We had to cancel church yesterday because of the weather. Although spending the day at home in my sweats was relaxing, I missed my church family. And it got me thinking about an article I read recently.
Donald Miller (author of Blue Like Jazz) posted on his blog about a month ago about how he rarely goes to church because he finds more meaningful ways to connect with God outside the four walls of the church than within them. It sparked a pretty big controversy, with people jumping to the conclusion that he is anti-church or that he hates the Church. He responded to some of those criticisms in an interview with Relevant magazine.
I think he had a lot of valuable things to say in both the original post and the interview, and I appreciate his transparency. As pastors, Jason and I are continually looking for better ways to guide and shepherd our people, and to teach them the things we think they need to know. It’s good for us to remember that not everyone sitting in our pews is an auditory learner (I know I’m not!) and that to reach those people effectively, we may need to employ some different techniques. We talked about that a lot in the days leading up to the launch of our church, and it’s one of the main reasons that we try so hard to present things in different ways, whether that means Jason and I preach together or we ask people to tweet in questions for us to answer. We have some other ideas that we are trying to figure out how to implement, because we want people to be engaged while we teach.
Another really great point Donald raised is that most people in your typical evangelical church setting do not feel the responsibility or opportunity to lead others to Christ and disciple them as they mature in the Lord. Donald says, “I would love to see a model of church where the pastor stands up and says ‘you are all pastors.’ Just buy a box of sheriff badges and give it out and read Hebrews and say, ‘you are a pastor, and this Sunday meeting is time to equip the thousands of little churches that will leave here and take place in your homes around your dinner table.'”
I could not agree more wholeheartedly. That is the heart of the great commission, that each one of us who follows after Christ would fully embrace his command to “go, and make disciples.” But Donald points out that this would be terrifying for a lot of Christians, because then they couldn’t expect their pastor to do all of that work for them. Honestly, the most evangelistic thing most lay Christians in America have done is to invite their friend to church. And that’s a whole lot easier than sharing the gospel with them, investing in their life, and committing to walk with them for the long haul.
So given that he talked about two things that are very close to my heart – teaching people in a way that will really reach them, and empowering the people in the pews to be disciple-makers, I cannot write Donald’s comments off completely. But I have been pondering them for a while, and I think the thing that bothers me the most about his article is an underlying assumption about why we, as Christians, go to church.
Why do you go to church?
To meet with God? To worship? To learn about Him?
This might shock you, but all of these reasons for going to church are missing the point.
Do you want to know why? It’s because all of these things are about you. Your knowledge of God. Your experience of his presence. Your receiving from Him what you need.
It’s a selfish perception of the purpose of the church.
I live in an area where churches are everywhere, and if one doesn’t suit your fancy, it’s fairly easy to pack up your family and move to the church down the road. There are people who do this perpetually (we call them “church hoppers”); they are always looking for church that meets their own personal needs perfectly, and never satisfied, they keep moving on from one place to another. It’s easy to see how this type of person may be approaching church selfishly.
But even people who are firmly committed to their local church often primarily believe that the Sunday morning experience is for their personal growth and intimacy with God. They may know they have a responsibility to cultivate these things on their own during the week. They may even serve somewhere within the church, greeting new faces, or teaching little ones in the preschool class. But when they hang up their apron from that task, and come into the sanctuary, it is the job of the pastors to serve; they are there to receive.
You know how I know that?
Because I do it, too. I’m a pastor’s wife. I wear a lot of hats around the church. And on Sundays when I’m not on nursery duty, I often just want to come in to church and listen and sing. I want to receive. But that is not why we are commanded to be a part of the church, at least not most of the time. Sometimes, there is a time and a place to sit and receive from the Lord and the brothers and sisters who have gathered in His name alongside you. When Jason’s sister died last September, we were heartbroken and hurting. Our worship leader stepped in and helped us organize a mostly-worship service. While he played, we knelt and wept and cried out to God, and our church family surrounded us with love and upheld us with their prayers. We received.
But most of the time, it’s our job (and not because we are pastors, but because we are Christians) to come to church ready to serve.
Yesterday was my birthday. I received some lovely presents from Jason and the boys, and I felt special and honored. I laid around the house taking it easy most of the day, and we watched what I wanted to watch on TV last night. I didn’t have to give anything; yesterday was my day. But what if I woke up today and wanted more presents? If I wanted everything to go my way? If I decided I didn’t need to cook or clean because my family was here to serve me?
That would be ridiculous, right?
And yet this is exactly how we treat the church. We come believing that most of the time it’s all about us and what we can get out of it. Which is completely unbiblical.
If you grew up being taught that church attendance was important, you probably learned Hebrews 10:25, which says “Let us not give up the habit of meeting together.” But we would do well to read the verse that comes directly before it, which says, “Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.”
Do you come to church looking for ways to encourage someone else in their faith? If not, may I gently suggest that you have not fully lived up to the picture of the church that the New Testament offers us?
I know it’s difficult. I know it requires a constant re-calibration to turn our hearts away from ourselves and our own problems, and onto the body of believers of which God has called us to be a part. But it is essential. It’s the reason for the church. If we can’t be this, then let’s just close the doors, and all take nature hikes to worship God like Donald Miller suggests.
But if we can be the body that Christ intended, one where each part supports the others, where we use our unique gifts to bless each other and bring glory to God–and I believe we can–then what will stop that church from changing the world?