It was a real delight to read Tim Challies’ post several days ago in which he described his growing love for and commitment to his local body of believers. It is a post that has been on my mind for the past few days, and I would strongly encourage you to go and read that post, and perhaps listen to Tim’s sermon, which led to his post. I feel that I would like to add my own thoughts here to those he expressed.
I am sad to say that the kind of love Tim feels for a specific local church is going out of fashion among Christians today. Many see their current church home as something to be tolerated rather than delighted in. They see themselves as strangers passing through who never really put down roots. In the trends towards a transient population who move their home and/or change churches frequently, it’s easy to understand the emotional disconnection many feel. Even the desire to serve God in ministry by church planting can translate into a part of a person’s heart not truly being given over to the group of people with whom they currently meet on Sunday. “If I will only be able to attend a particular church for a short time,” the argument goes, “why get too involved emotionally?” Many church members, often including those involved in some type of leadership, are best considered part of a “floating community.” An unwritten contract even exists between some churches and their pastors which strongly suggests that neither party expects or desires the relationship between the leader and the led to be a long-term one. When a church becomes merely a stepping-stone in some kind of ministerial career, I fear we have drifted away from the concept of a shepherd loving the sheep.
What is still more tragic than the floating populations of many churches are those who claim a Christian faith without attending a church. The truth is that without being part of a church, any Christian is like a fish out of water. They might flap around enthusiastically for awhile, but they won’t make any real progress, and eventually even the flapping will cease. In the vast majority of cases, their faith will simply die.
I am so glad that a number of years ago I discovered that my own church is truly home for me. I love the fact that many of our visitors say something like, “I feel as if I have come home,” even after only their first or second visit. What is interesting is that despite the fact that I first walked into the congregation of which I am now a member back in 1995, it took several years before I began to understand that this church really IS my home. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it in the early years. It’s not that I even realized early-on that anything was lacking in my sense of belonging. I think that a deep-seated sense of truly belonging to a people that you can call your own requires two things: first, a clear decision of commitment to the church, and following that decision, the passing of a significant portion of time.
There are, of course, times when God will call us to move on. Certainly it is vital that more churches are planted. But, as in so many other things, I fear we sometimes swing from one extreme to the other. I once wrote a post entitled, “Are You Too Loyal?” in which I addressed those who know they are in a church that is not right for them. There is much that can be said on that front, and indeed, for some the notion of truly being committed to their local church brings such anxieties and mental conflicts to the fore that the question demands to be answered: “Am I in the right church?” But for many others I fear the more compelling question is, “Why am I not more attached to my church?”
Has God placed you in a church that is led by godly men whom you trust, and who teach you God’s Word with integrity and in such a way that you can follow them with good conscience? If so, may I encourage you to allow God to stir a greater love in your heart for this church he has given you? I loved the way Tim highlighted a phrase from a literal translation of Acts 4—they went to their own. I pray that many of you will become increasingly convinced that your local church community truly is “your own people” and the place where God would have you put down deep relational roots. The church is the place where discipleship happens. It is where the one anothers of the Bible are fulfilled. It is where the lost are reached. It is where God’s glory is revealed in all its richness.
If you are not a member of a church and want to live as a Christian, find one! Find the best one you can, but don’t be so choosy that you only see problems everywhere you go. It’s easy to be contrary and say something like this:
- “This church has too much loud modern music for my taste, but that church sings too many of the old hymns.”
- “This church has too many old people, but that church has too many young people.”
- “This church has sermons that last an hour, but in that church the sermons are far too short and not to my taste.”
- “This church was not friendly to me, but in that church they were overly familiar with me on my first visit and made me feel hounded!”
You get the message, but I suspect that underlying all such petty reasons not to join a church lies, more often than not, a simple fear. It is the same sort of fear that is felt by a single guy who likes to date woman after woman, but never takes the plunge into marriage. It can also be the fear of allowing a stranger into your life, and the worry about what the people will think of you if you begin to open up. It is also sometimes like the fear of the woman who has been married before and was abused by her husband before he abandoned her, a shell of her former self. Maybe you have loved a church before and do not dare to love again. Jesus will never let you down, while churches will. But Jesus wants to lovingly place you in a community of his people where you will experience his love manifested towards you by others, where you will have leaders who you can ask to speak into your life and advise and train you, where God’s Word is taught and revered.
If you feel that you just cannot find a suitable church within a reasonable drive of your house, then it seems to me there can only be three possible reasons for this. Either
- You have a call from God to help in some way to plant a new church in your neighborhood.
- You are living in the wrong area and it is time to move to a different home.
- You have been far too fussy in your criteria for church choice.
I suspect that for the vast majority of people in such a position, the third option is the correct one. Church choice should be a strong influence on our decision about where to live, whereas it often is the last thing people consider when, for example, offered a new job. I am so glad God helped me not to succumb to the temptation once offered me by a generous relocation package. It was definitely right for me at the time to, instead, commute a significant distance to work so I could remain in my church. In our current era of job mobility this is, of course, not always quite so straightforward.
I think that the biggest temptation when it comes to church is to be overly critical. Yes, I do want it all in a church, and it is true that my current church doesn’t ha
ve it all. In fact, there is a big difference between our vision for what Jubilee could be and the reality of where we are today. But it is a delight to me that my brothers and sisters are not frustrated by this difference, but rather are stirred to move ever closer to that biblical vision of what our congregation can be. We are a church on the move, and I am convinced that we are closer to that vision this year than we were last. I am very willing to be patient, and to watch this dear family of mine grow. I am part of the family, so I try, as much as possible, not to look to “them” to provide for me, and instead ask what can I do to help my church fulfill the purposes God has for it. Of course, along the way I do also gain much from my church, and especially its leaders. If many people are all seeking to help each other in whatever way they are gifted, we all benefit massively!
My prayer is that I will always be a part of the solution in my local church, and never a part of the problem. I am determined to remain here for however long God wants me to. I genuinely hope and believe this is very likely to be a rather long time. However long I am here, I trust that God will continue to give me a growing love for the dear people of Jubilee. For me personally, it is the best church in the world—as C. J. would say, “the dearest place on earth!” And while I know I am rather biased, I am convinced that is no bad thing.
As I write this, I am praying that in the coming months God will bring all of you to a position of truly loving a local church despite all its imperfections and recognizing it as the best church in the world for you.
Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching. Hebrews 10:25 (NIV)