A Church of One

Recently I met a new friend while climbing Bessie Butte with my friend Troll.

We had occasionally seen David (not his real name) on our descent, and one day introduced ourselves. After a few more encounters, we had an extended conversation on the summit. We learned that David, a healthy 82-year-old, was not only an avid climber, but also a follower of Jesus. Our conversations became more personal and a friendship began to blossom.

One day I asked what church he attended. His response was immediate. He no longer attended a local church, he told us, adding that God had told him to “come out from among them.” Them being organized churches. David preferred to just read his Bible and commentaries at home. Alone.

He was a church of one.

I have met these “micro churches of one” throughout my almost 50 years of ministry. Usually, these solo believers explain that their church consists of watching a television ministry or listening to a radio preacher. They enjoy a large choir and professional musicians. They tithe faithfully to their church through the mail or online. They listen to a powerful message by a gifted preacher, and may even verbalize an “amen.”

But who heard it?

Can a televised church service replace the real thing? For a shut-in who can’t get out of bed, it seems better than nothing.

A church of one, however, doesn’t really exist. It’s a contradiction in terms. The English word “church” is translated from a Greek word ecclesia, derived from a verb “to call” and a preposition “out.” The church consists of people who have been called out from the world. Believers have not only been called out from the world, but called into God’s family. We have been chosen to become part of a great family. God never intended for us to live in isolation but always in community.

Each biblical metaphor for the church emphasizes that the church consists of many parts or individuals. A body consists of many organs, and each is vital to the welfare of the rest of the body. A building consists of many parts but remains one building. A family consists of individuals, and so does God’s family.

Can a man or woman, then, divorce themselves from a local church and still be a Christian? Can a heart go on beating outside the body? Can lungs function apart from a body? Not for long! Using another metaphor, can a flaming ember continue to burn after being separated from the campfire? Again, not for long. It will flicker, smolder, and cool to ash. Professing to be a follower of Jesus Christ and choosing to live in isolation from the rest of His family is ludicrous. Let me illustrate.

 Consider the purpose of spiritual gifts. God’s Spirit gives each true believer unique strengths or abilities to share with the rest of the church family. What is the purpose of the gift of helping in a church of one? Whom do you serve with your gift? Whom would you teach if your gift is teaching? Who would encourage you or spur you on when you are struggling if you were the only member of your micro-church? If you have been gifted with leadership, who will be following your leadership? What could be more pathetic than a one-person parade?

Every spiritual gift, to be of any value at all, demands more than one person: the gifted and the one who is blessed through the gift.

Let me demonstrate the fallacy of trying to be a church of one. When you are lying on a gurney in the ER, try calling your gifted TV pastor who edifies you each Sunday morning on your wide-screen TV. Will he hold your hand and pray with you in your dying moments? Of course not, nor should he! You are not his responsibility. He may be your preacher, but he will never be your pastor or shepherd.

Or try asking him or her to officiate at your memorial service. Remember, he doesn’t even know you exist. Imagine, in your church of one, what the “other members” will share at your celebration of life since all the members are deceased.

I am amazed when people say they love Jesus, but want nothing to do with His bride.

Seems to me, there are no churches of one.

Yes, I realize there may be a persecuted believer who is being forced to live in isolation away from the visible body of Christ. For this brother or sister, I pray that they may discover another believer, perhaps even sharing a prison cell. I pray that God, in His grace and kindness, will provide another one of His children, scattered across the world in so many unlikely places, who will encourage that lonely one when they are at the brink of hopelessness. Someone who will share a verse of Scripture or perhaps a phrase from a hymn.

But pity the professing Christian in America who proudly declares his or her separation from the rest of the church.

It’s interesting to me that our new climbing friend David seems to want to stay in touch. He has telephoned and texted me. He has purchased and read my book. He also calls me “Preach” just like my friend, Troll. I suspect that David has been lonely for a long time, and hungers for a few Christian friends.

I can appreciate that. Fellowship in a church of one remains in short supply