What is Church? God’s Special People

“This is a big old ship, Bill.  She creaks, she rocks, she rolls, and at times she makes you want to throw up.  But she gets where we’re going.  Always has, always will, until the end of time. With or without you.” [i]

If you’ve been in church long enough you would probably smile and nod at J.F. Power’s comment quoted above.  To say that the church is imperfect is a euphemism.  But to walk away from church is silly, if you understand the nature of church.  The church is made up by redeemed, but broken people.  And therein lies the tension between the expectation of Christ-like perfection and the reality of sinful, selfish people.  Church is messy, but church is glorious.

It is easy to get so busy with the activities, meetings and politics of church organization that one lose sight of the identity and nature of church.  When that happens, these necessary activities drain the life and joy out of church life, and we miss the beauty we once knew within Christ’ community.  So, what is church?

Simply put, church is GOD’S SPECIAL PEOPLE.

GOD’S people

Church begins with God: a community created and chosen, redeemed and reconciled by God and for God. It is in every respect God’s Church – a God-owned people.  Consequently, the church is and should be preoccupied with God and live God-conscious lives.  Thus we are people who live in the fear of God – we live in the knowledge that he exists, he sees all things and he will judge every person.  Moreover, because we are God-conscience we also live in hope because we know God hears every call and God saves everyone who cries out to him – we are not alone in this world!  The church is a God-worshipping community that live in thankful response to Christ’s work of redemption and in constant awareness of God’s gracious providence.  These thankful worshippers form a God-serving community who devote their lives on this earth to serve God’s His redemptive purpose, and a God-declaring people who preach the message of his coming kingdom. Most importantly, the church is God’s church because we are a God-abiding people, set aside by God to dwell in eternally.  As such the church community is a God-empowered and God-revealing people through whom the world knows the loving and righteous character of our God.

a SPECIAL people

The church is a special community, a people chosen by God.  We are God’s “ekklesia” – a posterity “called-out” by God, for God’s purposes.  We are separate, not part of this world; set apart by God, for his delight.  God has sanctified us for himself – we are holy to God, and unto God.  As such we are a counter-cultural community living differently because we do not values this world or the things of this world.  We are a special people because we are a people inhabited by God.  The God of creation, the God of the universe has made his dwelling place among us.  We have become an eternal community who live forever since the Eternal God has become our home, sharing his life with us.

no ordinary PEOPLE

The church is made up of people – humans who live ordinary lives here on earth.  A gathering of redeemed, but still imperfect, broken, mortal people.  But the church is God’s new race, God’s new humanity where there is no male or female, neither slave nor freeman, no distinction between Jew or Greek – a people who value life and identity in Christ more than economic, gender, race or education distinctions.  We are more than mere mortals – the church is God’s new creation, the restored Eden, the New Jerusalem where God is always in her midst and he is her perpetual light.  As Staney Grenz writes “the church is… a new humanity… who are seeking to point toward the future God has in store for creation.” [ii]  With his presence among us and his Spirit transforming us into his image, the church is God’s own representation as we have become partakers his divine nature.  Or as Grenz puts it [we are an] ‘eschatological people,’ a company who ‘pioneer’ in the present what the future will be like.”[iii]  The church is a foretaste of what the New Creation will be like when Christ returns.

But most importantly, the church is God’s own family – the privileged posterity who can rightly call him Dad as we have been born again of Him.  As such we are his favored offspring, his beloved children who bring joy to his face.  It is in the atmosphere of a local church that the loving nature and grace of God our Father is experienced and displayed.  It is through his family – imperfect as the humans therein – that God chooses to make himself and his mission known.  And that is the perpetual business of church: the gentle, purposeful redemption and restoration of individuals, families and society at large as God’s children go about representing the love of God our Father.  That is the privileged of being part of church.

[i] J.F. Powers, Wheat that Springeth Green, (NYRB Classics, 1988)

[ii] Stanley Grenz, Created for Community, (Baker Academic, 1998), p207

[iii] Stanley Grenz, Created for Community, (Baker Academic, 1998), p213

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Our Lonely World

Earlier this week the legendary actor Robin Williams was found dead in his own home.  He apparently committed suicide, an act aptly described by reporter Andrew Solomon as “A crime of loneliness” [1].  In the Reuters news article about his death, Alex Saphir writes what many of us think: “His tragic end stood in stark contrast to the many on-screen characters he portrayed who encouraged those around them to tap into their own inner vitality, a wellspring of creativity to which he himself gave full vent in films such as “Good Morning, Vietnam” and “Dead Poets Society.” [2]  Not many people knew of Robin’s deep struggle, since loneliness by its nature is rarely observable to others.

Being lonely and loneliness are two separate things; solitude and isolation are not the same.  One can be alone in a room without feeling lonely, yet many of us have experienced the feeling of loneliness especially in a crowded place.  It is a well-known fact that around 10% of older people feel chronically lonely [3], understandably so due to immobility, mental decline and friends passing away, etc.  But a 2010 Mental Health Foundation report found that today loneliness is more prevalent among young people. [4]

This is extremely worrisome since loneliness is detrimental to one’s mental and physical health.  In one study 42% of people linked depression to their loneliness. [5]  Low self-esteem, hopelessness, paranoia and anxiety are commonly associated with loneliness. Lonely people often indulge in behaviors that are harmful to themselves, such as over-eating, binge drinking, risky sexual relations and drug use; these sensual behaviors numb the pain of social isolation.  Furthermore, feeling lonely can literally break your heart [6] – thus it is not strange that loneliness in itself increases the probability of an early death by as much as 45% [7].

Our society is lonely and consequently hurting.  Our society desperately longs for connectedness, intimacy and belonging – that is the way we were created by God.  Loneliness is not a sign of weakness or spiritual immaturity – it simply speaks of a legitimate desire created by God that is not appropriately met.

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In your face(book)

Although at least one Canadian newspaper article referred to loneliness as “the disease of our time… an epidemic… with millions effected”  [8] in 1982, the problem is much more prevalent today.  Social media gets the brunt of the blame for making relationships superficial, as studies show that the more time one spends on Facebook the more lonely, less sociable and less happy one becomes. [9]  In her acclaimed TED Talk Connected, but alone?, MIT professor Sherry Turkle argues that electronic relationships has the potential to leave one empty and alone, since we present idealized versions of selves through filtered images and edited conversations, so we have online relationships with constructs of others, not the real self.  This leaves us with the feeling that everyone is projecting but no one is hearing us.

However, the 2010 Mental Health Foundation report also states that social media is an obvious benefit to rekindle and maintain relationships where face-time is not possible due to immobility (due to long-term sickness or a new-born baby), or in a situation where family and friends relocate.  This is an important factor in perceived social isolation (a.k.a. loneliness): people who live and grow up in an environment that constantly changes do not put down deep relational roots, nor do they learn how to build deep and meaningful relationships.  Factors that aggravate this relational disconnect include increased working hours, work-related travel, and especially family break-ups.  The family break-ups again points to another important factor of societal loneliness: people are afraid to be hurt in close relationships when they have been betrayed, abused, rejected or shamed in the past by one with whom they have been vulnerable.  In such cases skillful, patient love must facilitate healing for trust to be regained.

So our lonely world is made of Facebook “friends” who pretend to talk while no-one is listening and others who cannot meet one another due to immobility or distance, the ones who perpetually uproot and relocate and the ones who set up fences because of past hurts.  Ours is a detached, broken, vulnerable society raising insecure, unloved and angry children who are disconnected and unsure of their identities.

How do we respond to this as Christians?  Isaiah 61:4 speaks prophetically of a people saved and healed by God, who in turn will build up a broken down society, bringing complete restoration to “devastations of many generations.”  Thus we ought to be restored relationally, and then rebuild society relationally by the loving power of God.

What does the Bible teach about God’s answer to loneliness?

  1. Marriage as God’s solution to loneliness

Genesis 2:18-20 “Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” Now out of the ground the LORD God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him.”

Surprisingly, God is the first to mention loneliness in man.  He states “it is not good that man should be alone…”  This is profound, since this loneliness predates the rebellion of man and the devastating effect of sin entering the world and human nature.  Adam had a perfect communion with God, and yet God says “man is alone… this is not good.”  Adam’s desire for a mate is part of Adam’s sinless perfection before the fall; the longing for Eve is good and appropriate. I never tell a single person that their relationship with God should be sufficient, because God said the opposite.

But then God leaves Adam until he himself recognizes his own loneliness by observing the bliss of companionship among the animals he governs.  Then God made Eve and brought her to Adam.  In fear of some old lady reading this with a poodle on her lap, or a farmer with his German Sheppard in the front seat of his truck next to him, I must mention that Adam’s loneliness was not satisfied by all the animals in the world – his loneliness was only cured in another human being.  Nor could Adam’s job solve his need for human companionship.  Eve was the answer God had in mind.

God’s first cure for loneliness is a spouse. (Read a previous blog On marriage and our culture for more the design of marriage and the challenge within our culture).

  1. Family as God’s solution to loneliness

 

Psalm 68:5-6 “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation. God sets the lonely in families…”

God’s plan for mankind has always been families.  As the Perfect Father (Ephesians 3:14-15) He embraces those rejected from society, those who are vulnerable and marginalized. He adopts them into His loving family, giving them a safe place where they find identity and belonging in a loving environment.

Not only does God adopt us as children into His heavenly family, but He also places the outcast, the vulnerable and the lonely in families on earth.  This is a simple way of rebuilding society and stilling the pains of loneliness – whether by formal, legal adoption or merely by a radical inclusion of people into your home and heart.  Follow God’s example and seek out the lonely widow in your street, the single mothers in your community, the neglected neighborhood children, the fitness-freak bachelorette or the burger-eating computer-game-bachelor, and draw them into the family of God by bringing them into your heart and home. Let God place the lonely into your family and friendship circles, and let’s love them as Jesus loves us.

(For more on how to practically show love as Jesus did, read a previous blog on Known by your love. )

 

  1. Friendship as God’s solution to loneliness

Ecclesiastes 4:9-12  “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil.  For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!   Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone?  And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.”

A third way in which God solves loneliness is by means of friendship. This friendship is not merely an emotional connectedness or recreational filler.  As seen in the Ecclesiastes text above, Biblical friendship implies partnership and sharing, co-dependence, mutual support and protection, and communion.  This is the shared life of friendship David had with his mighty men while living as mercenaries during King Saul’s reign. This is the shared life of friendship Jesus enjoyed with his disciples while on earth.

This is friendship that satisfies the hungry heart and answers the relational call of loneliness.  This is the friendship that is ”closer than a brother.” (Proverbs 18:24)

  1. God with ’s indwelling Sprit as solution to loneliness

 Isaiah 7:14 “He shall be called Immanuel” – God with us”; Hebrews 13:5 “He will never leave us or abandon us.”

In most Western cultures Christmas is one of most joyful times because it brings families, friends and communities together is a time of celebration.  Yet Christmas time is the worst time for countless many people since their loneliness is accentuated by the family festivities of everyone else, resulting in the highest suicides occurrences in any calendar year in the West.  This is especially sad since the birth of Christ is about eradicating loneliness and hopelessness in the world[10]: “Therefore the Lord Himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel [meaning ‘God with us’]” (Isaiah 7:14; compare John 1:14-15).  In Jesus God again walked with man as God walked Adam at first.

And not only was Jesus Immanuel, God with the disciples and people in Israel during his short life on earth as a first-century Jewish man, but he promised his abiding presence with his disciples as they left continued his work of discipleship everywhere they go, until the end of time (Matthew 28:20).  So that promise remains for us – God dwells in us as believers through his Spirit living in us (Romans 8:9-11; Colossians 1:27).  We are never alone – he promised to never leave us or abandon us (Hebrews 13:5).

This changes the way Christians experience loneliness, because even though we feel lonely at times, like Adam we feel lonely in the loving fellowship of God our Father.  Being lonely with God means I can share my loneliness with God.  Or in the words of Peter, I can cast my burden of loneliness on him, because I know he cares for me (1 Peter 5:7).

And this loneliness is at times a good thing since it seems that God deals best with us when we’re alone, as we see in the life of Jacob, alienated from his family by his deceit, but God met him at the river bank.  Jacob became Israel – he was never the same again, because he wrestled God alone (Genesis 32:24).  The same can be said of Jesus, when he felt lonely and scared the night before the crucifixion and his disciples fell asleep:  He needed to carry that burden alone, and again the next day being forsaken by everyone, he carried the burden the Father entrusted to him alone, and it changed all of history (Matthew 26:39; 27:46).

In your loneliness know that you are never alone – God is with you. So “draw near to God, and we will draw near to you” (James 4:8).  Share all your loneliness and desires with him.  Allow him to heal you, so that you can rebuild your society with the loving power that overflows from your times with him.

[1] Solomon A, A Crime of Loneliness, The New Yorker, 14 August 2014, http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/suicide-crime-loneliness

[2] Saphir A., Dobuzinskis A., Sinha-Roy P., Comedy great Robin Williams hangs himself at home, Reuters, 12 August 2014, http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/08/12/us-people-robinwilliams-idUSKBN0GB28520140812,

[3] Jopling K., Barnett A., Alone in Crowd – compilation of articles, June 2014, p2, available at http://www.campaigntoendloneliness.org/wp-content/plugins/download-monitor/download.php?id=195

[4] Griffin J., The lonely society report, Mental Health Foundation UK, 2010, available at http://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/content/assets/PDF/publications/the_lonely_society_report.pdf

[5] Hall J.N., Loneliness and Mental Health – The Most Terrible Poverty, Campaign to end loneliness, 26 June 2014,

http://www.campaigntoendloneliness.org/blog/the-most-terrible-poverty-loneliness-and-mental-health/

[6] Hainer R., Loneliness hurts the heart, Health Magazine, 10 August 2009, found online at http://edition.cnn.com/2009/HEALTH/conditions/07/27/moh.healthmag.lonely.heart/

[7] Merz T., Loneliness Young people are lonely – but social media isn’t to blame, The Telegraph 25 Jul 2014, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/thinking-man/10985175/Young-people-are-lonely-but-social-media-isnt-to-blame.html

[8] Whittaker S., Loneliness – A disease of modern times, The Montreal Gazette, 25 September 1982, available at http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1946&dat=19820925&id=QX8xAAAAIBAJ&sjid=C6UFAAAAIBAJ&pg=1477,1513416  

[9] Greig A., All the lonely Facebook friends, Daily Mail, 12 September 2013, available at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2419419/All-lonely-Facebook-friends-Study-shows-social-media-makes-MORE-lonely-unhappy-LESS-sociable.html

[10] Rogers A., God’s answer to loneliness, http://www.lwf.org/site/News2?abbr=for_&id=10071, viewed 12 August 2014