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.

Four essentials of a church: love

Love is like heat. So many things in life seem wonderful — pizza, a shower, a cup of coffee, a seat by the window, an iron — until you realize they’re cold. After all, what do you call a morning when you step into the shower and find there’s no hot water? A bad way to start the day.

Love is the warmth of life. It sustains us, inspires us, redeems our weakness, revives our hope, restores our strength, and animates our relationships. Inversely, its absence is its opposite in effect, which is why love matters in a church.

A friend was visiting a seriously ill relative at an out-of-state hospital. After a week-long bedside vigil, she excused herself on Sunday morning to find comfort and encouragement at a local church with a friendly website. Sixty minutes later, after no greetings, zero eye contact, eight songs, and a trendy talk on gender identity, she made her way to the door. There, she was handed a plastic egg with a note inside: “Join us next week for Easter!!!”

A bit of love would have found more traction.

So, where is all the love? There’s nothing more important than figuring this out. Scripture delivers sturdy reminders on the topic. Without love, spiritual gifts mean nothing. Knowledge means nothing. Faith, generosity, and sacrifice mean nothing. Toil and perseverance and discernment and endurance mean nothing. Love must come first.

On the positive side, who wouldn’t want to belong to a group known for its patience, kindness, faithfulness, forgiveness, humility, and grace? Who wouldn’t welcome friends and family who see the best in you, believe in you, root for you, pray for you, honor you, accept you, care for you, serve you, forgive you, build you up, bear your burdens, comfort your soul, lift your spirits, and do you good? Sign me up!

If this is all true of love (which it is), where is all the love?

First of all, there’s plenty of it throughout the church. One sad story doesn’t mean there’s no love anywhere. But it’s not always easy to find, and it’s even less easy to practice. Love is costly, and for most of us (including myself), it needs to be learned. What is the meaning of love? Where does it come from? How does it work? What’s the right way to do it? Are there wrong ways to do it? How do you know you’ve loved well, even when it isn’t reciprocated? How do you keep loving when your tank runs dry?

These questions are worth answering because love can be learned. After all, it’s a byproduct of walking in the Spirit. But it requires intentionality.

Back in the day we heated our house with a wood stove. Fuel was everywhere (we lived in a forest), but felling, cutting, carting, splitting, stacking, fetching, arranging, igniting, and cleaning up the mess were neither easy nor natural. But once the effort was made, it brought warmth, satisfaction, self-confidence, strength, and legendary tales of log-splitting exploit. Plus, “free” heat!

The church that learns love will be a church without enough seats. But that’s OK. I’d be willing to stand in the back of such a church.

Four essentials of a church: discipling

I know a flight instructor. His goal is to work himself out of a job. Through months of instruction, discussion, and simulations, he pours his experience and expertise into his students. They cover everything from engines to air frames to instruments to navigation to pilot-speak. Eventually, they go airborne together, and then the student goes it alone.

And that’s just the beginning. Hours of flight time follow, along with new ratings, more complex procedures, and larger planes. Over time, the student learns to think like a pilot, becomes the instructor, and trains the next generation of pilots.

This captures the idea of discipleship. Choosing to follow Christ begins the process of learning to become like Him, usually under the influence of someone farther along. The process takes time and involves sacrifice. It’s transformational, not behavioral. The goal is not to act like Jesus, but to become the person He would be in our shoes.

Discipleship isn’t orderly or systematic. No two people are alike, human nature resists submission, and the world works to erase it all. Which is why the church is crucial to the discipleship process. It takes the support of skillful shepherds and the shared gifts of the Holy Spirit to bring us to maturity in Christ.

On the technical side, there are essential habits that feed the process, such as ceaseless prayer, studying the Bible, spiritual conversations, and allowing wisdom to inform lifestyle choices. There are also major themes and practices to master. For example, a maturing disciple is a person who is learning to:

  1. Love God wholeheartedly, and others as oneself
  2. Abide in Christ
  3. Walk in the Spirit
  4. Live in community with other believers
  5. Identify as a kingdom citizen

Each of these themes is central to Christ’s teachings, New Testament writings, and the Old Testament narrative. Together they form the core worldview and daily lifestyle of a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Flight instruction doesn’t require a Ph.D. in flying. What it calls for is the skill, experience, and willingness to help others through their paces. Often, it’s a team effort with different instructors covering the various elements. This provides a blending of strengths while mitigating individual weaknesses. The crucial thing is not to have a roomful of aces, but a culture of investing in one another.

A church that sponsors such discipleship is a church that brings the compounded influence of Christ to its members and community. Neither will remain unchanged.

Surprisingly, on top of all this — shepherding, shared gifting, and discipleship — there is one more thing I’d look for in a church. Something assumed, yet worth calling out. It’s the cultivation of love. For all the right things we might do as a gathering of believers, it’s love that gives it life.

Four essentials of a church: gifting

Once, my wife and I volunteered to organize a church dinner. We exhausted ourselves, weathered much grumbling, and left hungry. Next time we will host a potluck! It’s great sport to make fun of potlucks, but they tell a good story. Everyone brings a favorite dish, all get fed, and no one gets burned out.

The idea of church is reflected in the potluck concept. Each follower of Christ is endowed with a gift — a “favorite dish” that others need. From faith to mercy to discernment to teaching to encouragement to service to wisdom to giving (and many more), each of us brings something necessary to the group. Exercised together, our combined gifts make every member healthy and mature.

This imagery flows through the Epistles (e.g., 1 Corinthians 12:7), but is best captured in Ephesians 4:11-16, where the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.

The trouble is, not every gift is relevant to a Sunday service. Many lend themselves to interpersonal application throughout the week in the context of community. This creates an important tension for church leaders since the majority of churchgoers only show up on Sunday morning. For them, attending church is no more interactive than attending a movie. Slip in, face forward, listen, and leave. While such a model is efficient for group instruction, it’s largely impersonal and deprives everyone the benefit of each other’s gifting.

This is why I would look for a church that prioritizes the shared investment of spiritual gifts.

There are plenty of good examples out there. Many “Sunday service” churches invest heavily in classes, community groups, gift training, prayer teams, service projects, and various other “throughout the week” interactions. Some Brethren churches (assemblies) also do this well. They champion shared ownership, investment, accountability, and weekday involvement. I’ve also seen larger churches that retain a Sunday gathering for singing and Scripture reading, but push everything else (e.g., Ephesians 4:11-16) into scores of homes throughout the community. That’s where the people meet for teaching, fellowship, prayer, and the exercise of all their gifts. Leaders (e.g., elders and deacons) are centrally trained but serve locally. No one is unknown in these groups, and all share their gifts.

Many smaller churches naturally function this way. They live close, know each other, and depend on one another. Being the fragrance of Christ in small communities isn’t easy, so it takes everyone to make it work.

But it is the shepherds who train the group to exercise their gifts (vv. 11-12). Sunday services rely on the gifts of a few dedicated members, but it’s the everyday contribution of every member that raises the level of “Christlikeness” for the entire group. And since Scripture doesn’t prescribe a method for being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, it takes intentionality to make it happen. To create a shared worldview that reveals no other way to thrive than to thrive together. This is why the third element I’d look for in a church is intentional discipleship.

Four essentials of a church: shepherding

Thriving is usually traced to nurture. Whether it’s through healthy parenting, husbandry, or guardianship, things well-cared-for tend to flourish.

This is especially true of spiritual development. Since it is personal, less tangible, and takes greater determination to cultivate, spiritual well-being can’t be homogenized or mass-produced. People need to be personally invested in.

Which sets up a consequential challenge for the determined church. Skillful shepherding is a central reason why followers of Jesus gather, and anonymity doesn’t breed thriving.

The Apostle Paul signals this in his letter to the church at Colossae, where he describes toiling with all his energy to present everyone mature in Christ. The Apostle John also reveals such an interest in his third letter: I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth. Jesus, preparing Peter for his future work with the church, repeated it three times.  Feed  my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.

The writer of Hebrews adds the element of accountability to church leaders for the well-being of those under their care: for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Accountability to a higher authority lends weight to any endeavor, and it makes sense here. God loves His children and wants them to thrive. So, He entrusts them to us.

What does it look like to “shepherd” each of God’s children? The two best biblical descriptions come from Psalm 23 and Ezekiel 34. The first boasts of God’s shepherding, and the second describes healthy shepherding inversely by citing its absence. Here are highlights:

A good shepherd looks after the flock, meets their needs, provides rest and good pasture, strengthens the weak, heals the sick, binds the wounds of the injured, searches for the lost, rescues the strays when they scatter during dark times, deals with bullies and abusers, protects them from predators, and blesses them. (Click here for a more complete list.)

The idea of shepherding is central to “church.” It’s how we love one another toward thriving, which is why Jesus felt compassion for those who were missing out.

The obvious tension here is how one person (or three or eight . . . ) can possibly shepherd a church full of people. I don’t believe it’s possible, and especially not when the only gathering point is a group meeting. That’s why the second element I’d look for in a church is a shared investment in the group.

Attending a hundred churches

I’ve attended over a hundred churches. Most were visits while searching for “home.” Some were on trips spanning a weekend. And a few were simply to see what goes on in there.

Of the “home” churches, there were Christian Reformed, Brethren, Baptist, nondenominational, and Evangelical Free. The circle of “visited” churches stretches to include Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Charismatic, Church of Christ, and megachurch. We even visited a Unitarian church when I was young. As we left, my dad asked me what the sermon was about. “I couldn’t tell,” I confessed. “Exactly,” he replied.

There’s great equity in a “churched” history. You learn that Jesus Christ is the way to God. You get to know the Bible. And the community supports you with much prayer, good books, real-life examples of saintliness, and guardrails bounding the swerves of life.

Which isn’t to say it’s not bumpy. Hypocrisy, division, cynicism, and self-righteousness are ever present, and so are casualties. Families break apart, people drift away, pastors come undone, and loneliness is not uncommon. After all, churches are comprised of broken people beset by self-interest. But not overcome by it. Church is a community of those who know grace and forgiveness, and never stop praying for one another. It’s the presence of Christ through His followers.

A churched history is a rich inheritance every generation deserves to receive — and it doesn’t take a hundred churches to receive it. As I’ve reviewed my journey, I’ve identified four themes* that wielded the greatest good in my life. If we were to move to a new city, these are the elements I’d look for in our next church. I’ll tackle one each for the next four posts.

*Matters of praxis, not doctrinal distinctives.