“Good morning!” I greeted a new family as they walked into our church lobby.
“Hello!” They paused, and introductions continued.
“Are you new in the area?” I asked.
“Oh, no, we’ve been here nearly ten years. But we’re looking for a new church.” The wife lowered her voice, and leaned toward me. “I helped with the children’s ministry but don’t tell anyone. That’s why we left. They wouldn’t let me resign. I was way over-committed and exhausted.”
Being on a church staff for 20 years, I have heard many people’s stories. Their faith journeys often include at least one unhealthy church encounter. In my discussions with leaders of other churches, I know this is not unique to my faith community. Church nomads travel into new places of worship every week. Discouraged from a previous church experience yet wanting to be part of the larger family of God, they consider the possibility of new church home.
But is it worth the effort? How necessary is church for the Christian life?
Jesus first mentioned the church toward the end of his earthly journey. After Peter declared Christ’s divinity, Jesus affirmed that he would build his church and endow it with his authority. He clearly referred to the church as his own, “I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). It would be the next step in God’s redemptive plan for the world.
We find Jesus’ next mention of the church in his discourse on resolving conflict. If two people are unable to reconcile, he said to involve the wisdom of the church (Matthew 18:17-20). He assured his disciples that when two or more gather in his name, he would be among them. The church would be his presence made visible even in the trials and difficulties of doing life together.
The book of Acts and subsequent writings of the New Testament continue to develop the role of the church. The early church’s care for one another was so revolutionary it caught the attention of not-yet-believers. The Christ-centered communities revealed God’s nature of love and grace through their compassionate care for one another. The apostles Paul and John actually referred to the church as the bride of Christ. So precious was the church to Jesus, he gave his life for her and her people (Ephesians 5:23-25; 2 Corinthians 11:2-3; Revelations 19:7-8).
Humans did not create the church. It was and still is God’s idea to fulfill his kingdom on earth. He intended our earthly travel to be within the context of a local body of believers. A church family enables corporate worship, offers care for one another, and remains the primary reflection of Christ to the community. Yes, the church is worth our efforts.
Love-Hate Relationship with the Church
Nevertheless, we have a love-hate relationship with the church. As Christ-followers, we belong to the family of God. We love this. God created us to be in community (Genesis 2:18; Ecclesiastes 4:9-12; 1 Corinthians 12:27). This universal Church, the one that includes all who call on the name of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, draws us into a most unique global space of connectedness.
The church also refers to local congregations. This is where I work. As a ministry leader, I have a front row seat of God’s miraculous work. I hear about his healing touch, his responses to prayer, his provision of resources. These we celebrate. This I love.
But herein also lies the problem. Hidden agendas, broken relationships, and hypocrisy exist. Difficult circumstances breed annoyance that can escalate toward division. Attempts at reconciliation are rebuffed when trust is fractured, and the authority of the church is compromised. Unhealthy churches grossly damage relationships among the leadership, its members, and with the Lord. People leave, nomads once again, but now angry or disillusioned or weary nomads. From an insider’s view, the resulting ugliness sucks the life and joy out of untold numbers of pastors and church staffers. This deeply grieves my soul. This I hate.
According to Barna’s Trends 2017, church attendance is at an all-time low in the United States. A mere 35 percent of Americans surveyed reported attending church in the past week. Two-thirds of us chose activity other than being with a faith community. Barna researchers probed further asking why people no longer attend church. Millennials’ responses were especially telling. Their top three answers were:
- the church is not relevant to them
- they find God elsewhere
- they can teach themselves
Somewhere along the way, we have developed the shortsighted view that church is about our personal experiences. What is in it for me? Choosing to follow Christ is indeed a personal decision, but never was the journey meant to be a solo or private one. After our initial encounter with the Living God, continued growth depends on commitment to a local body of Christ. The church. Internet resources, best-selling books, and a walk in the woods can nurture faith, but it is in community where we learn to love, be patient, show kindness, receive correction, and so much more.
Relationships are hard work. Hence, Jesus’ repeated teachings on forgiveness and mercy. Within the context of the church, passions especially emerge in times of transition. Building a new building, calling a new pastor, or changing the style of worship (choir or praise band), bring forth opinions heretofore unseen. Hallway conversations of half-truths and assumed motives push personal agendas forward. May we step instead with maturity into corporate discussions with one goal: to glorify God and serve his kingdom alone.
“If you ask what the point of church is, and the best answer is effective teaching, or worship—or even a very good purpose like helping people get close to God—then we’ve lost our imagination,” Roxanne Stone of Barna summarizes. “The Church does not simply exist to make individuals better followers of Jesus. That’s part of it. It also exists for reasons that stretch far beyond the personal, in both space and time. The Church exists to testify to a greater story than the world’s [story] … The Church exists to renew the world: to unite holy saints in a battle that has spanned millennia as we continue to labor and pray for ‘thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.'”
The Church Needs You
As one body, God is calling us to move forward as his representatives, his witnesses. We cannot do it alone. The mission is too big! The local church needs all the parts of the body with all the gifts and talents given. If you do not have a church home, begin the hunt today and find a healthy expression of the body of Christ. Then pour yourself into her community.
God has a role for each person in the larger body of Christ. Without you, a gap exists. “From him, the whole body, joined and held together by every support ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Ephesians 4:16). With our feet and hands and voice, we proclaim the good news of his kingdom come! We find encouragement in community. We heal in community. We extend community through bridge building and peacemaking.
May we be the church collectively reflecting God’s light and grace to all peoples. To choose otherwise is to select self-sufficiency. It’s an arrogance against God’s own design. His final plan for the redemption of the world—beyond prophets, kings, and holy nations—is the church.
Tomorrow I will go once again to my office in the church building. I will work alongside fellow sinners—paid and volunteer staff. Once again, we will prayerfully discern between our earthly plans and God’s infallible plans. And, at some point during the week, I’ll likely have a conversation with someone who is considering leaving the nomadic church lifestyle. Please do.
Come and travel with the church among the good, the bad, and the ugly. Let’s learn to travel well … together.
 Barna Group, Barna Trends 2017 (Michigan: Baker Books, 2016), p. 225.