Many Christians have drifted away from the church because of boredom, conflict, emotional wounds, or a nagging feeling that what’s happening there is not making a difference. But it’s important to remember why the church exists. (Hint: It’s not for our comfort.)
It seems to me that lately, how we relate to the church has become something like how we relate to politicians; we all have an opinion about one, which opinion is often based on secondhand hearsay and a lot of our own personal hang-ups. And believe me, I include myself in this category. I’m not too far removed from a period of discouragement, disillusionment, and overall apathy about church. Perhaps more accurately, going to church. Thirty-two years of the Sunday grind had taken its toll.
Longing to be part of something that impacted neighborhoods and families, brought people together, and instructed us biblically on everyday life, I grew increasingly dissatisfied with my church. This dissatisfaction converged with all the ink being allocated to stories and articles about the ineffectiveness of the church — its lack of cultural competence, and critiques of its performance — to stimulate serious thought on the true nature and raison d’etre of the local church. Over time, it became clear that part of the problem was that legitimate concerns about my particular assembly had caused me to forget the purposes of the church; they became hidden behind all the reasons I had to be unhappy where I was. So no one was more surprised than me when I re-discovered the wonder, joy, and utter messiness that is the local church.
Following principles of biblical interpretation (context, internal and external consonance, etc.) for an accurate reading of the Scriptures, seems to suggest the following as some of the purposes for local church bodies:
• Equip believers to do the Lord’s work (Eph. 4:12)
• Take care of “true” widows (1 Tim. 5:3)
• Provide a place for instruction of believers in the truth (2 Tim 4:2b)
• Worship and prayer
• Provide community for group participation in faith observances, fellowship, accountability for believers, and a living model of life in the kingdom for unbelievers (e.g., observing the Lord’s Supper, studying the Word together, etc.)
If churches are doing and providing these things, what are the real bases for our complaints? If churches are not doing these things, how can we justify this deficiency? Maybe more importantly, how does the average church member effect change if deficiencies are present? An argument could be made that other undertakings outside what we see spelled out in the Bible are permissible, since they might not be specifically forbidden, but conversely, if a local body is not even doing those things that are spelled out, shouldn’t they be addressed as a matter of first priority? These are all questions that I grappled with. Apparently, others have too.
Recent research indicates that the majority of those who have left the organized church are self-described Christians. It would be disingenuous to suggest that there aren’t issues in local churches, or that there’s never a time to move on to another fellowship. But if we measure our expectations against what the church is supposed to be, is the church alone, coming up short, or do we share some of the responsibility for our wholesale and growing discontent by failing to successfully (i.e. biblically) navigate within the established purposes? Truth be told, it’s often a combination of the two.
For example, in the Barna study cited above, almost 40 percent of the respondents said they left church because of “negative past experiences in churches or with church people.” This reason could conceivably cover anything from someone sitting in “your” seat in the sanctuary, to having vicious and false rumors spread about you among congregants. Fellowship is a legitimate purpose of the local body, but how do we deal with situations like this?
Being the victim of cancerous gossip is no trivial matter, and is a perfect opportunity for everyone involved to put the Word to the test and demonstrate to nonbelievers how conflicts can be handled. The individual can activate Matthew 18:15-17 by speaking privately with those involved, and the church leadership can provide support by giving wise counsel on the proper approach, as well as intervening if the private discussion is unsuccessful. The unfortunate truth of the matter is that this procedure is so rarely followed as to obfuscate its effectiveness, even its existence.
As for me, I’m no stranger to personal conflict within a church. And I admit it contributed to my malaise and detachment. But once I decided to simply obey by faith the biblical instruction to not completely abandon going to church, I found that I began to remember what the church is for, which doesn’t always necessarily mean my total and complete emotional and physical comfort, or psychological fulfillment. By choosing to once again embrace the purpose and realities of the local church, I have begun to appreciate all that it is, and isn’t.
Lately I have been attending a church right in the heart of the city, and have been blessed to see God in a different way there. The almost constant undercurrent of noise from kids, the sometimes overzealous directions of ushers, the call-and-response synergy between pulpit and pew; these dynamics speak to me of a God who can penetrate all the clamor and dissonance of our daily lives and raise our focus to engage in a vibrant, active relationship with Him. His purposes for us, and the churches of which we are a part, call to us when we uncover them underneath our fatigue and pain, and reveal a glorious albeit imperfect tapestry that points to a Master Craftsman. That’s a call we can’t afford to ignore.
For additional reading, check out:
• Transformational Church: Creating a New Scorecard for Congregations by Ed Stetzer and Thom Rainer (2010)
• Total Church: A Radical Reshaping Around Gospel and Community by Tim Chester and Steve Timmis (2008)