The church is the closest we’ll get in this life to the City of God amidst the cities of men
Mike Frye-Henderson is my Land-Rover-loving, bass-guitar-building, long-grey-beard-growing, Jesus-friend. This one’s for him.
You’ve been around church long enough to have seen a few things that likely turned your stomach. You’ve met some folks who weren’t as good as they pretended, and some who were worse than they’d admit. You’ve struggled with anger and resentment toward those who hold positions they shouldn’t, and regret the times you haven’t lived up to your own expectations.
I know this, because I see the same lines on your face as I do on mine. We’ve got the same battle scars, the same premature grey hair. And neither of us has given up entirely because of the same foundational truth: the church is all we’ve got.
I don’t think you can separate the local church from the Church Universal. Try as we might, the places we gather on Sunday mornings (or whenever else) are inextricably linked to the multi-millennial community of God’s people. Some churches are better than others—more intentional, more meaningful, more interesting, more accurate—but every church that serves Christ is part of his body.
You can’t separate Christ from his church, either. Or vice versa. If he’s the head and we’re the body, it’s hard to conceive of a scenario in which either survives without remaining connected.
And all that jazz about being a Christian but not being part of a church is really just semantics. If you’re a Christian you’re part of the Church whether you wish it were so or not. Your local congregation has an average attendance of one and suffers the same problems as the rest of the world’s congregations—people aren’t generous, nobody volunteers, few are willing to put others’ needs before their own, there’s little in the way of structured discipleship, and so on. The only difference is that, in the one-man congregation, you aren’t allowed to blame anybody else for how bad it sucks.
I’m saying all this like you don’t know it, but you do. You’ve run the gamut. You’ve seen it all. You’ve been irritated enough to walk out and concerned enough to step back in. You tire of striving, but can’t stomach the thought of just flipping everybody off and starting a new religion.
The biblical term for “family” is oikos, and it means “household.” It refers to your friends and family, peers and neighbors. The church in the Second Testament spread quickly from oikos to oikos—from house to house, as it were. These days we might say it went viral. They started out independent but they didn’t stay that way. Pretty soon, they began to network. Each oikos was like a node in a complex system spreading rapidly through the Roman Empire, until the connections became so strong that—when you visited another oikos—it felt like you were still at home. There were differences here and there, of course, but they all had the same DNA: Jesus is Lord. Caesar is not.
If you picture the known world in the first century as a massive city, then you must also picture it a city of darkness. The people of God became the light of the world, and as they began to connect to one another, the light became a kind of city schematic all on its own. The church became the city of light within the city of darkness; the city within the city.
That’s the way it’s supposed to be. That’s the way it still is.
In the final scene in the final episode of HBO’s True Detective Season One, two detectives look up at the night sky, and one of them comments on how utterly black it is. The other, Rust Cohle replies, “Well, once there was only dark. If you ask me, the light’s winning.”
He’s right. There’s lots to do and plenty of struggles yet even to emerge, but every day we’re a step closer to victory, until—at some point—there will be no darkness at all.
 The eye can never say to the hand, “I don’t need you.” The head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you.” 1 Corinthians 12.21.
 Colossians 1.18.
 Matthew 5.14.
 “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.” John 1.5