Church was Jesus’ idea. I pray your experience of church has been, is now, and will continue to be wonderful. But it’s not that way for everyone. What is church supposed to do for a person? What if it’s not “working” for you? Might you expect church to do something Jesus never intended it to do?
The fact that the Christian church exists at all is, well, more than a miracle. The church has faced mortal enemies from every side, and she’s also often been her own worst enemy. When I was studying church history I was struck by how Christians have been messing up the church ever since it started. But Jesus said “I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). The gospel is still “the power of God for salvation (Romans 1:16).
The gospel and the church are not the same thing. But if the church is Jesus’ enterprise, it would help to get on the same page with Him about its purpose.
So, what can or can’t you expect the church to do for you.
What the Church CAN’T Do
What we talk about today when we say “church” looks very little if anything like what the New Testament followers of Jesus looked like. There were no Christian institutions – no seminaries, radio stations, publishing houses, mission organizations, denominations, buildings, or anything else often considered “necessary” for “church” today. And the gospel spread to the then-known world without any of those things.
That’s important to recognize because God has a real plan for the church, but going to a building to watch a presentation for an hour once a week will never bring you transformation. To be part of the church 2000 years ago was a lifestyle, not a membership. Periodic gatherings such as weekly services were the outgrowth of that lifestyle, not its primary driver.
So, church as we think of it cannot:
- Save you. Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than sitting in the garage makes you a car. (You may have heard that before.) Jesus saves you, He and He alone.
- Fix your problems. Attending weekly gatherings doesn’t by itself produce transformation. Your mental health, your sexuality, your marriage, your addictions – church doesn’t fix that.
- Bring you community. Perhaps it should. But it’s absolutely impossible to be close to 1000 people, or even 100 people. You need 3-6 people who truly get you; sitting with 20, 50, or 1000 others doesn’t do that.
- Exist without problems. Paul called the church the family of God. Families are made of people. Every family is dysfunctional, including the family of God! And if your church had been perfect, it would have had problems the moment you showed up.
- Replace personal relationship with Jesus. God has no grandchildren, not even spiritual grandchildren. Your eternal destiny and your mission on earth is not determined by church affiliation, but by whether you are connected to God yourself.
So why be a part of church at all?
What Church CAN Do for You
If church was Jesus’ idea, what did He have in mind?
To keep the main thing the main thing when it comes to church, and based on the New Testament, here are my basic questions to suggest in considering a church:
- Is the gospel preached – Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life? (John 14:6)
- Is God’s presence welcomed? (Matthew 18:20)
- Are baptism and the Lord’s Supper practiced? (Acts 2:38, 1 Corinthians 11:23-25)
- Is the purpose the same as Jesus’ purpose – the Great Commission? (Matthew 28:18-20)
And what’s the outcome of that supposed to be?
- You hear truth. Facts by themselves rarely change you. But God designed that by the “foolishness of preaching” salvation would come (1 Corinthians 1:21).
- See others. Church does not replace a small band of brothers or sisters that you do life with, but you do rub shoulders with others who are seeking to follow Jesus, however imperfectly. That does something to your sense of identity.
- Experience the Presence of God. You can and must experience His presence in your closet, but there’s something additional that happens when you experience His presence with others who are also seeking Him. You need that fuel for your soul.
- Find the others. While the church cannot be responsible for your emotional health or your spiritual transformation, church can be a place where you come in contact with others who might be your people. It’s a good place to find and connect with a few who can support, challenge, encourage, and fight alongside you.
- Serve others. Serving takes you outside of yourself, and you must do that. Church family is messy; it helps you learn forgiveness. And serving together as a group means you can have a much greater impact than you could alone.
Yes, you can listen to good preaching online, take communion by yourself at home, and find and serve others outside of church. I do all of those things, and I hope you do too. God did not design church as a mandate. I believe He designed church as a place where we grow, and where we learn to love well.
For all its serious faults, the church is Jesus’ idea. Don’t fight against her; fight for her. Sometimes that means treating her illnesses if you’re in a position to do so. And like a soldier who gets wounded in battle, if you get hurt in church do the important work to heal and then get back at it.
Don’t expect the church to do what it can’t do.
But the church will be here when Jesus returns. I want to see you there.
Your turn: Have you been expecting church to do what the church was never designed to do? Have you walked away when the church didn’t live up to your expectations? What is God calling you to do in this season in relation to the church? Leave a comment below.
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