The fifth church essential: my own willingness to belong

It’s easy to write about church essentials. It’s like writing about exercise, or parenting. Until I’m committed, I’m only shouting from the stands. The reality of church for most of us is that we play a passive role. We’re the audience. Attendees.

The best church on earth is only as healthy as the mindset of its members. Do we belong to one another? Are we closer than family? Does our regular interaction make us Christlike and fruitful?

The lasting work of the church is believers maturing together in Christ. Whether it’s through the use of His distributed gifts, the fragrance of His influence, or the fruitfulness of abiding in His Word, church is an organic entity. It’s family. There’s a culture to it. It includes care and nurture, training and instruction. It involves serving, encouraging, healing, and correction. You’ll find room to develop gifting, and opportunity to use it for the common good.

Western culture is big on programs and presentations. People generally “sit through” events rather than “contribute to” groups. I once asked a drifting friend why he left his large church. “They don’t need me there,” he said. Family gatherings are different. Everyone participates. The idea of not showing up would make as much sense as a pitcher skipping the game, or an orchestra member making other plans for the evening of a concert.

This poses a cultural tension. Will anyone sign up for something more demanding than sixty minutes of being served? They will if they realize something important is happening here. You wouldn’t think anyone would go out to eat if they had to prepare their own food, yet thousands do every summer weekend in city parks. You can’t walk ten paces without passing a family picnic.

When we gather as the church, we gather as kin. Few relationships lay greater claim upon us. We spend time with, invest in, sacrifice for, and benefit from family. We can call anytime, ask anything, be forgiven much, and be accepted regardless. We loan cars, share meals, shingle roofs, babysit kids, and stand vigils together. The biggest idea to embrace about church is that we are family.

Many church groups achieve this culture, and I’m guessing all church leaders hope for it. But what about those of us who simply attend once a week? Are we willing to accept a radically different experience? To set aside our independence in favor of a shared identity?

Soldiers often forge intimate bonds during battle, as do expats in rough countries, crisis survivors, and persecuted believers. In such settings you need one another. In truth, we’re all expats in a hostile country — we just don’t realize it. The prince of our world hates us. He knows where we live and harbors heinous intent against us. Imagine the worst, most frightening movie or experience you’ve ever endured. It’s nothing compared to his intentions against all who follow Christ. Which is just one of the reasons we need one another.

The even greater reason, of course, is that there’s kingdom work to be done everywhere we look — and the gates of hell cannot resist us. We can face threats, dangers, opposition and opportunities together. Our shared identity even removes the barriers that separate us from each other.

Circling back, the starting point to finding the right church is with me. If I find the best shepherded, gifted, discipled, and loving church on earth, but don’t see myself as belonging to the others in that fellowship, I’ll dim the lights there. If I prefer my independence and anonymity to commitment and contribution, I’m the hand abandoning the body. Where’s the winner in that story?

Ultimately, the best church in town — the one featuring all the essentials — can only thrive when its members (e.g., me) embrace their true identity. We are brothers and sisters, and our Father is the King.