A lone Christian keeps everything uncomplicated—no worship wars, gossip, bickering, or organizational burnout. But maybe, not much Christ, either.
Our Problem Today—the One Man Show
You might not recognize the name Pete Maravich unless you’re a seventies-era basketball fan.
Maravich, also known as Pistol Pete, holds the all-time college scoring record. He has been called the greatest college basketball player ever.
It started when his father decided to make Pete the best basketball player in the world, and gave the kid a ball. It caught on. Pete dribbled that ball everywhere. He even took it into the movie theater, where he infuriated the other patrons. While being driven to school, Pete would let the window down and dribble the ball outside the car all the way there.
During his childhood, a coach once told him, “Okay Pete, time to go home. We’re shutting the gym for the night.” Pete said, “Okay, we’ll leave when I miss.” One hundred seventy-eight shots later, Pete missed, presumably on purpose, so the poor man could go home.
When Pete started playing high school basketball, he quickly became the best in the country, and when he started for LSU, he brought moves onto the court that had never before been seen. Once a referee called a foul on him, and Maravich said, “Aw c’mon ref, how do you know that was a foul? You never saw that before.”
But the one thing Maravich wanted—a championship—he never got, either at the collegiate or pro level. Analysts ever since have wondered why such a phenomenal player couldn’t make it happen. The consensus opinion is that Maravich was a one-man show. When he approached a game, it was all about what he could do— passing, shooting, or handling. That philosophy doesn’t work well on a team.
This individualistic bug has gotten into today’s Christian, and it has affected our team play. We understand that faith is a personal item, and salvation must occur in the individual. It’s not enough to hang around with people who believe in Jesus. You must believe in Jesus.
But where salvation starts with the individual, it often stops there. Many of us question whether the church is relevant anymore. In fact, some have suggested that the church, with its top-heavy administration, schedule, events, and flawed members, might actually hinder real spirituality. The church seems to hold back our inner superstar. We’d win a ministry championship if only we could rid ourselves of the lackluster souls that weigh us down.
You Can’t Hide from the Church
The church though, is basic math to the Christian life. Every book of the New Testament was written in the context of the faith community. It is impossible for the reader to avoid. The church is so embedded in biblical thought, that if you contemplate having a solitary Christian life, you’re actually contemplating a life that doesn’t exist.
Yet we still try to get around the issue, by defining the church as strictly spiritual—an amorphous entity requiring no structure, accountability, or responsibility. The Bible does portray it as spiritual, but offers a counterbalance. The church is practical as well. In bluntest terms, it is the sustained proximity to people you would otherwise not choose to be around.
Jesus expects us to follow Him with those people. When He said, “Follow Me” in the four gospels, it was always in the context of a group.
Mt. 4:19 Then He said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.”
Mk.1:17 Then Jesus said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you become fishers of men.”
“Them” of course, is plural in both Matthew and Mark.
Lk. 5:27 After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, “Follow me.”
Jn. 1:43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.”
In these latter two gospels, by the time Levi and Philip were called to follow Jesus, they did it with a group already existing around Him.
Other People Make it Difficult
We moderns try to dodge group life, because dynamics change significantly and become difficult when we try to follow Christ with others. For instance, in John 13, Jesus told the disciples to love one another. He does it again in John 15. In John 17, Jesus prays a prayer to the Father, saying, “Father, that they may be one.” Why?
Because He knew the self-loving, self-serving, self-centered region of our hearts would emerge in the context of close community. These things make for unpleasant drama.
That initial group of disciples wasn’t exempt from any of it, especially in their early, immature state.
Impulsive and Always First
Consider Peter. He was impulsive and first in many ways. First to confess “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” First to walk on water with Jesus. First to experience success in mass evangelism. But impulsiveness can also work the other way. He was the first to deny Christ. Three times. First to sink after having walked on water. And yet the Lord loved him and chose him. In every Christian fellowship there are people who burn brightly in their faith one week, and then bottom out the next. Success, failure, success, failure. And yet the Lord picks these people and loves them.
Temperamental and Extreme
James and John were nicknamed “Sons of thunder” (probably code for “Anger management issues”). When a village rejected Jesus, they wanted to call down fire out of heaven and burn it up. Jesus chose these hotheads. In every church there are people who are temperamental, and get offended easily. They overreact, saying too much and going too far. And yes, Jesus chooses them and loves them.
Cynical and Reluctant
Don’t forget Thomas—doubting Thomas, that is. He became famous for his commitment to unbelief, when he said he’d never believe in Jesus’ resurrection unless he stuck his finger into the nail prints of the Lord’s hands. Jesus chose this man. Jesus loved him. In every group, there are Christians slow to believe—a bit cynical, and ready to counter God’s promises with, “Well, I don’t know about that.” Still, the Lord doesn’t love them one bit less.
Unperceptive and Slow
How about Philip? He was a pragmatic person, quick to recognize that the numbers wouldn’t add up at the feeding of the five thousand. But he was spiritually dull. At one moment in time, he asked Jesus to make God appear in front of them. It was one of those head shaking moments, where Jesus said, “Have I been so long with you Philip, and you have not known me?” Jesus chose this spiritually slow man and loved him. Churches all over the place are also full of these kinds of people. They know what is wrong with the church, they know what needs to be done to make it better, but they just don’t know Jesus very well. He loves them anyway.
Shamed and Dubious
Matthew (Levi) was a man who had a background in finance (a tax collector) as a subcontractor for the Roman government. That means he worked in an industry that had a bad reputation, and probably did it well. Jesus chose this man who was viewed as a sell-out by his countrymen. Every church has folks in it with questionable backgrounds. Rap sheets don’t deter Him from loving them.
Congenial and Pleasant
Andrew was apparently an all-around good guy, a people-person and connector. He introduced Peter to Jesus, an important connection for sure. Of course, Jesus loved him. We wish our churches could be full of people like Andrew—friendly, helpful, sparkling. Not surprisingly, Jesus loves these personable types.
Dogmatic and Partisan
Where Andrew might have been easy to like, Simon the Zealot might have been another story. The zealots were an ancient political activist group that opposed the Romans. It’s probably fair to say Simon was opinionated. More than likely, he wouldn’t have cared much for Matthew’s past close connections with the empire. For obvious reasons, he would have loved today’s social media platforms where raw outrage finds a home. Yet Jesus picked him. Every church has somebody prone to simmering opinions about political and social issues. They like to let everybody else know about it, too. Still, Jesus chooses these outspoken souls.
Reserved and Unobtrusive
We hardly know anything about Bartholomew, James the Son of Alphaeus, and Judas, the son of James. They were apparently unremarkable, quiet, private people. Jesus loved these guys and their temperament so much He chose three of them. I don’t know if this means they were introverts, but it would fit the facts if they were. Every new survey seems to indicate that the church is more populated with introverts than any other personality type. Church leadership always seems to be on a crusade to transform them into extroverts in terms of worship and evangelism. It never works. Jesus is not exclusively fond of outgoing folks, anyway. He seems to dearly love bookish meditative types, and chooses them in three-packs.
Present, but False
In contrast to the other eleven, Judas was a fake whose motives were murky at best. Ironically, he seems to have suffered the reverse problem this post is addressing. He had the group experience and camaraderie of the twelve before the individual experience of personal commitment to Jesus. Our churches contain folks who are there for the wrong reasons. They want to sell car insurance, or get dates, or maybe they’re there because it’s a traditional, cultural, or family expectation. But they’re not interested in Christ. Make no mistake, though, that the Lord loves these lost souls, and should they wish to find Him and know Him, He will respond immediately.
The Embarrassing Church?
When I was 21, I received a personal call from Jesus to follow Him. But coming to Christ, I found I wasn’t the only player on the team. I didn’t know who the others were, but within about thirty seconds, I was pretty sure I didn’t like them. During certain times since then, I’ve often been tempted to negotiate a special connection to Jesus that would allow me to follow Him by myself apart from “those people.”
A lot of believers do the same today, figuring they can dispense with church, replacing it with podcasts and YouTube videos. Maybe they’ll have coffee and spiritual talk with a couple of hand-picked folks that they like. And why not? So many monkeyshines have happened in the name of “church,” the offenses could fill volumes.
Maybe Jesus owes a lot of people an apology. On the other hand, we never see Him going around, apologizing because His followers are so hypocritical, slow, and small. He certainly rebuked them Himself and corrected them, but never gave any indication to outsiders or prospective members that He was ashamed of them.
Heb. 2:11 For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers.
He refused to be ashamed of them in the similar brave and loving way as the parent of a special needs child might reject feelings of self-conscious embarrassment. As we follow Him, refusing to leave Him or each other, He will never be ashamed of us, regardless of our inherent flaws.
Neither does He beg anyone to join us. The Lord always treats His call as an honor.
Many of us have received it, so don’t be like those who manage to enter the stadium, but never make it onto the field. Last Sunday, I invited visitors to join our church. “You can certainly shop around,” I told them, “But I warn you, the longer you’re out there and uncommitted, the greater the chance you’ll end up on the bench or in the stands.”
I told them, “If you join us, I will make you two promises. First, I promise imperfection. Things won’t be perfect here, especially after you join.
Second, I promise you Jesus.”