Conversations With A Skeptic: Who Needs The Church?

Rev. Dr. Carter Lester Avatar

There are a lot of people in recent years who say they don’t need the church – or any religious community.  The number of people who check the box for “none” to the question of their religion is growing on various national surveys.  Then there are a lot of people who claim to be “spiritual but not religious.”  I cannot tell you how many strangers who, once they learn I am a minister, tell me something similar to this: “I don’t need the church.  I can worship God in nature – that is my cathedral.” 

Among those who once attended church, there are a number who have slipped away.  During the pandemic, a number of people discovered online worship.  “I don’t need the church,” someone once told Kerry and me.  “I can watch and hear great preachers all over the world in my pajamas, without having to sit through the other stuff.”  Then there are all those who might like to be here, but just find it too hard: “I don’t have the time or energy for church,” someone said.  “With all I have to do, Sunday is my time to catch up on rest.”

In light of all that, who does need the church?   

The best way to answer that question is by asking and answering another question: “Why the church?  Why do we bring our children to the font to be baptized into the church?

Because the Church is God’s gift, not just for Christians, but for the whole world.

The Church is not a human-created voluntary association or club that believers have gotten together to form – and which we can join and pay dues like any other organization.  No, the Church is a divine institution, a living organization that God has made.  That is not to say the Church on earth always acts in godly ways; we are too imperfect for that to happen.  That is why Paul uses the image of an earthen vessel to describe the church – ordinary, even flawed and cracked.

But this earthen vessel carries a great treasure.  The Church is the clay vessel which God has chosen to pour divine gifts into the world.  It is the vessel into which God pours God’s very self.  Why do we need the church?  “Because the Church, cracked and flawed though it may be, is the vessel God uses to give us what we need.”1

What is that – what is it that we need?  First, through the vessel of the church, God gives us what we need to believe. 

Without the church, how would we have come to faith in the first place?  No Christian is self-made; whether as a child or an adult, we came to faith because someone shared the gospel with us.  At home, or in church, or on a retreat – or all of the above – someone told us about God’s love for us.  Whether through casual conversations away from here, or through more intentional conversations in a church building, or through the way they lived in the world, someone showed us what it means to be one of Jesus’ disciples. 

Someone shared the gospel with us in words and actions – and before that, whoever they were, someone had shared the gospel with them.  That is the way God has chosen to work – through people, through one generation telling the next generation.  For 2000 years God has been working this way.

Sometimes people shared the gospel with words; but more often it was with actions.  As someone has said, the gospel “is not a set of abstract truths to be announced but a way of life to be lived.”2 And to live out love in the way of Christ Jesus, we need examples, models, and mentors.  I remember one woman, who grew up in a troubled household, telling me, “when I look back in my life I realize that the church is where I learned love.” 

To be sure, the disciples who taught her about love were imperfect; we disciples always are.  We are earthen vessels, ordinary and flawed.  But by God’s grace and design, we can bear divine treasure. 

Some people ask: can’t you be a Christian without being part of the church?  I ask: how can there be Christians in future generations without a church to pass on that faith?

Second, through the Church, God gives us what we need to grow.

There is something missing when people talk about worshipping in nature or in the quiet of their own homes – can you guess what it is?  Other people!  It is tempting to think about how spiritual we can be if we didn’t have to worry about other people!

But as the poet and preacher, John Donne, wrote, “no man – or woman – is an island.”  Jesus lived in community.  He gathered disciples around him.  What was good for Peter and Paul and Martha and Mary is good for us.  Jesus does not call us to be disciples on our own; Jesus calls us to be disciples in community.

Listen again to the instructions the apostle Paul gives to the church in Colossians 3: “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.  Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other.”

In other words, expect when you gather with the church to have reason to be impatient with others, Paul effectively is saying.  But how else can you learn patience?  Expect to have reason to complain about others.  But how else can you expect to learn forbearance, not to complain to others?  Expect even to be wronged.  That is how we learn to forgive – as others have forgiven us. 

Increasingly in our society, people are sorting themselves so that they live and interact more and more with others who are like them: in roughly the same age and income brackets, who like the same music and media, who think the same way and vote the same way.

But that is not the Church.  We are here not because we pick each other, but because God has picked us.  Today, a church congregation can be one of the few places where we do interact with people of different ages and income brackets, different tastes and politics.  What a gift that diversity can be when we read the Scriptures together to widen our perspectives.  What a gift that diversity can be when we follow the way of Christ and seek to understand rather than judge, seek to see each other as unique children of God rather than as group stereotypes.  How refreshing it can be when we choose each other rather than choose sides.  As God has chosen us.

Third, God gives us the Church so that we can persevere in the way of Christ

There are a lot of things we can do alone; being a Christian isn’t one of them.  Following Christ can be hard; but it is far easier when we are around people who are trying to do the same, whether we are 15 or 35 or 55 or 75.  Life can be hard: but when doubts or losses or illness or heartache comes, how much better it is when we are not alone, when someone else is standing there beside us.

Michael Lindvall recalls watching two kinds of birds growing up along Lake Michigan: seagulls and Canada geese.  The gulls “always flew alone,” he recalls.  “They would rise high with the breeze off the lake, then swoop down to skim the surface of the water.  They looked magnificently free.”  But whenever they were together, they were “either squabbling over fish guts or fighting about who got to sit on what dock piling.”

“Canada geese are different,” he continues.  Twice a year, hundreds of thousands of them would pass overhead…Seldom would you see one alone.  They usually fly in their famous V-formation.  In so doing, scientists say that they can actually fly 71 percent farther than they could alone.  The bird ahead creates lift that makes it easier for the bird just behind.  Canada geese even have a system of rotating leadership so that the burden of being in the lead is shared.  And if a bird becomes ill and has to drop out of formation, another member of the flock will always stay behind.”3

I need the church to fly farther than I can on my own.  I need the Church so that I will never be left behind.  I need the Church so that others will not be left behind.

Finally, God gives us the Church so that we can answer our need to serve.

The Church does not exist for itself.  Instead, it exists to love and worship God and to love and serve our neighbor.  At the end of John’s gospel, Jesus tells the disciples, “as the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  God gives us the Church so that we can be equipped to do God’s work in the world.

Each week, you hear announcements and slides about various ways that FPCA is seeking to serve the needs of the Lehigh Valley and the world beyond.  Don’t think of these as requests, much less as demands.  Think of them instead as opportunities.  Each one of them already has people from FPCA involved.  They find great joy and meaning in using their gifts and participating in these ministries with our neighbors near and far – and they simply want to give you a chance to receive that same joy and meaning.  No one is expected to do everything – but God is nudging us all to do something. 

What the Church asks on this Sunday, and in this season, is for you to intentionally and prayerfully consider how you wish to offer your gifts in the next year: your gifts of ministry, your gifts of time, your gifts of money.  None of us is a billionaire – at least to the best of my knowledge.  Alone we can do precious little with our time or our money.  But together with God’s help, there is no telling what God might do in and through us.

About 25 years ago, Kerry and I got on a chartered school bus to go to downtown Philadelphia.  We were not alone: on that bus were about 30 members of First Presbyterian Church in Pottstown, ranging from 85 year-old Flossie Schumacher to our 13 year-old daughter, Molly.  It was a field trip she has never forgotten.  Our destination was the immigration court where one of our newest members was facing deportation.

Charlie Guo had wandered into our church one Sunday morning.  He spoke very little English, and as you might imagine, none of us spoke any Chinese.  There was a lot of smiling and nodding that first Sunday.  He came back with a letter, written in English with a friend’s help.  He had been very sad and lonely when he first came into the church, he wrote.  But although the service was in a language he could barely understand, for the first time in a long time, he found a light in his darkness.  He wanted to be a Christian and be baptized. 

As would be true all along the way, the Holy Spirit was at work. We found a Presbyterian Pastor from China who could translate for Kerry and me.  Together that pastor, Clifford Liu, joined us in baptizing Charlie; it was a very joyful Sunday for all.

We also found out through Clifford why Charlie was so desolate when he came to us and why he was facing deportation.  He was in the United States on an expired visa while his wife and son were back in China.  Charlie and his wife had wanted a second child, which was then illegal under China’s so-called one-child law.  They knew they might be fined and they were saving up to pay that fine, like a couple here might save to make a downpayment on their first house.

But instead, the local officials decided to make an example of Charlie and his wife.  One day when Charlie was at work, they sent officials to take Charlie’s wife to the hospital and force an abortion before Charlie knew about it.  Then to make matters worse, she lost her job, and it looked like Charlie might lose his.  So he came to the United States on a short-term travel visa, hoping to stay and then bring his wife and young son over.  But two years later, he had made no progress in doing so, and his visa was long-expired. 

We found a young immigration attorney to represent Charlie.  He was hopeful that Charlie could get asylum, but he warned us that it might not even be a 50-50 proposition.

So, on the day of Charlie’s hearing, 30-some Presbyterian souls got on a bus to go to Philadelphia to attend the hearing.  When we got there, we found that the security people didn’t know what to do with us: spectators are not common at immigration hearings.  But, then they grudgingly admitted we could sit there. We quietly watched as Charlie testified with the help of a translator and was cross-examined.  Charlie was the only witness. 

Finally, the judge issued his decision from the bench.  He found Charlie’s claims credible, and granted asylum.  He cited in his recorded opinion the people in Charlie’s church who had showed up to support Charlie – it made his testimony more credible.

There were hugs and tears in the courtroom, and then when we got outside, a bunch of Presbyterians drew everyone’s attention by singing the doxology on that street corner.  It was a scene right out “It’s a Wonderful Life” when an official from the courtroom joined us in singing.  Just to let you know the rest of the story: a year or so later, Charlie was able to bring his wife and son over.  The three of them walked into Church one Sunday for the first time – you cannot make this up – on the 4th of July.

Who needs the church?  Charlie Guo did.  And so did Flossie and our 13 year-old daughter Molly, and every other person on that bus, including Kerry and me.  But so did that immigration court.  And so does the world. 

So come on geese, this flock needs to keep flying.

  1. From a sermon by Rev. Kerry Pidcock-Lester. ↩︎
  2. Ernest Best, Second Corinthians, Interpretation Bible Series (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1987), 39. ↩︎
  3. Michael Lindvall, Geography of God (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007), 91-92. ↩︎