“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.

Why Church?

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[1]

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 worshipor even a very good purpose like helping people get close to Godthen 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.'”[2]

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.

 

[1] Barna Group, Barna Trends 2017 (Michigan: Baker Books, 2016), p. 225.

[2] Ibid.

Sharon Hoover
Sharon R Hoover writes devotional and inspirational works for all who are exploring and growing in the journey of faith. Her passions for education and global issues led her from being a high school teacher to a Middle East analyst and then to serving in the church. Through writing and speaking, she encourages women as they seek God in life, in play, in family, and in work. Sharon’s first book, Soul Motive to Pray, is a personal retreat workbook to encourage deeper conversations with the Lord. She enjoys connecting with local and global outreach partners in her position as Director of Missions at Centreville Presbyterian Church. She lives with her husband, and occasionally-visiting college children, in the suburbs of northern Virginia. Connect with Sharon on the discipleship site Soul Motive and her Personal Blog. You can follow her also on Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook.

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  1. Thanks for your words here Sharon. I have a love/hate relationship with the church as well. Growing up watching my parents serve endless hours for years and finding myself falling into the same trap gave me a terrible taste for “doing” church. I was missing it altogether. When my husband left he business world to pastor middle school students, we involved lots of people and paid attention to the “being” way of church. It’s changed a lot over the last 20 years, and we continually learn, but it’s worth it.

    1. Thankfully God’s grace continues to extend in and through his church. I agree that many churches are moving from “doing” to “being.” So glad you and your family are reconnected, Janna! May the Lord work mightily through your ministry and outreach.

  2. I love the Church. It’s such a passion of mine, and I, too, grieve when it isn’t functioning the way God envisioned it… and you’re right. We need each other, and when people can push through their disagreements and dissonance and learn to disagree agreeably, we grow and mature and Jesus is glorified. thanks Sharon.

    1. I am right there with you, Bev… growing, grieving, and then growing some more. The Lord is working in powerful ways through so many churches now. I hope we are able to stand together as Christ-followers, fully realizing our role as his ambassadors!

  3. Thanks for your words, Sharon. I hadn’t really thought about the idea that the church is there to be a united force against the enemy. My church’s motto is “connecting people with God, ” which is noble, but maybe they ought to think about the other part as well. I love the church, warts and all.

    1. And yet, isn’t this such a challenge? We do indeed want to connect people with God. In our desire to fulfill that calling, however, we risk overlooking the power and potential of the witness of The Church universal. I, too, love the church, warts and all! Thanks for reading and being part of the conversation, Stephanie.

  4. It’s hard to build a community founded on gifts freely given — from God to us and via us to each other, returning increase to God and God’s community — when we live in a culture whose basis is negotiation and exchange. The cultural habit of exchange has so pervaded our churches that we use our faith’s language of gift to negotiate exchanges. Negotiating strategy actually has a name for this: the “reward in heaven” tactic. The negotiator using this tactic urges a person to do something now with the promise of an undefined thing of value in the future and doesn’t commit to being the agent of the reward. When we’re unwise to this tactic in business dealings, we find ourselves with non-written “contracts” that eventually benefit mostly the other party. Many of us have experienced the same kind of conversations in churches without recognizing we were party to a negotiation. We end up exhausted and diminished, although the children’s church (as a typical example) has obtained its temporary supply.

    The melding of exchange culture into our gracious gift community is the kind of syncretism that so pervades a community of God’s people that we can’t even see it. I’m not sure how we will break loose. But while we live in it, we need to be prepared to negotiate, even when planning with those whose primary charge is the health of God’s Body.

    1. Such a good point, Carlene! I agree that our secular culture of trade and exchange impacts our understanding and expectations of the church. When traveling to other parts of the world, I get to see the church through new eyes. I especially love the culture of family and relationship in African and Asian churches. Their hours-long worship followed with meals together bless me every time! We have so much we can learn from each other.

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