Several months ago, at the front end of the coronavirus pandemic and in a televised-sports wasteland, ESPN rushed to finish and air a documentary on Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. Entitled The Last Dance, it captured the culture’s attention like few other things have been able to in an era of endless screens and instant-access content.
I had little to no interest in the story. I’m not a basketball fan—much less a Chicago Bulls fan—and am too young to have any nostalgia-inducing memories of Michael Jordan. Yet, a few episodes in, I found myself watching. Not only watching, but hooked. Learning the stories of the people behind the championships made the championships all the more compelling.
But the story was still about basketball. It is impossible to tell the story of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls without basketball. Yes, there are other stories to be told about Jordan and the Bulls, and yes, those stories may be remarkable in their own right. But those stories become more remarkable when they are brought into the larger story of their accomplishments on the basketball court. Any interest in Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls cannot ignore basketball without losing the heart of the story.
In the same way, any interest in God cannot ignore the church without losing the heart of the story.
We can learn all about God’s attributes: his love and justice and holiness and purity and on and on and on; we can learn about God’s exploits: saving Noah, parting the Red Sea, feeding thousands, and even rising from the dead; we can learn about God’s people: their faithfulness and their folly, their courage and cowardice, but if we separate these stories from God’s work of calling a people to himself—creating a nation for his glory (1 Peter 2:9; Exodus 19:5-6; Titus 2:14), then we are losing the heart of the story.
I fear that Christians far too often view the church as accidental—rather than essential—to the Gospel. It’s seen as a nice benefit to our salvation. We think God wonderfully kind to have given us a special group of people to support us on our journey home. But the point is that I—the individual—have been saved and made right with God. And now the church can help me walk that out.
It’s like getting exercise as you walk around an amusement park. You may be pleased that you’ve gotten some exercise, but it was hardly the point. The exercise from walking was accidental to enjoying the park: the essential work is riding rides.
To many, church is like the exercise we get walking between rollercoasters. It’s nice, but hardly the point. But to God, the church is the point. God’s desire is to claim a holy nation for himself; we are saved for this purpose. The Gospel is creating a group of people united across times and tongues to praise him for eternity.
This doesn’t mean God’s love for us is any less as individuals—it simply means his plans are bigger than ourselves. And when we gather as a church, we ought to be reminded of this fact.
God isn’t merely a God of excellencies, powers, or miracles. He is all of those things of course, but all of those things are best brought into view when we see them in his primary work—gathering a people to to himself for a treasured possession through Christ. The church is no accident. It is Christ’s bride. We cannot neglect the church—God’s gathered people—without losing an essential part of the story.