Loving Church, Not Jesus

I recently heard pastor and author Perry Noble giving testimony about how God has worked in his life. Recalling one season of his story, he said, "I loved Jesus but really didn’t love church.” I think that’s a common sentiment for many in our culture today. The words of Jesus inspire and challenge people, even if those people aren’t connected to the cultural expressions of discipleship. In fact, one of the most influential ministry books of the last few years is titled with that very idea: They Like Jesus But Not the Church.  

As you might guess, I think that sentiment reflects an incomplete understanding of Jesus’ teachings. For Jesus, there was no way to follow him apart from the community of others following him. To follow Jesus is to be the church. 

But that’s not what bothered me about Perry’s testimony. Instead, the thought that struck me between the eyes when I heard Perry’s quote is that I have sometimes experienced the opposite of his sentiment. There have been times, not a few, when I was comfortable with church, but keeping Jesus at arm’s length.  

Beyond the obvious lesson of my own spiritual delinquency, I think this says something about both Jesus and his church.  

Jesus can be hard to like. Sure, he seems like a good neighbor when he’s feeding the hungry and healing the sick. But the longer you sit with Jesus’ teachings, the more uncomfortable you feel. He meant it that way. Jesus is constantly challenging his followers to give things up, endure hardships, take up their crosses, and die to themselves. Getting familiar with the way of Jesus means getting familiar with hard things. It’s easy to see how a person could not like Jesus very much.  

What’s even more concerning is how easy it is to get comfortable with church at the same time. Church, especially for those of us who grew up in it, is cozy and familiar. We know the tunes and the customs. We know what the symbols mean and what not to say. Church can be a warm and welcoming lullaby.  

Shouldn’t it be the opposite? If following Jesus is challenging, shouldn’t the gathering of Jesus followers be challenging? If Jesus’ message makes us uncomfortable, shouldn’t church do the same? And isn’t it the height of pharisaism for me to like the latter, but avoid the former?  

I don’t blame Perry Noble or anyone else who is attracted to Jesus but repelled by the church. After all, if you’re going to love one and not the other, go with Messiah. What scares me is the realization that I can love the wrong things so easily.