Article for the week of June 10, 2007


[Webmaster note: This article is different than ones we normally publish, but the message is very worthwhile nonetheless.]

The Church Should Be More Like a Street Gang

I had happened on Thursday. But the thirteen-year-old kid was still pretty shaken up on Sunday morning when he told me about it. He was riding his bike near the park in his neighborhood when shots started ringing out. A young man was firing a handgun at random, emptying the clip in all directions. My young friend dropped to his belly behind a car until the coast was clear. Then he hurried home to his frantic mother. My friend says he could hear the bullets whizzing by his head. Fortunately, no one was hurt. The police are still hunting the perpetrator.

Why would this young man start shooting randomly across a park and neighborhood? It was a gang initiation. To get into a gang, you have to perform certain dangerous tasks like thefts and drive-by-shootings. The point is to prove your loyalty and trustworthiness. Everyone in the gang has made a great sacrifice, taken a great risk, to get into the group.

Being in a gang gives you protection. It gives you a new family and a place to belong. This security is so valuable, young men are willing to risk getting sent to prison for life. Those who make it into the gang know that their posse will always watch their back. They've risked their lives to join the gang, and every day they live in danger from the cops and other gangs.

It reminds me a lot of the early church. Before Constantine, joining the underground sect known as "the way" was a life-imperiling proposition. Becoming a Christian often meant being rejected by your family. It meant getting on the wrong side of the law. You could be arrested simply because of your association with the group. The government posed a threat, and so did other religious groups, such as the zealous Jewish leadership of pre-AD. -70 Judea, and (later on) some groups of Muslims.

The same situation exists today in parts of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. We've seen in the news recently an Afghani Christian who faced possible execution for his beliefs.

In underground churches, as in gangs, there must be an extraordinary level of trust. There is extraordinary camaraderie because the members have all sacrificed so much to join the group. The intimacy and solidarity are outstanding, because in such a situation it's your small group against the world.

Western Christianity no longer experiences this type of cohesiveness. In the church, we are supposed to be a new family, the family of God. We are "the body of Christ and individually members of it" (1 Cor. 12:27). But in our churches, do we really feel bound to each other, or do we feel free to leave? Do we really depend on each other, or do we feel that our church family is optional? Do we really trust each other with our own lives, or do we treat each other with suspicion?

If our churches fostered the same type of solidarity and interdependence found in street gangs, would people need the gangs anymore?

It seems to me that in modern churches, we tend to leave each other alone. We all have our own private lives, and the church is just one more social group. What would it be like if my brothers and sisters really were my posse, who watched my spiritual back, who gave me cover as I battled the devil, who gave me a heads-up when they saw sin or apathy creeping into my life?

I wonder whether in super size churches it's possible for the family of God to be more than a social group of loosely-connected individuals who stay mostly out of each other's personal business. Could we be more effective in our spiritual turf war against Hell's Angels if we were de-centralized like the New Testament churches or the churches in Muslim and Communist countries? Or are we just too comfortable to realize that we're at war?

I don't have the answers. I just often wonder whether my religion is too easy to be real.



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