The church…Christ’s bride

Ephesians 5  provides an illuminating description of the likeness between Christ’s relationship to the church and a marriage between husband and wife. Christ dearly loves the church and demonstrated that by offering His life to redeem her from a life otherwise fraught with struggle, evil, and defeat. The manner in which Christ conducts Himself sanctifies the church and sets her apart for Himself. Together, Christians comprise the body of Christ. In God’s grand design, we would participate in relationship with Christ in the context of relationships with one another.

In fact, Paul gives us plenty of instructions regarding how we should behave towards one another in the body:

Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves” Rom. 12:10

Live in harmony with one another” Rom. 12:16

“Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another” Rom. 13:8

“Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another” Rom. 14:13

“Let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another” Eph. 4:25

Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” Eph. 4:32

“Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” Eph. 5:19

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom” Col. 3:16

“Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing” 1 Thess. 5:11

“And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds” Heb. 10:24

Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling” 1 Pet. 4:9

There is plenty for us to participate in as we become a part of the body.

So, what questions remain in your heart as you consider the church and the role of the body? Feel free to send me comments and thoughts!

What if the church doesn’t fit…do I still wear it?

Wow. One post on this won’t even be a thumbnail sketch of the work I wish I was doing with you all on this issue.

It is a hard question and requires personal application. Despite what some people might tell you, I don’t believe that there is a clear cut response for every believer about church and fit, but I think we can address some principles to consider prayerfully. I’ll tell you a bit about my own story, but I’m not telling you as though it is the Christian paradigm. It isn’t. Maybe God will lead you down a very different path about what kind of church is the fit for you.

But first, let us recall what we’re doing in the church:

Worship, prayer, fellowship, accountability, teaching, preaching, evangelism, missions, discipline, sacraments…and then some…

So, what should you look for in a church?

Doctrine: oftentimes this is available on the church website or readily available from the church office. Doctrine lets you know what views the church leadership (and membership) on core faith issues. Ideally, the church’s actions should flow from and be a reflection of its proclaimed doctrinal view. Usually, the doctrinal statement includes scripture references in support of this view. I would strongly encourage you to check this out, look up the information, and ask questions. Know what your church believes and know what you believe…and why.

Biblical foundation and preaching: what happens at the church should be based on the Bible. This means that church goers are responsible for reading the Bible for themselves and examining whether or not the church is handling things Biblically. Sermons in particular should be grounded in what the Bible teaches. This may not always be popular and lots of churches don’t place the Bible first in their teaching. Watch out.

Community: Do people meet to study the word and do life together? Do you see evidence of godliness in the staff, elders, and members? Are there ministries within the church that reach out the the broader community?

Style is not easy to prescribe. For some people, this is really important. They want contemporary music or only hymns. They want a liturgical style or a three point sermon. There is so many variables in a church and plenty of churches that handle these variables differently. With style, I would say that it should complement the message preached and that it should be God-honoring and not man-centered. I’ve been to some church events that were visually appealing but did not point me to the Lord. Likewise, maybe if the music seems too dry, you’d be too distracted to pay attention to the rich theology in the lyrics!

As for me, my church didn’t fit for awhile (years, in fact), but I do believe it was God’s plan for me to stay there anyway. That’s why I mentioned earlier that I’m not trying to say that everyone needs to respond as I did. Sometimes if you are uncomfortable, it’s right to keep looking. In my case, I needed to walk with my church for awhile and in time, the fit came…but it was not what I expected…nor what I originally demanded of God.

Initially, I came at the church with a desire to get my wants and needs met. So, I was flustered when I didn’t encounter people who were interested in the same things that I was or offering a ministry that met me right where I was at individually. I chaffed and grumbled and complained for a long time. God had a considerable amount of work to do in my heart to bring me to a place of humility and openness and acceptance. Until then, I remained discontent with the fact that the ministry targeted at my age group didn’t fit me. Eventually, I prayed that this time around (for there had been a few go arounds), God would help my heart not to be so proud and so irritated by the circumstances. Overall, I appreciated the doctrine and the community at my church and I believed in its’ vision and mission. Despite the awkwardness, I began to want to make it work…to want to fit.

Finally, the time was ripe to usher me into a place where I did ‘fit’ enough to be glad and to thrive. God has provided my niche in the women’s ministry which runs across age groups, marital status, interests, and personalities. I still feel out of place sometimes because of my age, my interests, my personality, and my season of life, but time and again, I sensed the Lord calling me to a church where I would not be surrounded by others that were just like me. I knew that His plan was to bring me to a place that could benefit some of my odd traits and that I needed to be complemented and rounded out by people with contrasting strengths. This is all part of what it means to be a family.

Alright, I’m here, but now what…

Let’s say that you are at the point where you’re willing to go to church, you’re trying to read your Bible, and you are praying. What happens if there are days, weeks, and months where you appear to be remaining in the ‘reluctantly pew warming’ position?

Like it or not, God is sovereign and He can move mountains. He has the authority to harden hearts and soften them. He knows you intimately and He is well aware of the place you are in. Sometimes He comes in and abruptly changes things, other times He waits and works things out in a different way or on His timetable, and there are times that He does not alter our circumstances, but rather our response to them.

Chances are, if  you are going to church, somebody is reaching out to you in one way or another. It’s a good idea to test the waters and participate in some activities and get to know people there. Might you still be in a place of disillusionment? Yes, that is possible, but one of the mysteries of the body is that regardless of how you are seeing yourself or others, God could be using you to minister to others even in what appears to be a dismal season. Do you have to like everyone or every activity? No. I would caution you to keep in mind that in the state of disillusionment, almost everything is painted with shades of grey and smells and tastes bad. Try not to be too hasty to quit things because you aren’t enjoying them.

What role does the church play in the life of the believer?

The church is a place where we can fellowship together. Many of us picture that as casual conversation or eating since those are commonly called fellowship. However, if that’s all you’ve had, you’re really missing out on the good stuff. Real fellowship means that you’ve got at least somebody there who is excited over the victories and blessings in your life and grieves with you during tragedy, doubt, or other difficult circumstances. This also means that these are the people who might be in a good position to pray for you, check in on you, and encourage you along the way.

Although this sounds good and well, I must be frank with you. It’s hard work on both sides. There will be some aspect of it that you probably won’t like. Maybe it is that these people start asking you to help with kids because they trust you. Maybe it is that you get bombarded with requests to serve in various ministries. Maybe you don’t want really like the idea of having someone know you well enough to hold you accountable. Maybe somebody starts making suggestions about decisions you should make and you don’t remember asking for their advice. There are plenty of things that can surface in this growing relationship with people at church that we have to work through.

In my journey, I have not been too excited about being vulnerable before other people at church. I keep a lot of things to myself and I have a history of choosing indifference in an effort to save face in front of peers. I wasn’t thrilled about the idea of trusting people at church with details of my life. True confessions, although I’m better about this than I was years ago, it is still a trial for me. One of the last things I want to do is let this community of people see me broken or disillusioned or struggling. My first inclination is to move back or push away from God and the church. Yes, sometimes people have made suggestions to me or pointed out things I don’t like and don’t really want to hear.

Nevertheless, there are some unexpected treasures sitting in those pews if you are willing to practice loving on these people. Something changes from the inside out as you might simply be going through the motions week after week if you are asking God to do that mighty work in your heart. You actually begin to capture these wonderful glimpses of how God sees His people and why He loves them so dearly. Even the most cynical, skeptical heart can be moved.

By the way, if anyone happens to be checking out this series who says, I don’t wrestle with that, please pray for someone who does.

Word of God and the Body of Christ

As you may have noticed in my first post on this series, oftentimes those of us who struggle with church are beginning from the wrong vantage point. We are starting with ourselves, then looking around us left and right, and finally looking at God, if we even make it that far.

It’s essential to visit (or revisit) what scripture teaches about the body of Christ.
1 Corinthians 12:12, 14: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ…For the body does not consist of one member but of many.”

This passage follows the text about spiritual gifts that are given by the Spirit to God’s people. These different gifts when brought together under the headship of Christ function as a healthy body. No member should be treated as though his/her gift is not essential for the working of the whole body.

Let’s continue in 1 Corinthians 12. “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you,’ On the contrary, the parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with great modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.” (21-26)
After this description of how God has designed the body of Christ to fit together, Paul exhorts the church to love one another in ways that are truly only possible if we are hidden in Christ. This kind of real, steadfast, gracious, long-suffering love is a requirement if we are to persevere in the body of Christ. As we discussed yesterday, there are problems in the church, with the people, and in ourselves. But God is aware of all of those needs and concerns and He prescribed that fellowship among believers is part of the cure.

Ephesians 4:1-7, 15-16 says: “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit–just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call–one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift…Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that its builds itself up in love.”

Clearly, God sees the church, the people, and us with an understanding that we don’t have on our own and a purpose that is not apparent to us until we begin to follow Him and He grants the ability to see with eyes of faith and discern things of the Spirit.

What God sees looks beautiful, wonderful, strong, and majestic. What I have seen in my darker days was flawed, commonplace, weak, and worn. How do we bridge that gap?

I have good news and bad news for you, depending on how you look at it. The good news is that we can begin to see the church as God sees her and it is a tremendous and transforming work in our lives and in the life of the body. The bad news is that even while you might only see the problems, aren’t feeling the whole going to church thing, and maybe don’t care too much for some of her people,

step one is going anyway and

step two is being involved anyway.

Yes, I have an idea of how dissatisfactory that may seem to you if you are in your dark days. Remember, I was there once, too and for a long time. I’m sure there were weeks and months that I was just a body in the pew with either a disgusted or disinterested look about me, but I was there and God took care of the places in me that I simply could not change.

As Christians, we are called to obey the Lord. This is how we demonstrate our love for Him. If we will not obey, we are not ultimately loving Him. For a season, try not to be too preoccupied with your feelings or whether or not you ‘want to.’ I didn’t want to go to church. I didn’t feel like it was doing any good. I didn’t connect with God’s people there. I didn’t believe they cared about me or my ‘stuff.’ For quite awhile, I didn’t even really hear the message preached. But God was doing a work in me that I could not comprehend just by the choice to show up.

Church…what’s all the fuss?

After walking away from what had been my home church from junior high through the end of college, I entered a period of disillusionment with ‘church’ as I knew it. It seemed to me that there were a lot more things happening there that distracted me from relationship with God rather than drawing me in closer. I have encountered plenty of other post college young people who also enter a time of wondering and wandering with regards to church attendance and the purpose of going to church.

During those dark days, I went to church…or rather a few different churches…with little clarity on what I was doing there or what difference it made to show up at all. For those of you that haven’t ever felt this way, you are blessed. For those who know exactly what I’m talking about…you also have the opportunity to be blessed by this wilderness time, but it is a choice you must make, or rather a series of seemingly insignificant choices that one day lead to a deeper walk with God and a commitment and love for His church like you might never have thought you’d experience.

Today, I love my church, but I sure didn’t expect that things would change while I was in the valley. For a time, it seemed that all I saw were the problems: problems with the church as an institution, problems with the people that went there, and problems with me.

As an institution, churches sometimes add to the law. They have their own habits, traditions, and customs. There is a secret do’s and don’t do’s list that everyone who’s really someone knows about and the rest of us who don’t abide by those rules are on the outside looking in. Twentysomethings and thirtysomethings see this when they walk through the doors and it’s a huge barrier. They tend to feel that they’d have to pretend to be something they’re not in order to be part of the body and generationally, this group will often just leave, drift on, or buck the system.

Of course, the people in the church have problems! Everybody does. When you’re generally troubled as it is, all these things look magnified. Disillusioned believers will readily complain about all the hypocrites they see at church. Frankly, during this season, I don’t think it would matter what church people did, it would still be wrong in our eyes. If they try to draw us out, we feel like they are prying into our lives and please step back and deal with your own thank you very much. If they ignore us, well, what else were we to expect? If they are up front about their flaws, we don’t really want to hear it. If they dress them up to look presentable, we despise them for it. We are convinced that if they really knew every aspect of who we are, we wouldn’t be ‘Christian’ or ‘churchy’ enough for them. Somehow, it’s very difficult for us to encounter believers that we think are really real about their journey with God.

Then, if there haven’t already been enough grievances addressed and fingers pointed, we look at ourselves and find ourselves lacking. It is a strange time of both being prideful of all that we think we could be if the circumstances were just right and seeing the places where we fall short and not really wanting anyone to know about them. Whether we think we’re going somewhere or are pretty sure we’re headed nowhere fast, there is so much in flux at this stage in life. A thousand things are called into question and these are questions that we don’t answer once and then it’s settled. No, these ones resurface, time and again. What is my calling? How am I made? What do I do with myself, my time, my resources? Who am I? Why am I here? Further, there are the many what ifs that we either drown ourselves in or avoid completely by busying ourselves with…something.

By the time our heads are spinning with all these unanswered questions and frustrations, it is no wonder that when you look around, you might not see many twenty and thirtysomethings at your average traditional, family-oriented church. Truth be told, if we don’t choose to keep trying and press on in the midst of this thick fog, we won’t get past it and we’ll probably find other things to consume our time and our hearts and minds.

But, if we wrestle with God through it, there is a victory waiting somewhere in the future. I can’t promise you a time, but I can tell you that if you seek Him in the face of all that would turn you away from Him and away from the church, He will draw near to you and He will respond.

In this week’s series on ‘Being the Body,’ I hope to address at least a few of the issues that questioning Christians face and exhort you to hang in there because despite what you might see or feel at the present, we cannot love Jesus, but despise the church. Jesus saw every problem there ever could be in His days walking the earth and He still devoted His life and death to saving troubled people just like the ones in our churches today.

Church poll

Time & submission

Submission is key in establishing priorities. There are some things that we want to do or that are important to us that are not part of God’s plan in this particular season. Being willing to surrender our agendas and take up what He has asked us to do will help ease the burden of too many things to do.

Sometimes it is our desire to fit something in that needs to wait and there may be other things that we are simply not equipped or appointed to do, even though we’d like to be doing them. It can be easy at times to think of submission as drudgery, but it actually sets us free when we do it with a pure heart.

Boundaries help us to know what we have to work with. We are living in a society that sends the message that we should be able to do whatever we want. This is contrary to how we were designed. We were made with limitations, strengths, weaknesses, and differences. The Body of Christ is supposed to work together. We need one another. We are not supposed to function each as separate entities, completely independent of one another.