George Barna, in his book Revolution, estimates that there are some 20 million born again Christians in the United States for whom the primary means of spiritual experience and expression is not the local church, and that by 2025 there will be 70 million such persons (Barna later revised that estimate from 20 million to 5 million). What is important is not that Barna’s estimates are completely accurate, but that they do, in fact, represent an alarming trend regarding spirituality and the local church in Western culture. Whether the number is 20 million or 5 million, there are literally millions of people who: 1) claim to have a personal, transforming, regenerate relationship with Jesus Christ; 2) experience Jesus through means separate from the local church; and 3) have no regard for what Scripture teaches us about the local church. This is a sobering statistic.

If we are to take Scripture seriously, then we can logically come to no other conclusion than to question the legitimacy of the faith claims of those who have spiritual experiences and expressions apart from the local church. The reason for this is that Scripture itself testifies to the importance of the local church in sustaining, cultivating and nurturing a vibrant, mature spiritual faith and practice rooted in belief in Jesus. It is clear that when Paul teaches us that Jesus died for the church (Eph 5:25), he means the universal body of Christ comprised of believers from all over the world, represented by numerous denominations, who express their faith in many multi-cultral, richly diverse ways, yet all rooted in the foundational truths of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

However, the universal church is uniquely expressed in the culture in the assembly of the local body of believers. The universal church is largely invisible, whereas the visible church is expressed by the gathering of Christians in a unique, particular local setting. We see the church beginning to take this shape early in the 1st century (Acts 2:42 cf; Rom 16:5; 1Cor 16:19).

The purpose of Jesus’ death for the church was to “sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph 5:26-27). But how does this happen? Can it not happen within the context of an individual, personalized spiritual experience apart from the local church? The author of Hebrews indicates that it cannot.

In Hebrews we learn that a spiritual community is necessary for the maturation of a genuine experience with Jesus Christ. “Take care, brothers, lets there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today’, that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we share in Christ, if indeeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end” (3:12-14). What is implicit in this text is the reality that it takes a believing community encouraging us to keep our wayward, wandering hearts from falling into unbelief, and thus keeping us from inheriting God’s promised rest.

Later in Hebrews we learn that the gathering of Christian believers is necessary so that we will do what we were made to do in Christ Jesus – which is good works (Eph 2:10). “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (10:24-25).

So what shall we say to the 20 million (or is it 5 million) who say they know Jesus but never gather with the Bride He laid down his life for? Either they: 1) have not had a genuine experience with Jesus Christ but are deceived, blinded by the lies of Satan, and a highly complex culture of individualized, privatized spirituality; or 2) may have the appearance, on some level, of having been converted by the Holy Spirit by faith, but in their ignorance and immaturity are living in sin, and are living in a state of spiritual peril because their absence from the local church exposes them to the very real possibility of unbelief, which would expose their confession of Jesus as fraudulent; or 3) are genuinely converted and will soon experience the discipline of God that will bring their sinful neglect of Jesus’ Bride to the surface, leading to their repentance and restoration among God’s people.

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