I once heard someone say something along the line that "anyone with a brain doesn’t need a church to tell them how to live, they can figure it out for themselves." I will concede that there is some truth to a statement like that. There are plenty of people in our community and our world who live a decent life, even a good life, helping others, doing good, loving their families, and they never go to a church.
So why church? What’s a church for? Why should anyone go to church if you can be a good person without it? Well, different churches might give different answers to these questions. Even within a particular church you’ll get different answers from the people there. Here’s what I’ve been thinking about these questions.
I’m a Lutheran pastor and in the Lutheran church we talk a lot about grace. In fact one of the Lutheran church’s famous slogans is "Grace Alone!" What grace or "Grace Alone!" boils down to is that God loves us. Not just "us" Lutherans, not just "us" Christians. God loves the whole world and demonstrated that love through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. And God calls, gathers, enlightens, sanctifies, and sends the church out so that the Word of God’s unconditional love and promise can be heard clearly in the world.
That Word of God’s unconditional love and promise is a word of forgiveness and life. God knows, and so do we, that we’re less than perfect, that we mess up, that we don’t live the kind of life that God intended for us. So what does God do when we mess up? God forgives! And the Word of God’s unconditional love and promise is life giving. God’s love makes a difference for people. Not the law. Not a list of rules you better follow or else. Not whacking people upside the head with a Bible. The thing that changes people, the thing that makes a difference for your life, the thing that gives life is God’s love.
So why do people think the church is about telling them how to live? Well, I think it’s because so often the church forgets about its reason for being, forgets that it’s really about spreading the news of God’s unconditional grace. We’re not here to list conditions that people need to fulfill before they can receive God’s grace. We’re not here to reform people’s morals. We’re not here to tell people how to live.
It’s tempting to tell people that if they’d just shape up and turn their lives around, if they’d just do this and this and if they’d stop doing that and that, then God will surely reward them. But that’s not now and never can be the good news. Every time we tell people, "If you would just change, then God will love you," then the church is betraying the message it’s been sent to share.
That’s not what God created the church to be and do. The church has been put into this world to spread the radical news of the unconditional grace of God. The church is not a "check your brain at the door" kind of operation. We believe that when we hear the good news of God’s grace and experience the good news in the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper then God awakens faith in us and then strengthens that faith as we live in a Christian community.
So why church? I don’t think the church is here to tell us how to live. But I do think the church is here to help us to live a life of faith. And as we live a life of faith with other Christians in the church God changes us so that we can live for others and share the faith and the good news of God’s love for the whole world.