, as does every group within it, to some extent. To enhance those four functions, we sing praises to the Lord, hear the word of God in preaching, share a sacramental life, pray with one another, study the Scriptures together, encourage one another, and celebrate significant events in each others' lives.
Every church needs a pastor, or shepherd. The pastor - with others appropriately gifted - leads, preaches, counsels, visits the members and others, and trains the church for ministry. Typically a full-time pastor spends half the time with God, alone, and half with people; and half the people-time ought to be spent in training.
Because pastors are called by God, their office should be honoured. Pastors suffer a high degree of stress these days trying to meeting many conflicting expectations. Do your best to encourage your pastor/s. Allow them to have at least one day off a week, and be available to their families without having to attend lots of meetings. ('What shall it profit a pastor if he or she gathers a whole lot of people and loses health or family?'). Pastors must never forget that the 'ministry' belongs to the whole church. Pastors facilitate the ministry of others; others do not exist to 'help the pastor run the church'.
Most churches at some time have a Sunday school for children, boys' and girls' clubs during the week, a youth group, small groups for adults, women's group, and perhaps a men's group etc. Most churches have a deacons' or elders' board, and, if larger, a finance committee, nominating committee, mission committee, etc. Your church can't do everything, particularly if it's small: why not figure out the few things your church does best and work hard at producing excellence in those areas? Training is essential - for every ministry within the church. Leaders should be trained to lead, imparting a vision to those they lead.
Church members should be trained to help their friends (counseling) and reach out to those who do not yet know the Lord (evangelism). The whole church should be a miniature theological seminary, learning about the faith. Then new Christians or those enquiring about the Christian faith ought to have a 'Christianity Explained' class. A seminar on spiritual gifts will help people discover why they are on this planet and not yet in heaven! Classes or groups can address life-situations: young mothers with their first babies, marriage enrichment, coping with retirement, balancing the budget for young marrieds or the unemployed, how to get a job, alcoholics anonymous, GROW groups for those with emotional troubles, tutorials for high school students, etc.
One of the problems the church faces - as does any human system - is institutionalism. Every group has its traditions or structures, but when these rule the life of the group, it soon dies. Structures need renewal; but renewal needs structure, as a body needs bones. The ideal is to seek for freedom within order.
What kind of order? The New Testament churches - and churches since - seemed to make decisions three ways: first the episcopal way - leaders with almost absolute authority ruling by decree; second, the presbyterian way, with groups of elders making significant decisions for the group; third the congregational way, with the whole church meeting to decide what is God's will for them. Catholics, Anglicans and the Salvation Army are generally episcopal; Presbyterians give high authority to elders; Baptists are congregational. Most churches these days incorporate the best of all three into their 'polity'.
Institutionalism breeds legalism, with lots of rules for this and that. Certainly have a constitution - make it simple, and refer to it rarely. Who should belong to your church? Any who 'name the Name' in my view (see Romans 15:7). Churches that insist on only one form of baptism or who rebaptize those from other churches, may be guilty of Pharisaism: adding traditions to grace. It's good to prayerfully set a few goals - just four or five a year. This keeps us future-oriented. Those who fail to plan plan to fail. Pull your weight in the church: be available to help.
Be friendly. One person visited a church and stayed. Why? 'They're friendly. When they ask how you are they really want to know. And If I say "Not too good" they respond with "Tell me about it".' That doesn't mean we are 'addicted to affability': if we don't see eye to eye we do something about it. Two people who think and disagree are closer together than two people who don't think and agree!
And always remember, Christ is the head of the church, not any human being. Our calling is to follow him, and to follow others inasmuch as they follow him. We are not merely a social institution or a 'glee club', we are his people in the world, doing in our day what he did in his. Ours too is a ministry of reconciliation, of healing, of salvation: we exist for those outside the church, as well as for those within it.
And now some quotes from some interesting authors on the subject: Shalom! Rowland Croucher (jmm.aaa.net.au)
'If you have God and everything else, you have no more than having God only; everything else without God equals nothing' (A medieval mystic)
If the church is to be saved - if it can be saved - it will be according to the same rule that goes for all of us as individuals. That is the rule of true repentance. To turn the church's own language upon itself, it must earnestly desire to be saved. It cannot dictate its own terms of surrender. On the contrary, it must prostrate itself before its Lord in utter brokenness and humility... It must become a glad beggar again, a servant whose only joy is in serving. That way there will be no counting of cost, no worry over property or possessions, no concern about status. The load will be lightened, and the way will not seem hard. The dreams will be good again, not troubled, for they are dreams of the wholeness of mankind. John Killinger,The Second Coming of the Church, Nashville: Abingdon, 1974, pp. 13-14.
God has ordained three institutions for the ordering of society: the family for the propagation of life, the state for the preservation of life, and the church for the proclamation of the gospel. These are not just voluntary associations that people can join or not as they see fit; they are organic sources of authority for restraining evil and humanising society. Charles Colson, Against the Night, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1990, p.69.
Let [those] who cannot be alone beware of community. [They] will only do harm to [themselves] and to the community. Alone you stood before God when he called you; alone you had to answer that call; alone you had to struggle and pray; and alone you will die and give an account to God. You cannot escape from yourself; for God has singled you out. If you refuse to be alone you are rejecting Christ's call to you, and you can have no part in the community of those who are called... But the reverse is also true: Let [those] who are not in community beware of being alone. Into the community you were called, the call was not meant for you alone; in the community of the called you bear your cross, you struggle, you pray. You are not alone, even in death, and on the Last Day you will be only one member of the great congregation of Jesus Christ, and thus your solitude can be only hurtful to you... We recognize, then, that only as we are within the fellowship can we be alone, and only [those who are] alone can live in the fellowship. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, New York: Harper & Row, 1954, p. 77.
We must not regard the Church purely as an institution or an organization. She is certainly visible and clearly recognizable in her teachings, her government, and her worship. These are the external lineaments through which we may see the interior radiance of her soul. This soul is not merely human, it is divine. It is the Holy Spirit itself. The Church, like Christ, lives and acts in a manner at once human and divine. Certainly there is imperfection in the human members of Christ, but their imperfection is inseparably united to his perfection, sustained by his power, and purified by his holiness, as long as they remain in living union with him by faith and love... Hence the true nature of the Church is that of a body in which all the members 'bear one another's burdens'... Thomas Merton, 'The Mystery of the Church', in Meditations on the Church, based on the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Second Vatican Council, 1964, New York: Herder and Herder, 1967, pp. 45-46.
The one who really tries to follow Christ will know that whatever has been accomplished in the name of Christ through nineteen centuries has been accomplished not by single piccolos and flutes tooting their isolated tunes, but by the great symphony of the Church playing harmoniously under its Divine Conductor; and one will ask no higher privilege than to be a member of that symphony and play one's part, however obscure, in making the Church strong and effectual. A. Leonard Griffith, What is a Christian?, London: Lutterworth Press, 1962, p.19.
It is often said that the church is full of neurotics and hypocrites, and this is perfectly true. The church should want them, when everyone else regards them as nuisances, and I wish the church had more of them. G A ffrench-Beytagh, cited in William Barclay, Testament of Faith, Oxford: Mowbrays, 1977, p.102.
The German philosopher Schopenhauer once said that people are like a pack of porcupines on a freezing winter night. The sub-zero temperature forces them together for warmth. But as soon as they press very close, they jab and hurt one another. So they separate, only to attempt, in vain, over and over again, to huddle together. Love is painful. For Jesus it meant the thorns and the agony of the nails... Today the church, as the body of Christ on earth, must also know something of this same crucifixion, together with its pain, before men and women will be drawn by the love of God to himself. David Watson,I Believe in the Church, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1978, p.367.
The dark malaise of the Christian church in our time is that so many congregations have developed a preoccupation with their weaknesses, their problems, and their concerns. It is as if there were no open tomb or risen Lord. It is as if these congregations preferred to live locked in a closed tomb, focusing on their past and refusing to recognize the strengths God has shared with them that they might be in mission in this world... We need more persons who are willing to be competent, compassionate, courageous, and committed missionaries, and we need fewer who are willing to be only professional ministers. That is to say, we need more persons who are willing to be active in the world in mission and fewer who are willing to be only reactive within the programs and activities of the local church. Kennon L. Callahan, Twelve Keys to an Effective Church: Strategic Planning for Mission, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983, p. xxi
Doctors test our bodies for health, and diagnose illness. How would you test a church for its health? Try these: (1) In corporate worship, they are sometimes 'lost in wonder love and praise'; (2) For an increasing number worship 'in church' deeply affects 'worship in the world'; (3) A growing percentage of the members belong to small groups for worship, study, sharing life's concerns and prayer; (4) A growing number who 'come to church' once come back again: they sense life there; (5) People are making significant faith commitments regularly; (6) The church is increasingly involved in ministries of mercy to the disadvant- aged; (7) It is also increasingly concerned about injustices in the world, and makes concerted efforts to 'stir' about some of them; (8) Helpful Christian books are regularly bought from a well-stocked bookstall; (9) Members are honest, open, forgiving each other; (10) Those for whom life has been hard find a place to belong. Rowland Croucher, from a seminars for clergy.
It seems rather strange that very few books on leadership have chapters on followership. As a matter of fact, followership is not even in the unabridged dictionary. There seems to be a curious assumption that while leaders need special instruction for exercising their role, followers need no such instruction. The more I study church leadership, the more I disagree with the assumption. Many pastors who would like to, cannot lead their congregation becauswe of a basic lack of sensitivity on the part of the people as to their role as followers... [But, in the Bible a] sharp warning is sounded for pastors. A great deal of leadership authority is handed to them, but because they are human beings this can be, and all too often is, abused... Sociologically, churches are voluntary associations. Spiritually, churches are the family of God. Neither allows for a coercive type of leadership authority... The dangers of lordship, rather than Christian leadership, are clear. Peter Wagner, Leading Your Church to Growth, Ventura: Regal Books, 1984, pp 107-116.
Ask the governing body of your congregation... to list five or six significant accomplishments in ministry that occurred in or through this congregation during the past twelve months...If your congregation resembles the typical church, the respondents will include a few people who are unable to list more than one or two... perhaps one or two leaders who complete the exercise with a blank list... This exercise illustrates one of the most important basic principles in church planning. The skill which the churches have developed to the highest level of competence is the capability of keeping secrets! Lifting the level of self-esteem of a congregation requires breaking this conspiracy of secrecy Lyle Schaller, Hey That's Our Church!, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1975, pp. 186-187.
When sociologists study organizations they distinguish between the logic of mission and the logic of maintenance. The logic of mission considers an organization's goals and the way it functions to realize those goals. The logic of maintenance studies the way the organization seeks to perpetuate its interests. While both logics are essential for organizational survival, they often conflict. When this happens there exists a tendency, social scientists have discovered, to place more weight on the logic of maintenance than the logic of mission. Michael H. Crosby, The Dysfunctional Church, Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1991, p. 78.
The church with all her ministries lives continuously in history as a pilgrim people among all the communities of mankind, in obedience to Christ and in a constant solidarity with the world. This means that the Church with repentance and renewal, with the hope and joy which Jesus gives, is always ready to be reshaped in the forms of its ministry according to his call at each stage of the pilgrim life. Max Thurian (ed), Ecumenical Perspectives on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1983, p. 223
I think the church is the only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable; the only thing that makes the church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and that on this we are fed. It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the church as for it but if you believe in the divinity of Christ you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it. Flannery O'Connor, from a letter, cited in John H. Westerhoff, Building God's People in a Materialistic Society, New York: Seabury Press, 1983, p.145.
There was a woman in my parish who suffered more physically than anyone I've known. As a young woman she had been a haute couture model and a singer with an operatic-quality voice. A degenerative arthritis slowly destroyed her joints, wracked her with excruciating pain, and left her crippled... Though her faith never wavered, more than once she said to me that God had abandoned her. 'Where,' she asked, 'am I to see God's love for me?' In her last years, she became the centre of attention for a group of women in the parish. Most of them were a generation younger, and had gotten to know her through a women's Bible study and other parish activities. Singly or at times together, without any planning or organization, they simply began to visit her at home and in the hospital when she was there. They would run errands, care for some household duties, but mostly just be with her, pray with her, sit with her, talk with her. Slowly in the depth of her sufffering, she began to realize that she had not been abandoned by God. True, there were no moments of mystical intimacy, or interventions of dramatic healing. The love of God came to her in a quiet way, through the calm, patient affection of those women. We cannot live the Christian life in isolation. He calls us into koinonia. Kenneth Swanson, Uncommon Prayer, New York: Ballantine, 1987, pp. 113-114.
Most merciful God, we confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. We have sinned against you in thought, word and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbours as ourselves. For the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us. Forgive us, renew us and lead us, so that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your holy name. Amen.
(The eucharistic liturgy of Lima, 1982, in Max Thurian (ed), Ecumenical Perspectives on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1983, p. 237.
Lord, send your light upon your family. May they continue to enjoy your favour and devote themselves to doing good. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Daily Mass Book, Brisbane: The Liturgical Commission, 1990, p.37.
The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face to shine on you and be gracious to you. The Lord look upon you with favour and give you peace. Almighty God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, bless you now and forever.
Endnotes:  Robert Bellah, Habits of the Heart, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985, p.228.
The Benediction was taken from the eucharistic liturgy of Lima, 1982, in Max Thurian (ed), Ecumenical Perspectives on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1983, p. 246.