A couple of years before you were born your mother and I happened to follow a minivan into a grocery store parking lot. The words, “Praise The Lord” were splayed in large letters across the back window of her minivan, and they were accompanied by various Christian symbols and stickers. So we were both excited to speak to the lady. In our conversation it wasn’t long before your mom asked her where she fellowshipped. The lady responded in the strangest way. With noticeable disappointment, she said, “Oh. So yall are still doing that?” Well, the “that” she was referring to was the act of attending church. And yes, we still were doing it, and still are.
Since that time I’ve seen quite a bit of this sort of thing among professing believers, and I think they are in error. You can’t leave the Church and still be the Church. My hand in the other room does me no good. It must be attached to my body to be of any use. Besides, it needs my heart to keep blood pumping through it whether I’m using it or not. Without that blood it would rot. And when I see attempts by some to remove their gifts from service to the Body, it perhaps rightly seems a little rotten to me.
In contrast, I can also remember visiting a little Baptist church in Georgia on a Thursday evening not long after becoming a Christian. They were assembling to go out sharing the Gospel and knocking on doors. I can remember speaking to an older gentleman there who said he’d been a part of that congregation for 40 years. I now know with all confidence that that man had been through a lot with that little fellowship of believers. In the same way we’ve been though a lot as a family, a congregation will go through a lot as a community. That’s because they’re the same thing. Your church is your family.
I’ll never forget either of these two people. They both left an impression on me. I would rather be the man who stuck it out, and I’d rather you be as well. So let’s discuss a few things to be on the lookout for and to expect when it comes to the fellowship of the brethren. I’ll discuss some things I’ve seen and perhaps some things to look for as you guard your relationships with your church family.
The Parachurch Ministry
Church is hard work, especially for the pastor. Don’t ever forget that. Preaching on Sunday morning is but a fraction of his job, and probably the easiest and most rewarding part. For the rest of the week he’s holding together a congregation of sinners who all have their hobby horses to ride, axes to grind, pet doctrines to push, scandals, pregnant daughters, wayward sons, men and women abandoning their families, drug, alcohol and money issues, illnesses, deaths, births and lots more I’m sure. And if that’s not enough there are building issues, money woes, payroll and government bureaucracies to contend with. But sure enough, on Sunday morning there are three or four hundred ears gathered to hear a message.
But there are some who see a congregation as a ready-made audience, just waiting to hear their important messages; and who knows, there might even be a little cash in it; you know, to “support the ministry”. And without any of the work it takes to manage the storm that is the week in a pastor’s life, or without shedding any of the tears through the night with any of the congregants, and bearing any of the burdens of the flock, there they are, desiring access to this flock… through the back door so to speak.
“Para” means beside, and as such parachurch is an apt description of these ministries. They are headed up by folks who are walking alongside the Church. And while some of these ministries are worth their salt, perhaps most even, some are nothing more than parasites. They exist off the hard work of other people. They are not themselves in a church, but rather can be best described as functioning beside the Church. They bounce here and there, never really being part of a local Body, not really being accountable to anyone, but always kind of… nearby, feeding, if you will, off of the true Body. Beware of these. Approach them, or participate with them, with extreme caution. God is preparing a Bride for His Son, and I am confident that there won’t be any “best men” to stand “beside” that bride at the great wedding.
House Churches have always had a special appeal to me, and I don’t think there’s any question that these churches were the norm in the early Church. And I see no scriptural basis to make the case against the “house church” today if it’s really a church; which is to say that if it’s living out the biblical mandate of coming together as a body of believers and functioning as the Body of Christ. I would be the last to say that house churches are of the Devil. But like anything else, beware. It might well be that there has been so much division and inability to get along with the rest of the body that a very small group has retreated into a living room somewhere and are finally able to be of one accord with one or two other families; until, that is, they’re not able to get along. A good house Church will probably outgrow the house at some point, so it will probably either go very well there, or very wrong, but for sure it’s going to go somewhere. If you find yourself in a house church, make sure there is love for Christ’s Body found in it, and not just criticism of it. Make sure that there’s love of Christ there, and not just love of His doctrine. And make sure that the Word is preached, and there is communion. In other words, just as I said, make sure that it functions like any other healthy Body, or at least as healthy as any Body can be expected to be.
Loaners and Hyper Spiritualists
In my judgment, this probably describes the lady we met in the parking lot, though in our short encounter I can’t be certain. Nevertheless, we need to understand the truth about who we are as human beings so that we might ward off some of the setbacks that come with being such beings. One truth is that it’s our nature to think of ourselves more highly than we ought. In addition, and just as importantly, we tend to see our own failures in a more favorable light than we do the failures of others. These two truths work together for the detriment of the Church.
It has been my experience that I tend to judge myself more according to my intentions and desires than my actions. At the same time, I tend to judge those around me according to their actions. Such tendencies can easily lead to spiritual snobbery, and indeed it has with me. But it’s far more complicated than just that. I’ve given to you only a couple of factors. There are more. So let me add another as an example. We all, being just one part of Jesus’ Body, naturally see and experience things differently. So we can tend to hold everyone else to standards that we like, because of the gifts God has given us, while at the same time giving ourselves a pass on other important things. And sometimes when the rest of our congregation doesn’t snap-to in a way that we think they ought, why we up and leave because who wants to “worship” with a bunch of spiritual failures who aren’t serious about God? Well that’s a hyper spiritual mentality, and it’s wrong.
I also think that some of our negative mentalities toward the church might be rooted in our tendency to think of the congregation in a general sense. This “sense” might be derived from our negative experiences and judgments concerning individuals which our minds eventually conflate to a general representation of the entire local Body. Having developed that picture we then wrongly apply it to everyone individually, and at the same time, no one in particular. This is not good.
If you work at thinking of your brothers and sisters as individuals, not as “the Church” in general, you may be able to ward off such a deceptive and destructive mentality. Still, I think we are all prone to such thinking, especially when we’re walking along the spiritual peaks; probably not so much while we’re in the valleys. It’s actually much easier to get on our high horse then and to not think in terms of fellow individuals and their struggles. But when we do think of the Body as individuals, then that might just lead us to think of ourselves in context also, which, as difficult as it is, is an excellent start down the road of considering our own failings. Ultimately, loaners and hyper spiritualists, I think, have a difficult time of differentiating between their desires for the Church, and the many individual realities that those who make that church up are going through. And then they have difficulty being a part of something that they see as lacking, or committing to a thing in which they are not the beginning and the end of. (See Parachurch) Many of these will transition through the next group before vacating the visible church.
I’ve done no research on this. I can’t say whether “church hopping” has ever been as prevalent as it is now, but I don’t think it has. Church is in many ways like marriage. A friend told me before I married your mom to keep both eyes wide open before the wedding, and afterward to close one. A prospective local body should be approached in the same way before you sign on with it. And once you do, I promise you that you will find plenty of reasons to keep that one eye closed. But your church is also like your wife or husband in that you don’t just up and leave because of a few problems. It really is a part of your larger family.
Think of your own family. Think of our worst times, or maybe one of our worst days as a family. They were really bad weren’t they? And you know when I say really bad, I mean really bad. But did anyone throw up their hands and go join another family down the street, as if that family had it all together? Of course not. That would be unrealistic. I can tell you now that you will get angry with your brothers and sisters in Christ. So there, I’ve told you. So don’t be all shocked and surprised when it happens. Bad things are going to happen in all families and they’re going to happen in all churches. It’s just the nature of family. If you up and leave too quickly, I believe you will find one of two things will happen. Either you will church hop until you discover that the whole idea of “church” is futile, then become a loaner. Or you will mature, settle down, and learn to navigate the bumps, twists, and turns of family life. My experience has been that I’ve had horrible experiences in our church, and I’ve been the horrible experience for others. I even think that I might just have been the horrible experience for others more often than I have had horrible experiences with others.
We’ve been with our current church for 19 years, and in those 19 years I’ve seen a lot, and not all of it was good. But God is not shocked or surprised. In fact, the whole thing is His doing. He created Church. We are all rubbing against each other and being formed into building stones that actually fit quite well together, which is biblical. It is actually a living out of Roman’s 5, where Paul tells us that we, “...glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope.” We are also told by James to consider it pure joy when we face trials of many kinds because it brings about maturity. There’s no indication that these trials and tribulations are found only outside of your church body. No, they’re on the inside too. We are learning to love and forgive as we grow in grace together, and that’s something you just can’t get as a church hopper.
Now, with all this said, please don’t think I’m telling you to never leave a church. I would not ever tell anyone in an age such as ours, during a great falling away, when churches are abandoning the Truth of God’s Word in droves, to stay in a church come whatever. But it’s also not as easy as it may seem. Church leadership can ride the ragged edge of apostasy and you may find it difficult to know for sure if it’s time to abandon that local body in favor of a more solid and healthy fellowship. Add to this the relationships you will have formed over the years in your church, and it becomes even more difficult to make these decisions; because if you’re doing church right, you will be leaving deep relationships behind. Much prayer, counsel, and discernment will be required. Still, I’m confident that the American church would be much healthier today if more Christians would take their commitment to their church seriously, and would not abandon their local bodies so readily.
But I can tell you with all confidence to never abandon God’s Church altogether. We are meant to be in fellowship with our brothers and sisters. And just so you know, sitting through sermons once a week doesn’t qualify as fellowship. We refer to our brothers and sisters in Christ as brother and sister for a reason. We are family. And that family is not so different than the one with which you share your home. There is anger, flare-ups, grudges, unforgiveness, moodiness, and failures of every sort. But there is also happiness, restoration, forgiveness, joy, laughter, celebration, and relationship. You get the whole gamut with both your family at home and at Church. So we don’t cut and run from our family, and we don’t cut and run from our fellowship in unhappy times. That’s just how it goes.
So dear children I pray that you will have discernment in your relationship with your local fellowship. It actually is a beautiful thing, and God will use it to mature and complete you as He uses you to do the same for others. Church is God’s doing. Don’t ever think you’re too good for it, of not good enough. I pray that your relationship with your local body will be rich and rewarding.