The Church as the Body of Christ; Church; Body of Christ; 1 Corinthians 12-14
The Church as the Body of Christ
by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts
Copyright © 2008 by Mark D. Roberts
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The Church as the Body of Christ: Introduction
Part 1 of series: The Church as the Body of Christ
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For the last three months I have been blogging about the distressing condition of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Yet, given all of my frustrations and criticisms, I have not given up on the Church. Oh, I’m not sure what will come of the PC(USA), but no matter what happens with my denomination, I’m solidly committed to the Church of Jesus Christ.
So I’ve decided to do a blog series on the church. Specifically, I’m going to talk about the church as the body of Christ. Now I realize this isn’t a new idea for most Christians. In fact, the notion that the church is like a body is almost 2,000 years old. But I think I’ll be able to say some things about the church as the body of Christ that aren’t commonly understood, even by Christians who think they know all there is to know about this subject.
Moreover, I believe there’s much to be gained by revisiting this common image from the New Testament. As we think about what the church should be, and as some of us try to figure out the role of denominations in the church, we would do well to return to the biblical basics. And little is more basic than the simple affirmation that the church is the body of Christ.
If you’ve read my book After “I Believe,” you will recognize some basic ideas and even some of the text in this blog series. What I’m putting up is an greatly expanded and updated version of some things I wrote several years ago. (After “I Believe” is now out of print, by the way. You can probably get a copy from eBay for a penny.)
But before we get to the specific topic of the church as the body of Christ, we need to celebrate a birthday.
The Church’s Birthday
It must have been quite a scene. The streets and squares of Jerusalem teeming with Jewish pilgrims from throughout the world. The tempting smells of food hawked by street vendors. The din of raucous voices shouting in dozens of different languages all at once. A thrill in the air as the festival of the spring harvest was about to begin.
And then, above the bedlam, clear voices were heard, strong and joyous voices, voices proclaiming the wonders of God, voices exclaiming in numerous languages, yet somehow strangely harmonious.
As the crowds rushed to see what was happening, they gathered around a small band of Jewish pilgrims, men and women whose clothing and accents gave away their Galilean origins. Oddly enough, this rather unimpressive bunch from a small geographic region seemed to be speaking in all the languages known by the crowd. Each pilgrim heard the praise of God in his or her own tongue.
"How can this be?" some of the onlookers queried. "How can these simple Galileans know so many different languages? What's going on here?"
Others in the mob were unimpressed. "They're just drunk," they sneered. "Ignore them!"
At this point the crowd had grown to several thousand. One of those who had been praising God in a foreign tongue stepped forward and hailed the crowd, "Friends, we are not drunk. It's too early in the morning for that! Look, this is what the prophet Joel predicted centuries ago, when he promised that God would one day pour out his Spirit on all flesh. Now it's happening!"
The speaker, whose name was Peter, went on to say some disturbing but wonderful things about someone named Jesus, a man once supposed to be God's savior for Israel, but who had been put to death by the Jewish and Roman leaders of Judea seven weeks earlier. Yet, Peter claimed, Jesus rose from the dead as proof of his divine appointment as Lord and Messiah!
At first the crowd didn't know quite how to react. Were they being accused of something? Or was this some sort of invitation? A few felt their hearts moved by Peter's announcement. "What should we do now?" they shouted emphatically.
Peter replied, "Turn away from your sins and turn to God. Be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you too will receive the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, just like we have."
At first just a few came forward to accept Peter's offer and receive baptism. But then others followed. Soon a mass of humanity crowded around the Galileans. By the end of the day, about three thousand had heeded Peter's call. They turned away from their sins and trusted Jesus for salvation. They were baptized as a sign of their new faith in him as God's anointed Savior.
On this day some 2,000 years ago, the church was born. We call the church’s birthday Pentecost, which is an English version of the Greek word meaning "fifty." The Jewish harvest celebration occurred fifty days after Passover, hence Pentecost. (Photo: “Pentecost” by Jean Restout II, 1732).
What did the church do on its birthday? What did three thousand new Christians do next, after then turned from their sins and acknowledged Jesus as Savior? How did they begin their life in the Messiah? The Acts of the Apostles provides a tidy summary of early Christian activities:
So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common (Acts 2:41-44).
Notice that the new believers joined themselves promptly to the band of Jesus' followers. They continued to hang around the apostles, those who had been sent by Jesus to bear witness to him, in order to learn more about their faith. They also devoted themselves to “fellowship" (koinonia in Greek). The first believers began to participate in that intimate fellowship with God and God’s people that is so essential to Christian living.
This passage accentuates the human dimension of koinonia. The new converts shared intimate fellowship with the apostles and, by implication, with others who believed in Jesus. Notice that all of these folk "met together constantly" and "shared everything they had" (Acts 2:44). Their fellowship was far more than commenting on Peter's Pentecost sermon over coffee and bagels after church. They shared their possessions, prayers, and praises (Acts 2:45-47). They enjoyed meals together, during which they remembered Jesus' death on the cross as he had instructed his followers to do.
The earliest Christians seemed to sense, and no doubt were taught by the apostles, that what they had just done by believing in Jesus should be fleshed out in community with others who had done the same. They didn't simply add some new religious beliefs to their worldview and go on with life as usual. Nor did they immediately withdraw from the crowd and engage in private devotions. Rather, they embraced the community of other Christians at the same time as they were embraced by that community. They were adopted into a new Christian family.
We Americans, on the contrary, have had a long history of thinking of religion in general, and Christianity in particular, as mostly or exclusively a personal, private, individual matter. I’ll say more about this in my next post in this series.
Lone Ranger Christianity
Part 2 of series: The Church as the Body of Christ
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In my last post I began a blog series on the church as the body of Christ. I examined the story of the church’s birthday in Acts 2. There, the very first believers in Jesus gathered together in fellowship. For them, the Christian life was quite clearly something to be shared with others. Often, we in America aren’t so sure about that.
When I was a boy, I loved watching The Lone Ranger on television. He was a mysterious masked man who, along with his faithful partner, Tonto, and his powerful steed, Silver, stood up for justice in the Old West. His famous call, “Hi-yo, Silver! Away!” still rings in my ears. And I will never be able to hear the Overture to Rosssini’s opera, William Tell, without picturing the Long Ranger racing along on Silver. (Photo: Clayton Moore as the Lone Ranger, with Jay Silverheels as Tonto. If you want to hear a unique version of the William Tell Overture, check out this video.)
In many ways, the Lone Ranger epitomizes American individualism. The goal of doing it my way touches just about everything we do, including our way of living the Christian life. When we became Christians, certainly a few of us expressed our new found faith in Christ by plugging in to some sort of Christian fellowship. But many of us tried to go it alone. We stood back, and still do stand back from churches and other Christian organizations, sometimes confused about how to connect, sometimes doubtful that such connection is necessary, sometimes even fearful that sharing with other Christians will dilute the intense, personal reality of our faith.
Others of us started out in relationship with other Christians, but for some reason we backed away from Christian community. Perhaps life was simply too busy to keep church participation in the long list of pressing priorities. Perhaps we were disappointed by Christians who failed to live according to the example of Jesus (as we all do!). I remember one woman in my church complaining bitterly about the inadequacies of her Christian fellowship group: "We have such a hard time getting along. It's crazy! The church is supposed to be like a family!" My response took her by surprise. "That's exactly the problem," I said. "We are a family. How many families do you know that live in perfect harmony? In fact, most of experience more conflict within our families than in any other relationships." But, however true my observation might have been, it doesn't exactly make us want to run out and join a church! (And if you’ve followed my recent writings on the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), you know how much of a dysfunctional family we are.)
Virtually every survey of American religious belief and practice concludes that while the vast majority of Americans believe in God, only a minority regularly attend religious services. Among those who attend, a much smaller percentage of people actually become meaningfully involved in the life of a religious community. For us, personal faith means private faith. If I choose to share it with someone else, that’s just fine. But it’s certainly not expected or required.
In fact, many Americans are downright suspicious about the negative influences of religious communities, In a survey, 80% of Americans (including many self-confessed Christians) agreed that "an individual should arrive at his or her own religious beliefs independent of any churches or synagogues” (Wade Clark Roof, A Generation of Seekers [San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993] p. 256). If we choose our beliefs all by ourselves, then we have every right to practice these beliefs all by ourselves.
The privatization of faith reflects the individualism that dwells deep in the American soul. Though we like to join lots of voluntary organizations and have lots of casual friendships, we are wary of committing ourselves in a way that would compromise our personal freedom. Though we enjoy touting our ideas, we are more reticent to share the contents of our hearts, especially something so personal as faith in Christ.
I can't tell you how many times I have had the following conversation with a person whose parent has died and who needs a pastor for a memorial service.
"Well, if you're coming to me, then I suspect that your father wasn't involved in his own church," I say.
"Yes, that's right," the daughter says. "He went to church a little when I was young, but then he pretty much stopped going. Said you didn't have to go to church to be religious. But my dad was very religious in his heart."
"Oh, that's good. What can you tell me about your dad's faith?" I ask.
"I know it was important to him because he read his Bible every day. I'm pretty sure he prayed too, every day," she responds.
"Can you tell me anything more about the content of your father's faith?" I inquire.
"Not much at all. My dad never talked about his faith. When I became a Christian and wanted to chat with him, he said those things are too personal to talk about."
Too personal to talk about. That's the American way. And for many Christians, that becomes a license to avoid church and other forms of Christian community, except on Christmas, Easter, and when weddings or funerals are needed. For these folks, their favorite verse in the Bible seems to be, "I can commune with God just as well on the golf course as in church, maybe better."
These days, younger Christians among the Buster and Mosaic generations seem to be dissatisfied with the individualistic Christianity of their parents’ generation. They long for deeper community. But they tend to be skeptical about the church. In many cases, this skepticism has come from personal experience of a church, or even several churches. Those church folk who were supposed to imitate the love of Christ turned out to be judgmental, prideful, narrow-minded, and even hateful. Churches seems more interested in getting more members and building more buildings than in helping their members to be more like Christ. So many among the younger generations are cut off from church, not because they want to be Lone Ranger Christians, but because they don’t trust the church. (For a sobering account of how folks under 30 view the church, read unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity... and Why It Matters by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons.)
How different we are from the first Christians who, as we saw in my last post, followed up their Pentecost conversion with a commitment to intimate fellowship with other believers. But we’re not the first Christians with an individualistic bent. We see this very sort of thing in the New Testament, as I’ll explain in my next post in this series.
Corinthian Individualism and Paul's Response
Part 3 of series: The Church as the Body of Christ
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So far in this series on the church as the body of Christ, I’ve examined the behavior of the very first Christians in Acts 2. As soon as they put their faith in Christ as the Messiah and Savior, they gathered with others who shared their faith. The Christian life was, for the first believers, something to be experienced in community.
Americans, on the contrary, often visualize and experience the Christian life as a private, individual matter. We are free to get together with other believers if we wish, but this should never be required of Christians. Not surprisingly, we’re very good at projecting our American individualism into our understanding and practice of following Jesus.
Yet we Americans are not the first Christians to try to blend Christianity with cultural individualism. In fact, we are very much like some other Christians we read about in the New Testament: the Corinthians.
The apostle Paul planted a church in Corinth, a major city in southern Greece. After spending a year and a half in this location, his travels took him elsewhere. But Paul continued to receive reports about his Corinthian church, reports that distressed him greatly. Those new Christians were doing what comes naturally, adapting their Christian life to the values of their own culture. In the process they were losing touch with the intimate fellowship that ought to characterize Christian living.
Because Paul could not travel to Corinth right away to set things aright, he wrote a letter we know as 1 Corinthians. His introduction highlights themes to be developed throughout the letter, especially the importance of fellowship: "We are writing to the church of God in Corinth, you who have been called by God to be his own holy people" (1 Cor 1:2). Paul describes this calling in another way a few verses later: "God is faithful, through whom you were called into the intimate fellowship [koinonia] of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord" (1 Cor 1:9, my translation).
This fellowship, both with Christ and with his people, was threatened by the individualistic attitudes of the Corinthians. "As long as I get my religious jolt every now and then, that's all that really matters," they were saying. One man believed his Christian freedom gave him the right to live in a sexual relationship with his stepmother (1 Cor 5:1), no matter what the social consequences. Others sought to enhance or defend their honor by suing their fellow Christians in secular court, bringing shame to the church (1 Cor 6:1-8). (Sound familiar???) Others thought it was just fine for them to eat meat served in pagan temples, even if their behavior was hurting other church members (1 Cor 8). When the church gathered for a common meal, during which they would celebrate the Lord's Supper, wealthier church members ate elaborate meals while poorer members went hungry (1 Cor 11:17-34). Some of the Corinthians took pride in their spiritual prowess, their supposed mystical experiences, putting down others who were lacking such spiritual demonstrations (1 Cor 12-14). All in all, the Corinthian Christians exemplified the kind of “me first” Christianity that runs rampant in America today.
Before we condemn the Corinthians for their self-centeredness, however, we should remember two things. First, they were simply buying into the individualism and pride of their own culture. Corinth was unique among Roman cities for the opportunities it afforded to individuals for economic, and therefore social, advancement. Whereas in most of the Roman Empire, where one's socio-economic position at death was predetermined by one's birth, in Corinth a person could get ahead with plenty of business acumen and public boasting. Even as we tend to shape our Christianity according to the mold of our culture, so did the Corinthian believers. The Christian life was another context for individual freedom and popular success.
This observation points to the second factor we should remember before blaming the Corinthians. We Americans are in so many ways just like them! Not only do we let our culture warp our Christianity, but also we tend to echo the "It's all fine as long as I get mine" individualism of Roman Corinth. The man who communes with God so well on the golf course doesn't even think that his absence from church has a negative effect on others. And, frankly, he really doesn't care as long as he is tight with God. The same is true with the woman who listens to praise music on her iPod and podcasts sermons from her favorite preachers, but never bothers to go to church in person. The New York Times story hits the nail on the head: “Missed Church? Download It to Your IPod,” except that it’s becoming increasingly common for Christians to choose downloading over church. (Photo: Check out this promotional campaign by a church in New Zealand.)
Certainly not everyone in the Corinthian church demonstrated the self-centeredness we have been noticing. Some were hurt by the behavior of their spiritual brothers and sisters. Some even considered themselves unimportant to the church, since they could claim no spiritual distinction. Whereas some bragged about how much they did for the community, others accepted their own worthlessness.
None of this was acceptable to Paul. So he had to come up with a way of helping the Corinthian Christians understand what the Christian life was really all about, and how much it was a matter of sharing life together. In order to illustrate this perspective, Paul described the church as the body of Christ. I’ll get into this in more detail next time.
Part 4 of series: The Church as the Body of Christ
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In my last post in this series, I explained that the kind of individualism we see among American Christians was prefigured in first-century Corinth. Like us, the Corinthians lived in a culture of individualistic self-promotion. Thus they found it natural to fit their Christianity to their cultural mold.
Yet the Apostle Paul, who had founded the church in Corinth, recognized that individualism was antithetical to the Christian life. He wrote the letter we know as 1 Corinthians to help the young disciples in Corinth live in genuine community together. (Photo: Excavations of Ancient Corinth. Note the Temple of Apollo to the right. Photo from Holy Land Photos, used with permission.)
Paul could have tried to correct the Corinthian problem by giving a quick series of commands: "Don't sleep with your stepmother. Don’t sue each other. Don't eat in pagan temples. Don't enjoy your own elegant supper while others go hungry. Don't boast about your spiritual endowments." But Paul wanted to do more than rebuke the Corinthians and redirect their behavior. (Besides, given what we know about this particular group of Christians, they would not have received Paul's naked admonishments too happily.)
In his letter, Paul seeks to instruct his church so that their behavior might flow from a right understanding of Christian theology. Rather than simply shouting, "Don't be individualistic," Paul helps the Corinthians to comprehend who they are as a community formed by God. He does this by using the image of the human body. This would have been a familiar analogy to the recipients of Paul's letter, since many in the Roman world besides Paul used the image of the body as a way to talk about human relationships and institutions. But, as we'll see, some of Paul's emphases would have come as quite a surprise.
He begins his instruction by writing:
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Cor 12:12-13).
According to Paul, we have all been baptized into Christ's body by one Spirit (1 Cor 12:12). The Greek verb translated as "to baptize" literally means "to dip" or "to immerse" something in a liquid. It's a little hard to envision something being immersed in a solid physical body. In fact, the “dipped into a body” image is what we call a mixed metaphor. It wouldn’t get a high grade in a high school writing assignment, but it does draw attention to the fact that individual believers are joined in some profound way to a body.
If Paul had been writing his letter in the 1960s rather than the 50s, he might have been tempted to speak of the beginning of discipleship as Christian fondue. If you’re as old as I am, you may remember the fondue craze that his the U.S. in the 60s. Throughout America people were imitated the Swiss by dipping bread into hot pots of cheese, and topping it off with fruit dipped into steaming chocolate. Paul might have said that when we put our faith in Christ, we are dipped into the Spirit much like a piece of bread into a Fondue pot of cheese. But this metaphor wouldn’t have been quite right, because Christians remain immersed in the Spirit, unlike the pieces of bread that, once saturated, are eaten by eager Fonduers.
Paul, of course, didn't have available to him an image from our day that makes the point a little more elegantly. If he were writing in 2008 AD rather than 50 AD, Paul might say, "by the surgery of the Spirit, we have all been transplanted into Christ's body as vital organs." In since he was writing two millennia earlier, Paul uses the language of immersion to make sure that we don't consider our connection to the body as something extrinsic and temporary. We belong permanently and essentially.
Our immersion within the body happens by the work of the Holy Spirit in the moment of our conversion. The theological fact of our connection to the body depends upon God's action, not upon our own. Whether we choose to live in light of what God has done is up to us, however. Yet if you are a vital organ that has been transplanted into Christ's body, you can see how counterproductive it would be for you to live apart from that body. Positively, both the body of Christ and your own life would be strengthened through your connection to the body, but weakened by your disconnection from it.
Finally, notice that Paul clearly states that "we have all been baptized into Christ's body." Nobody escapes this immersion by the Spirit. No one can rightly claim to be a Christian who has somehow avoided this work of the Holy Spirit. Those who always plays hooky from church to commune alone with God have simply chosen to live as amputated body parts, no matter how much this might impair their own spiritual health, not to mention the health of the church that is deprived of their participation.
Diverse Yet United
Part 5 of series: The Church as the Body of Christ
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In order to help the Corinthian Christians understand who they were as God’s people, the Apostle Paul used the image of the body. In my last post, I explained that he mixed metaphors a bit in revealing that every single Christian is immersed into the body of Christ. Generally we don’t think of a solid being immersed in another solid. By this odd image, Paul emphasizes the extent to which we are necessarily and deeply connected as Christians, whether we realize it or not. We are all members of the same body.
Paul continues his discussion of the church as a body by noting that "the human body has many parts, but the many parts make up only one body. So it is with the body of Christ" (1 Cor 12:12). As his argument develops, he shows how silly it would be to expect all Christians to be the same. "Suppose the whole body were an eye," Paul suggests, "then how would you hear? Or if your whole body were just one big ear, how could you smell anything? . . . What a strange thing a body would be if it had only one part! (1 Cor 12:17, 19). What a hilarious image! Just picture the human body as one giant eye or ear – hardly a body at all! The human body, if it is to be a real body and not a monstrosity, must be composed of different parts. So it is with the church. Those Corinthians who devalue the contribution of others because it is not like their own stand corrected by the humorous picture of a monstrous eye.
Yet if the parts of the body are different, that does not make them separate from each other, because "the many parts make up only one body" (1 Cor 12:12). Each individual part of the body is necessarily connected to the whole body. Thus there is a fundamental unity among the diverse body parts. In the body of Christ, the distinct parts, so variable and different from each other, are unified as one body. Thus Paul wraps up his analogy by saying, "Now all of you together are Christ's body, and each one of you is a separate and necessary part of it" (1 Cor 12:27). It's that simple: one body, many parts; one unified body made up of diverse parts.
That's simple to say, I might add, but not to do. Most Christian communities have a very difficult time living with diversity. Uniformity is so much more comfortable. If we all look about the same, dress about the same, talk about the same, and vote about the same, church is so much simpler. If we all agree on music styles and sermons lengths, worship wars are fought on somebody else's turf, not our own. But, unfortunately for our comfort, that's not what it means to be the church of Jesus Christ. God has intentionally composed the body of Christ to be diverse. In our efforts to make it uniform, we end up like Victor Frankenstein, creating a monster rather than that which God designed. Uniformity of basic belief is essential for Christian unity, of course, but most of us yearn for uniformity that touches far more than theological fundamentals.
If we are going to live in unity as the diverse body of Christ, we need divine help. We need to love as God has loved us in Christ, which is exactly why Paul follows his discussion of the body in 1 Corinthians 12 with his famous "Love Chapter" in 1 Corinthians 13.
As I mentioned earlier in this series, Paul was not the first to apply the image of a body to human community. But his use of the body imagery in 1 Corinthians 12 was quite different from what the Corinthians might have expected. I’ll explain what I mean in my next post in this series.
We Are a Body Standing on Its Head
Part 6 of series: The Church as the Body of Christ
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So far in this series I’ve begun to explore what it means for the church to be the body of Christ. We’ve seen how Paul, in trying to instruct the Corinthians, used the image of the body. But he was not the first in his time to utilize body imagery in reference to human community.
The Roman historian Livy wrote a few decades before Paul. He told the story of a time when angry masses in Rome protested against their upper class rulers. One of these patrician leaders, Menius Agrippa, prevented a riot by using the analogy of the body to put the masses in their place. There was a time, Agrippa said, when the more notable parts of the body – like the head – tired of providing for the stomach. But when these apparently important parts stopped providing food for the stomach, the whole body suffered. So, according to Agrippa, the body only works best when the parts play their own role. Those who are on top must remain so; those who have less privilege must remain so as well. With this analogy the protest was quelled, the plebeians submitted to their patrician masters, and the hierarchical Roman order was upheld. (See Livy, History of Rome, 2.32.9-12.)
Paul also uses the metaphor of the body to defend the contribution of each part to the health of the whole. But then he adds an insight almost completely opposed to the reasoning of Menius Agrippa:
In fact, some of the parts that seem weakest and least important are really the most necessary. And the parts we regard as less honorable are those we clothe with the greatest care. So we carefully protect from the eyes of others those parts that should not be seen, while other parts do not require this special care. So God has put the body together in such a way that extra honor and care are given to those parts that have less dignity.(1 Cor 12:22-24).
For Paul, as for Agrippa, the stomach is necessary. But the writers part company with Paul's observation that the weakest parts – the stomach, for example – deserve extra honor. If the Roman state is like a body, then the lower class stomach gives honor to the upper class head, the stronger, more presentable part. In the body of Christ, the opposite is true. That's the way God designed it.
To those Corinthians who boasted in their spiritual accomplishments, therefore, Paul brings a word of rebuke. The ones they would consider less honorable are, in fact, worthy of greater honor. The weak and unworthy stomach gets the limelight while the apparently glorious head gets the shadows. Or, for those who picture the body with the head on top, the body of Christ is doing a headstand. From a worldly point of view, everything is upside down.
If you spend time in a healthy church, you'll see this inversion again and again. When I was an associate pastor at Hollywood Presbyterian Church, I had responsibility for the educational ministries. Every now and then I'd wander around on Sunday mornings, checking on classes for all ages. I remember once peeking in a classroom for three-year olds. Sitting on the floor was an immaculately dressed woman who was reading a story to a group of children. In her professional life this woman was a vice-president of one of the country's most prestigious corporations. But as she got down on a three-year old level, literally, only her clothing gave away her worldly success. Within the body of Christ this powerful, honorable woman was a humble servant of powerless, undistinguished children.
We will always feel the pressure to adopt the values of the culture around us, to get the body of Christ back into a more socially acceptable position. But the church of Jesus Christ must find a way to stand on its head, rejecting cultural norms in favor of the unique priorities of God.
All Parts of the Body in Ministry
Part 7 of series: The Church as the Body of Christ
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In my last post I explained how the Apostle Paul uses the image of the body to describe the unity and diversity of the church. Moreover, according to Paul, God has formed the body of Christ so that the less obviously honorable parts get greater honor. "This makes for harmony among the members,” Paul notes, “so that all the members care for each other equally" (1 Cor 12:25). All the members care for each other equally! This sounds so idyllic, so democratic, so oddly unlike the extraordinarily hierarchical Roman empire . . . and so different from the church that many of us are so familiar with. Therefore, as we begin to think about the implications of mutual care, we may start wondering, "Paul, are you sure? All the members have the same care for each other? Is this really true? Aren’t some people uniquely gifted and set apart as caregivers? People like pastors or deacons?"
In order to grasp Paul's point here, we must know something about the church in the first-century. The word "church" conjures up a clear picture in our minds: an amply-sized building with obvious religious symbolism, members sitting in rows facing an altar or stage, and identified leaders who do most of the ministry for the members who receive it. None of these features could have been found in the Corinthian church! Gatherings were held primarily in homes, with the maximum size determined by the house (probably fifty people or less). Members sat or stood so as to face each other, not in rows facing a stage, since there would be no stage in home. Leadership was shared by all the church members, with each expected to minister as empowered by the Spirit. There were no clergy in the earliest churches, none who did most of the minister while others received it. Every believer in Jesus was a minister in his body.
Consequently, when Paul calls all the members to care for each other equally, he does not envision an American megachurch with thousands of members and dozens of professional staff, or even the typical congregation with a couple hundred members and one pastor. Paul is picturing something much more like our contemporary small groups: intimate circles of people who worship, pray, and learn together.
Though our contemporary forms of church differ considerably from Paul's, we ought not to dismiss his call for mutual care, even if this upsets our expectations for church. Many people go to church quite intentionally to receive professional care from professional clergy. They want excellent teaching, inspirational leadership, and tender pastoral care. As a pastor, I would say that these expectations are not unfair. But I would add that those who receive such benefits ought also to share them to others.
For sixteen years, my job as pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church was to provide pastoral care that equipped each member of the church to care for one another and to reach out to the world (Eph 4:12). We should evaluate my tenure as pastor not by how much people liked my sermons or liked me as a pastor, but by how much they were encouraged and instructed through me to be ministers of Jesus Christ. Now that I’ve been away from Irvine for just about a year, one of the things that gives me the most joy is hearing how people in the church are continuing to serve the Lord, and even moreso now than before.
When I was new to Irvine Presbyterian Church, I preached a sermon on the ministry of all of God’s people. Some who heard this sermon were excited, eager to get going in Christ’s service. But others weren’t so happy with me. One man objected after the service: "Hey, it sounds like you're just trying to get out of doing your job! You want us to do it for you! But you’re the minister and were the people you’re supposed to minister to. That’s why we pay you." (Photo: The fellowship hall of Irvine Presbyterian Church, where we worshiped when I first arrived at Irvine Presbyterian Church, before we built our sanctuary.)
As a part of the caring community of Irvine Presbyterian Church, I was not trying to get out of my job, but rather, to share it. I was seeking to draw others into the work of ministry, in faithfulness to the biblical truth that all members are to care for each other. Theologically speaking, that's what I should have been doing as pastor. Practically speaking, I could never in a millennium have met all of the pastoral needs in my own congregation. How could I care personally for 750 members and their children?
As pastor of a church, I was not like the team on the field, working hard while being cheered on by my congregational crowd. Rather, I was like the player-coach of the team. I did get in the game, but my primary job was to help the team, that is, the congregation, play excellently, with each member contributing effectively.
Sometimes folks respond negatively to an obvious implication of Paul's teaching on mutual care within the body. As I was lecturing on this subject in a seminary class, one of my students almost exploded with concern:
"Wait a just a minute!" she demanded emphatically. "Did I hear you right? Are you saying that we are dependent on each other spiritually? I don't like that at all. What you're telling me is that my spiritual well-being is dependent on other people. That means if they check out and aren't involved, then I am hurt. I don't like that one bit. I don't want to be dependent on others that way."
"I appreciate your honesty," I responded, trying to keep my cool. "But, you know, your quarrel really isn't with me. This isn't my idea of church. As near as I can tell, this is God's idea. This is the way God made the body of Christ. So if you've got a problem, you really need to take it up with God!"
I must confess, however, that a part of me agrees completely with my troubled student. I don't like depending on others either, to be frank. I like to be tough and independent and self-sufficient. I prefer to control my own destiny. Like many of my gender, I don't ask for directions when driving or seek help at Home Depot. The idea of needing others within the church makes me exceedingly uncomfortable.
But for those of us who want to be self-contained Christians, the truth gets even worse. I’ll explain tomorrow.
Hurting with the Hurting
Part 8 of series: The Church as the Body of Christ
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Yesterday I explored one implication of the church as the body of Christ. According to 1 Corinthians 12, God has made us so that we care mutually for each other. This means that each of us has responsibility within the church. We’re not just care receivers, but care givers as well. Moreover, God has designed the body of Christ in such a way that we are not meant to be independent. Rather, we depend on each other for the care and love they provide. If you prefer to take care of yourself and not need others, this can be a disconcerting bit of biblical truth.
Yet there is more in 1 Corinthians 12 that might stir up a bit of internal discomfort.
As Paul wraps up his discussion of the body of Christ, he states: "If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it, and if one part is honored, all the parts are glad" (1 Cor 12:26). For those of us who want to be empathetic, this sounds like good news. According to God's design, we will feel the pain of those who hurt and the joy of those who are honored.
But there is a double downside to this kind of empathy. First of all, we should note our calling to suffer along with those who suffer. The text doesn't say anything about making them feel better. Surely other biblical passages call for encouraging and helping people in need (1 Thess 5:11-14). But in 1 Corinthians 12 we are told to feel genuine empathy, to hurt with those who hurt. This can be much harder than merely giving aid and comfort. It requires really knowing people. It demands the opening my whole heart. It means that I will feel pain when those around me feel pain. Sometimes I'd rather just cheer people up and be on my merry way. But that’s not how God has designed the church as the body of Christ.
When I was on the staff of Hollywood Presbyterian Church, one of the elders rubbed me the wrong way. Fritz always seemed to have a scowl on his face. His comments in meetings were often terse and negative. It didn't really surprise me when I learned that he had been a career Marine. He seemed just about as happy as the stereotypical drill sergeant in movies. I must admit that I pretty much wrote Fritz off as a cranky old man whom I’d try to ignore. (Photo: The sanctuary of the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood.)
Wouldn't you know that on a retreat of the elders, while we were having communion together, Fritz came to me asking for prayer. Apparently I had hidden my negative feelings towards him too well. I figured that I could pray a quick prayer and finish our interaction without much emotional investment. As Fritz began to share what he wanted me to pray about, he began to weep. He was well into his 70s by that time, and felt like he had completely missed the joy of serving the Lord. "I'm just a cranky old man," he sobbed, "and I don't think God can do anything with me. It's too late." As I sat there with Fritz, my initial desire to pray a quick "get better" prayer faded away. I began to feel his sadness, his desperation, his discouragement with himself. It hurt me to share his pain. When it was time for me to pray, I couldn't help but weeping along with my brother. I also wept for myself, feeling so ashamed before God for my hard-heartedness against this dear man, and feeling so grateful for the chance to share in his suffering. When I finished praying, we embraced, a formerly cranky old man and a formerly cranky young pastor, sharing together in God's healing love.
If I told you that there was a dramatic change in Fritz's life, you'd probably think: "Oh, there goes another pastor with his exaggerated happy endings." I wouldn't blame you for thinking this way. But the Spirit of God did a miracle within Fritz. He became truly tenderhearted. In fact, he soon became known around the church for his profound sympathy for others. He also began to manifest a magnetic joy in the Lord. Fritz also became a dear friend of mine, a beloved encourager of me and my ministry. Oh, what I would have missed if I hadn't bothered to feel the pain of this brother! God would probably have found someone else to minister to him, but I would have been forever deprived of a watershed experience in my own life.
There is even a potentially more unsettling implication of Paul’s picture of the sympathetic body of Christ. I’ll get to that tomorrow.
Sharing Our Struggles and Successes Together
Part 9 of series: The Church as the Body of Christ
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Yesterday I began to explore the implications of the fact that the church is the body of Christ: "If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it, and if one part is honored, all the parts are glad" (1 Cor 12:26). If this is true, then we will share each other’s pain, hurting along with our brothers and sisters. If you don’t like to feel bad (and who does?), this isn’t exactly good news. Yet through our mutual empathy we are able to care for each other.
For me, there is an even more unsettling implication in Paul's picture of the sympathetic body. If, when one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it, then when I suffer, others will suffer along with me. Now I suppose some people might find this appealing. But I don’t. I’m the sort of person who likes to suffer alone. If I’m sick, I don’t want my wife and family to take care of me. I want them to leave me alone. That’s how I’m wired. So the idea of sharing my suffering with others isn’t something I warm up to easily.
Moreover, Paul’s description of the body implies that I must let the other parts know when I am suffering. If there's one thing I like less than feeling pain, it's admitting that pain to other people. I want to pretend that I am above it all, a man of strength and unwavering faith. I don't want to be weak, or needy, or doubting, or vulnerable. And when I am any of these things, I don't want to admit it. Yet God expects this sort of intimacy among members of Christ's body. And he expects it, I fear, because he knows that we cannot bear our pain alone. We have been created and saved to share such things with others.
Perhaps you are not cursed with the need to pretend you're invincible. If you can easily share your struggles with others, you are blessed. As a pastor, however, I know that my reticence to share my pain is not unique. Time and again members of my church in Irvine would go into the hospital without telling anyone because they were embarrassed. Or they would struggle silently as their family crumbled, but kept quiet because they felt so ashamed. When folks in my church hid their pain, I felt bugged me because they make it impossibly hard for the body to care for them as we should have done. But I certainly understood the fears that kept folks from admitting their struggles.
There have been times in my life, however, when my suffering was so acute that I couldn't hide it. Twenty two years ago my dad was dying of cancer, slowly and excruciatingly. In the last stages of his life, my family and I would nurse my dad, caring for him in ways that sapped every ounce of strength. The combination of sadness and stress was almost too much to bear. Thank God we did not have to bear it alone!
I was working at Hollywood Presbyterian Church during those years, the church where my parents had been active for two decades. During the last year of my father's life, friends from church would check in with me and the rest of my family each day. They prayed without ceasing. The loved without expecting anything in return. In the last three months of my dad’s life they brought dinners to my parents' home, every night a new meal. The food ranged from perfectly cooked prime rib to take out fried chicken. But whatever the quality of the food, every meal conveyed love that fed our souls as well as our bodies.
Experiences like this one have made it a bit easier for me to share my sufferings with others, but only a bit!
Let me add that such intimacy will not happen, and is not meant to happen, in large groups. It's impossible for groups larger than forty or fifty to suffer and rejoice together in the manner Paul envisions. If we are to be active members of the body of Christ, therefore, we must be in groups that are small enough to facilitate mutual sharing. Most churches have groups like this. They go by different names, such as: small groups, cell groups, growth groups, adult classes, home Bible studies, kinship groups, prayer groups, etc. Specific group functions differ from church to church. But most of these gatherings facilitate personal openness, providing a place for you to share your pains and your victories.
There is a more appealing upside to Paul's vision of body sympathy: if one part is honored, all the parts are glad. The Corinthians were mired in self-centered accomplishment, seeking to magnify their own honor, even at the expense of others. But God's plan for the body of Christ eliminates all of this selfish striving. If we share all of life together, the honoring of a fellow body-part will feel like the honoring of ourselves. We will rejoice unselfconsciously with the one who has been honored.
This kind of shared honor can be quite counter-cultural. I lived for sixteen plus years in Irvine, California, one of the most competitive environments you can find. Most Irvine parents are driven to make sure their kids are successful in every way: athletically, academically, socially, etc. (Sadly, they don’t as often care about emotional or spiritual “success.”) As a result, parents can often feel competitive with others parents. They find ways to boast about their children’s accomplishments as if achievement is a zero sum game. If my child wins, your’s loses, and vice versa. (Photo: Moon rise over North Lake in Irvine, California)
But at Irvine Presbyterian Church things were often quite different. As parents shared their struggles, as they prayed for each other and their children, competitiveness lessened. Sunday school teachers followed the “careers” of their students, rejoicing when they grew up and got scholarships to college. When one child was honored, many parents rejoiced.
So, though it can be scary to share your life with others, or to share deeply in their lives, the results of such vulnerability and connectedness are rich indeed. They can stretch those of us who prize independence and self-reliance. But when we truly share our lives together as members of the body of Christ, the rewards are plentiful.
In my next post in this series I want to examine another implication of being the body of Christ together.
Christian Unity: A Top Priority
Part 10 of series: The Church as the Body of Christ
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Paul emphasizes the unity of the body of Christ in his letter to the Corinthians because that unity was threatened by self-centered divisiveness. Paul knew that God intends the church of Jesus Christ is called to be united, so he used the image of the body to help the Corinthians understand how they could be united even in their diversity.
Another of Paul's letters also underscores the priority of church unity for Christian living. In the letter to the Ephesians, Paul begins by laying out God's grand plan for all of creation. Even before anything existed, God was aware that sin would one day mar his good creation, shattering the perfect unity and harmony God had intended. But, in time, God would mend that which had been shattered, "bringing everything together under the authority of Christ -- everything in heaven and on earth" (Eph 1:10-11). Christ's death on the cross leads, not only to our personal salvation, but also to the restoring of cosmic unity. This restoration begins as human beings, formerly divided, come together through the cross of Christ (Eph 2:1-22).
Applying this impressive theological vision to daily life, Paul urges:
Therefore I, a prisoner for serving the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of your calling, for you have been called by God. Be humble and gentle. Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love. Always keep yourselves united in the Holy Spirit, and bind yourselves together with peace. We are all one body, we have the same Spirit, and we have all been called to the same glorious future. There is only one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and there is only one God and Father, who is over us all and in us all and living through us all (Eph 4:1-6).
Actual unity among Christians is a top priority because it reflects basic theological realities. When the church is united, then God's plan for the ages shines forth with brilliance. When we live separate and disconnected lives, the good news of God's work in Christ hides in the shadow of our disunity.
Paul's prioritization of unity among Christians reiterates the values of Jesus himself. In the hours before his death, Jesus prays,
Now I am departing the world; I am leaving [my people] behind and coming to you. Holy Father, keep them and care for them—all those you have given me—so that they will be united just as we are. . . . I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me because of their testimony. My prayer for all of them is that they will be one, just as you and I are one, Father—that just as you are in me and I am in you, so they will be in us, and the world will believe you sent me. I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are— I in them and you in me, all being perfected into one. Then the world will know that you sent me and will understand that you love them as much as you love me (John 17:11, 20-23).
Jesus prays for unity among his disciples, including specifically those of us who will believe in him without having met him in the flesh. Our oneness is to be so deep and lasting that it can even be compared to the oneness Jesus shares with his Heavenly Father. When we experience this dimension of unity, then the world will recognize who Jesus is and what he accomplished through his life and death.
Each of us ought to make Christian community a priority for our lives, not only out of obedience to the clear teaching of scripture, but also so that the world around us will acknowledge the truth of what God has done in Christ. We should seek genuine fellowship with other Christians even when they disappoint us. We should strive for unity among God's people even when division seems so much easier to manage. Intimate fellowship among Christians contributes, not only to the health of the body of Christ, but also to the persuasiveness of our witness to Christ in the world. As Jesus himself says, "Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples" (John 13:35).
For me, the priority of Christian unity gets worked out in very practical ways in my relationship with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Since became ordained as a pastor twenty years ago, my denomination has done many things that have offended me. They always have to do with actions or decisions that diminish or even deny basic biblical truth. Most recently, the General Assembly of the PC(USA) voted to change our church Book of Order so as to allow for the ordination of people who are sexually active outside of marriage. This change may very well be rejected by presbyteries (regional governing bodies) so that it will not be official. Nevertheless, I must admit that I’m tired of fighting the same battles again and again and again. Sometimes the grass seems much greener outside of the PC(USA) pasture. But I take seriously the command of Ephesians 3 to eagerly preserve the unity of the body of Christ. Though there may be a time when my conscience will leave me no option but to break fellowship with the PC(USA), until that day I will seek the unity of the part of the body of Christ to which I have been connected.
Communion in the Body of Christ
Part 11 of series: The Church as the Body of Christ
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With this post I wrap up my series on the church as the body of Christ. So far I have shown how Christians are united in Christ. Like a body, we are unified even though we are different in many ways. As members of the same body, we are to care for each other and help each other to grow in faith. Though genuine fellowship with other believers can be costly, it repays rich rewards.
Recognizing the benefits of fellowship among Christians for the church and even for the world, we might still wonder how this sort of fellowship impacts our own relationship with God. Does intimate fellowship with God's people help me to develop deeper fellowship with God?
In this blog series we have seen how fellowship with other Christians supports us in difficult times, keeping us in touch with God when he seems far away. But this is just the bare beginning. Participation in the body of Christ enriches virtually every aspect of your own relationship with God.
For example, I began this series with a description of early church activity in Acts 2. There, as you'll recall, the new believers "devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, sharing in the Lord's Supper and in prayer" (Acts 2:42). A few verses later we read, "They worshiped together in the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord's Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity" (Acts 2:46). Both of these verses mention the Lord's Supper, translating the Greek phrase "the breaking of the bread" in a way suggested by the text and by early Christian tradition. Though we experience the Lord's Supper in worship services, the first believers remembered Jesus' death each time they "broke bread," which is to say, each time they shared a meal together. Breaking bread in memory of Jesus strengthened the early church and helped individual believers to grow in relationship with God.
Even though they were believers in Jesus, some of the Corinthian Christians were eating in pagan temples, consuming meat that had been offered to idols. They apparently claimed to be protected from evil because they had eaten the Lord's Supper, as if it provided some sort of magic shield against demonic activity. They also ignored the detrimental effect their behavior had on other members of the church, caring only about their freedom and personal privilege.
Paul confronts this behavior in 1 Corinthians 10. He shows, on the one hand, that eating the Lord's Supper does not give one the freedom to participate in idolatry. In fact just the opposite is true. When we eat spiritually dedicated food, whether in the Lord's Supper or in a pagan ritual, we actually have fellowship with the spiritual beings who are honored in the meal. "I don't want any of you to be partners with demons," Paul advises (1 Cor 10:20). The word "partners" translates the Greek noun koinonos. A koinonos is one who shares intimate fellowship (koinonia) with something. Because we have fellowship with Jesus in the Lord's Supper, therefore, we should not also have fellowship with pagan idols and the demons they represent. Apparently, Jesus doesn't gladly share fellowship with competing spiritual beings.
Consequently, we can conclude that our participation in human fellowship provides us with a context for receiving the Lord's Supper, that which helps us to have deeper fellowship with Jesus. However true and encouraging this may be, Paul adds something even more delectable to this theological meal:
The cup of blessing that we bless [in the Lord's Supper], is it not intimate fellowship [koinonia] with the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not intimate fellowship [koinonia] with the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we, though we are many, are one body, for we all share in the one bread (1 Cor 10:16-17, my translation).
The word koinonia is often translated as "communion" in this passage, referring to the deep relationship we have with Jesus when we receive his Supper. This verse also has encouraged many Christian to call the Supper "communion." When we receive communion, we have intimate fellowship with Christ's blood and body. We remember his death for us and share once again in its benefits by the power of the Holy Spirit.
But that's not the sum total of our communion in the Lord's Supper. Our koinonia with the body of Christ is not only remembrance of Jesus' death, but also fellowship with the present body of Christ, with the church gathered together for the Supper. In sharing the bread together, "we, though we are many, are one." When we receive the Lord's Supper, therefore, we have communion both with Jesus and with each other. We share in the fullness of intimate fellowship. (Photo: Communion in my home church, St. Mark Presbyterian in Boerne, Texas)
When I receive take communion in church, therefore, my personal relationship with God is strengthened. Yet that relationship is also nourished and expanded as I share God's presence with my brothers and sisters. I am delivered from an individualism that limits my relationship with God. I am stretched so that I might know the fullness of intimate fellowship, both with God and with God's people.
Practical Questions and Answers About Life in the Body of Christ
Part 12 of series: The Church as the Body of Christ
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1. I'm not currently connected to a church. How can I find a good church?
There is no simple answer to this question. First of all, let me urge to pray about it. If you faithfully seek the Lord's guidance, he will lead you to a church that is right for you. Second, talk with Christians who live near you. Ask about their churches and consider their recommendations. Most people find a church through friends and family members. Third, check church websites. You can find out lots of information, especially if a church has a sophisticated website. You’ll be able to find out about church ministries, core beliefs, staffing, etc.
What should you look for in a church? First and foremost, look for evidence that a church honors Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Unfortunately, not every Christian church exalts Christ in this way. When you visit the church, see if the worship facilitates genuine fellowship with God, if the preaching is biblically-based, and if the people are friendly. Look for programs that might be of particular interest to you. If you have children, be sure to check out the ministries for children and youth.
Before you decide to join a church, I'd encourage you to have a meeting with the senior pastor. (In a very large church, you may meet with one of the pastors, not the senior pastor.) Bring a list of the questions that matter most to you. Remember: no church is perfect. Every church has flaws -- just like you.
2. I'm a member of a church, but it's pretty dead. What should I do?
There's no quick or simple answer to this question. I believe that God wants to bring new life to dying churches. Renewal comes through the Holy Spirit, usually as church members share their excitement about the Lord with others. But this process of church renewal can be slow and frustrating.
If you're in a church that seems to be dead, the first thing to do is to pray for God's help and guidance. Pray for your church, its leadership, its members. Pray for the Spirit to blow freely and freshly through the congregation. Pray for God's direction for you and your involvement. Ask the Lord if there a ways he wants to use you to bring new life to your church. (Photo: Abandoned church in Dorothy, Alberta, Canada)
Second, look for others in the church who are passionate about the Lord. Even struggling churches usually have a small cadre of saints who have walked with Christ for years and are faithful to the church. Often these folks are senior citizens with mature faith and tender hearts. If possible, meet regularly with these people to pray for each other and for the church.
Third, try to understand why your church is dying. Sometimes churches have a terminal theological disease. Is the gospel of Christ preached in the sermons? Does the Bible provide authoritative direction for church leadership? Do those who plan and lead worship attempt to honor God, even if their attempts aren't very successful? If your church appears to have severe theological problems, I'd encourage you to speak with the pastor. Find out what's really going on. If church leaders have given up on orthodox Christian faith, renewal of that church will be extraordinarily difficult.
Fourth, if you believe that God is calling you to find another church, leave your former church with gratitude and grace. Don't get caught up in a spirit of judgmentalism and criticism.
3. My church is a good one, but I'm having a hard time getting connected. What can I do?
Have you made a serious attempt to be connected, or are you circling around the outside with jumping in? If you stay on the fringes of any church, you will feel like an outsider. In fact, chances are good that you will end up leaving that church. If you want to be connected -- and you ought to be! -- then you need to commit yourself to some context for genuine relationship. In most churches, even regular attendance at worship services won't facilitate fellowship with other Christians.
I remember speaking with one man who was leaving Irvine Presbyterian Church because he "just didn't connect with the people." I asked him where he had tried. "Men's Ministry?" "No." "Sunday morning adult class?" "No." "Midweek Bible study?" "No, not enough time." "Men's small group?" "No." The truth was he simply hadn't made an effort to get involved with people. He was simply too busy, which is another way of saying he just didn't value relationship with other Christians highly enough to make it happen.
But I have also spoken with folks who have made a valiant effort and still feel disconnected. Usually I am able to steer them in a helpful direction, or to introduce them to people who can assist in getting them involved in committed fellowship. If you are struggling, talk with a pastor or another church leader.