Church: Why Bother?

August 19, 2004 by

Church: Why Bother? by Philip YanceyPhilip Yancey asks the question we’re all wondering in his booklet Church: Why Bother? My Personal Pilgrimage. The first chapter starts with this quote from J.F. Powers’ Wheat That Springeth Green that summarizes the whole conundrum of the church:

“This is a big old ship, Bill. She creaks, she rocks, she rolls, and at times she makes you want to throw up. But she gets where she’s going. Always has, always will, until the end of time. With or without you.”

Having grown up in a racist, fundamentalist church in the Deep South, Yancey has every reason to abandon the church. But he’s found that the Christian faith can only be lived in community. “Perhaps for this reason, I have never given up on church. At a deep level I sense that church contains something I desperately need.” (23)

Early in the book Yancey focuses on four things that changed his perspective on the church:

1) Looking Up
Rather than approaching church as a consumer and looking at the external trappings of church, the music style, the quality of the sermon, the mechanics of the service, Yancey learned to look up to God. That is, after all, the purpose of church. God is the audience for our worship; those of us with butts in pews do not comprise some passive audience.

2) Looking Around
Diversity. Church is not about finding a body of like-minded people, or a body of look-alikes. The early church stood out for its radical diversity, yet so many churches today have little racial, economic, age or educational diversity. We can learn so much from those who aren’t like us.

3) Looking Outward
Yancey summarizes evangelist Luis Palau: “The church, he said, is like manure. Pile it together and it stinks up the neighborhood; spread it out and it enriches the world.” (33)

4) Looking Inward
Here Yancey summarizes the amazing grace of God, a refrain repeated more fully in his book What’s So Amazing About Grace? If churches were able to harness this sort of grace, rather than just sing about it, it would be a radically different institution.

From there Yancey goes on to present several metaphors for the church, including:

  • A 12-step program
  • Driver’s license bureau
  • An emergi-center (those emergency clinics that aren’t quite the emergency room)
  • The CTA train (or any city bus, subway, etc.)
  • Locker room

Yancey concludes that the church is the way God has chosen to be present on earth, as imperfect as it may be:

“Yes, the church fails in its mission and makes serious blunders precisely because the church comprises human beings who will always fall short of the glory of God. That is the risk God took. Anyone who enters the church expecting perfection does not understand the nature of that risk or the nature of humanity. Just as every romantic eventually learns that marriage is the beginning, not the end, of the struggle to make love work, every Christian must learn that church is also only a beginning.” (99)

Post By:

Kevin D. Hendricks


When Kevin isn't busy as the editor of Church Marketing Sucks, he runs his own writing and editing company, Monkey Outta Nowhere. Kevin has been blogging since 1998 and has published several books, including 137 Books in One Year: How to Fall in Love With Reading, The Stephanies and all of our church communication books.
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9 Responses to “Church: Why Bother?”

  • thoughts
    January 15, 2005

    2004 Reading List

    It’s time once again for the annual reading list. Well, actually it was time two weeks ago, but I’m just now getting to it. Yet again my reading list numbers are low. It seems not riding the bus to work…


  • James
    April 11, 2005

    This book is why I go to church today. Yancey helped me to form my entire theology of church, it’s point and how to chose a church to belong with.
    Great book!


  • Rosanne
    September 15, 2005

    This issue is diversity; we live in a culture that likes to separate into categories. Jesus said: Who is my brother? Who is my mother? Who is my sister? And the answer is everyone, not just those in our own church family!
    Secondly, the church has a long way to go before it recognizes the evil that has occured by leaving women out of leadership roles (and I do mean as Pastor/Reverend and not as Childcare Director). Women have been silenced for centuries and the Bible has been used to keep them mute, just as it was used to justify the institution of slavery. The greatest change any 21st century church could make is to place women in leadership roles according to their GIFTS and practice the equality Jesus taught to Martha/Mary as he started his ministry. There is neither male nor female in Christ….we are all gifted to serve. And our gifts are determined by God and not a group of male elders, determined to preserve an OT patriarchial, good-boy (Pharisee) network.


  • Robert
    April 14, 2006

    Just a comment on your women in leadership roles in the church. You are taking this scripture out of context. Paul is talking about salvation not leadership. Women serve a vital role in the church. It could not operate without them. However, the Bible is very clear that women are not to teach men or have authority over them. This is not a grey area in the Bible!


  • Ben F
    April 18, 2006

    Have you guys checked out the book on LifeShapes, The Passionate Life by Mike Breen & Walt Kallestad. It’s about helping people learn how Jesus did discipleship and do it his way. Great stuff! The book presents 8 memorable shapes, one of which is the Triangle (our UP-, IN- and OUT-relationships), very similar to Yancey above.
    Take a look at it, I think it might knock your socks off!


  • Jeff Courter
    April 27, 2006

    As committee chairman of our Evangelism Committee of our Presbyterian church in suburban Chicago (can you spell WASP? We have ‘em here…) I recently asked our congregation in one of our “Minutes for Evangelism” before the worship service, “Why do YOU go to church?” It’s a great question. Two Sundays ago, during the holiest day of the Christian calendar, over half the population in the U.S. stayed at home and did not go to Easter service. Is this a problem?
    I think the issue is how our culture sees the relevancy of the church today. The church is seen as being irrelevant. If I can stay at home, watch a religious broadcast and get “inspired”, why do I need to get out of my living room to see someone I like less than the charismatic speaker on my TV screen? Why do I want to sit in pews with people I hardly know, sing songs I don’t like, and pretend to be “loving”, when all the while I’m wondering when I can go home (or golf, or shop, etc.)?
    Another part of the problem is how modern theology and Biblical scholarship have shown how we may not be able to take the Bible at face value. So what’s true? If the only thing we have left is “it’s true for ME”, then what about the Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, or even atheists who also have a “true for me” of their own?
    TO me, the bottom line here is that we have to get out of the pews and into the WORLD, and start showing some of the love we keep hearing about in church. Only our ACTIONS will make the church relevant. People want to belong to something that makes a difference in the world. Sitting and listening to inspiring words may be uplifting, but Matthew said it best, attributing these words to Jesus – “As you DID it to the least of these, you did it to me” (MT 25:40).
    Peace and love –
    Jeff


  • charlie
    April 27, 2006

    Whoa, bustin into the whole role of women in the church, eh?
    Man, the gloves will come off with this subject.
    In all the churches I’ve attended, non denominational, it was agreed that women are only restricted from being elders, but are free to be pastors if they wish. I would disagree with both Roseanne and Robert because I don’t think Evil is keeping women out of ministry, but I don’t think the role of women is black and white in the Bible either.
    This argument could go on forever, can we just have group hug here?
    Everyone go love someone like Jesus. ;)


  • Christine Sander
    May 1, 2006

    Determined by circumstance, I have spent my baby Christian years in church, my mid-life Christian years completely removed from any church and now, at age 57, I think there must be another way of being/living church. In breaking the bread and sharing the wine also intellectually, keeping Him in our thoughts and emotions, sharing these, unobtrusively, honesty, generously and genuinely. Trusting, that, really, living waters will flow from us as result of walking with Him. C.S.


  • Ed Willey
    May 3, 2006

    Though we may have trouble accepting it, the Church itself is naturally flawed. It exists both to sustain us as Christians and to reach out to others — sounds good in theory, but there’s always a fundamental tension between (a) sustaining our own religious beliefs distinct from others (whether Christian or otherwise) and (b) spreading the universal love of Christ.
    Personally, I will always attempt to respect all Christians, but:
    (1) I am not a Hasidic Jew (cherry-picking Leviticus’ Moral Code is not acceptable),
    (2)I believe that Jesus died on the cross, not Paul (sure, he said some great stuff, but he was just a man and not the Son of God),
    (3) I believe that we seriously err if we fail to interpret the Bible in terms of the audience and time for which it was written,
    (4) I reject the modern Fundamentalist “theology” based on a literal understanding of the Book of Revelation — Revelation is, placed in its proper context, not the book many believe it to be (i.e. I believe that it’s at least in part a political polemic against Rome and is not intented as a literal “crystal ball” into actual future events),
    (5) I reject anthropomorphism as a means of understanding God – stating, for example, that God is “male” because the Bible describes him as male is not a valid description of an omnipotent, omnipresent being.
    If I am true to my beliefs, then I must reject the beliefs of both the Godless and those Christians who take a Biblically literal approach to Christianity. This puts me out of sync with my Fundamentalist brothers and sisters in Christ.
    I heard a Fundamentalist preacher say once that, although we are told not to judge, we are called to discern right from wrong, and obligated to aid others in accepting God’s law. Trouble is, we disagree on exactly what God’s law is.
    Instead of “throwing spitballs” at each other over contentious passages in Leviticus or Romans, we should get off our pontificating butts and actually do things to help others. If your church is the sort of place where no one greets a visitor, be the first to extend your hand. If you have a beautiful high-tech sanctuary but you don’t have a soup kitchen or food collection program, start one. If you don’t provide legitimate non-proselytizing opportunities for your church’s young people (including younger adults) to interact, then organize something. The list of possible activities goes on and on.
    The more we do as Christ taught us, the closer we come to becoming a better, more useful church both for our own needs and the needs of others.



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