The church in America is too easily understood by outsiders. How can any understanding be too easy? It’s too easy because it’s too easy to get the church wrong.
Some people are quite sure that the church is a civic or patriotic outpost, a mere adjunct of the community or nation state. While churches make this (mistaken) argument most clearly on national holidays and any other times dealing with veterans or scouts, it is easy to believe the rest of the year. We have national flags in our sanctuaries. We think there is little or no difference between being Christian and being American. It’s no surprise the world gets it wrong.
Some folks are just as sure that the church is a social service organization. These are the people who are always looking for new ways to meet community needs. While some churches can do this well, and some churches can do it for a short time, all American churches lack the power and discipline of government. We’ll either make a call for “social justice,” meaning thereby that the government ought to do kingdom good for people, or our people will wear out or retire from their ministries, leaving the social work to others (but the others are too busy or equally worn out).
Finally, just about everyone is sure that the church is some sort of religions club. If you want to be religious, well, that’s the place for you. If you don’t, well, stay away. After all, recent studies have shown that some people have brains that have mutated in such a way that they “get” religion. Other folks just lack the religion gene.
While it’s likely that none of these wrong understandings of church is completely wrong, they each miss the reality of God who has entered history in the person of his Son Jesus, a God who continues to work in the world – and shape the church – through the Holy Spirit. The church will never be right when it – implicitly or explicitly – reduces itself to civic, community, or patriotic service, or becomes a religious club.
What’s the alternative? I’d suggest that as the church focuses on following Jesus, we’ll find ourselves doing more and more that makes no sense to the world around us. Sure, some will look at the non-sense and turn away. Others will see it and hear the voice of God in the distance.