I went to church today, and then I left. Not after the service as I normally would, but before it even started. I had gone early to talk with the people there that I know and love, but instead of meeting with a friend, I felt as though I had met with a shaking finger. "You need to be more involved in this church," I seemed to hear her say.
I felt awful. She had asked me how I was, so I explained that I was well — busy with school, work and family, the usual business. It was when I said that my summer class was taking me away from our young adult Bible study that she began to purse her lips, rotate her ring around her finger, and respond with "mmhmm," as though I should know my trespasses.
I feel so judged. I know that church is important, and I have tried to be actively involved my entire life, but at this point there is only so much that I can handle. I have volunteered in the children's ministry for 12 years, and I still do. I love the people at my church. I took a summer course to lighten the load in the fall so that I would have more time to commit to my family, work and friends. I feel like this is a valid choice, a righteous one. Maybe I'm wrong; maybe I do work too much, but is that really so bad? When I'm at work or at school, I'm able to invest myself in something that I feel valued in and something I think is worthwhile, and I don't always get that at church.
I don't feel jilted by the church or anything. In the broad scope of the meaning of the church, they have given so much to me. It is one of the reasons that I think I have enough audacity to pursue my own studies. But I love to think and be a part of something practical and beneficial. Church allows me to think, and they allow me to use my gifts, but so much of the Bible studies and Sunday services require social investment. Maybe it sounds ridiculous when I say it like that: "I want to go to church and say that I'm a Christian, but not invest myself in the people of the church." But there are two sides to every coin.
I like to think of my life as ministry: The time I spend with my family, friends and co-workers — that is time spent to the glory of God and to His kingdom. At this point in my life, I am giving a lot in all of these areas because it is required of me. There is a need, and I am in the position of responsibility. Is it too much to ask that I can go to church and receive support for all that I'm trying to do, as if it were an extension of the church itself?
I'm pretty upset. I really want to do what's right, and I make decisions based on that. If this lady is right to call me out on what I'm doing, and if someone else agrees with her, then maybe I'll quit school to accommodate the rigorous social commitments required of the faithful church member. But that's a little extravagant.
I guess, in the end, what I really want to know is whether or not I can maintain this ideal that the church is bigger than the building I walk into every Sunday morning. Is it? Or is this one of those things that must be sacrificed in order to suit the practicalities of reality?
Thanks for this good question — there's a lot wrapped up in it. Let me try to offer some thoughts at two levels: first, on your specific question about the summer class and second, with some broader principles that might provide some general guidance on your church involvement in the future.
Let me say at the beginning that I'm sorry you felt judged in the interaction with your friend. As I'll talk about in a moment, admonishing (rightly or wrongly) a brother or sister in Christ is sometimes part of life in the church, but it should always be done in a context of encouragement and transparency, and the admonisher should always proceed in humility, gentleness and love (Galatians 6:1).
On the summer class, you're certainly correct that such a decision is a matter of Christian freedom, and it may well be a good and right decision for you. Based on the level of detail in your question, I certainly couldn't tell you you're biblically bound not to make that decision. I would encourage you to seek counsel from godly believers in your life that you trust, consider what you can handle (we all have limited capacity after all, as you point out in your question), and make the decision you think is godly and wise in the bigger picture.
Unfortunately, there's rarely a single iron-clad answer on these types of questions. Striking the balance between church and family and work and other activities is always challenging and often pretty complex. Our godliness and maturity is reflected not necessarily in the details of a particular decision, but in our heart and motivation as we make it. Have I decided a certain thing in order to glorify God in my life (as He defines that in Scripture), or is my motivation more selfish or secular? It's entirely possible that the decision to take a summer class or a certain job or whatever the decision is (even if the decision means church involvement will decrease for a time) could be quite godly in one person's life and sin in someone else's — it depends on why the decision was made. In almost all decisions of any importance in our lives as believers, about the best we can do is to look at God's Word, try and proceed based on biblical principles, and seek godly counsel from other believers who know us well.
That brings me to some broader principles about church life and membership on which — forgive me — I need to challenge you a little bit. You said in your question that your non-church responsibilities and activities require a lot of you right now and that you believe the choices you've made regarding your time and resources glorify God and His kingdom. Fair enough — I'm certainly not in a position to dispute your assessment, and I leave the specifics to you and godly people who know you and your situation well.
Having said that, it sounds from your question as if your approach to church is a bit like that of an individualistic consumer. You're willing to make time for it as long as it engages your mind, allows you to use your gifts, provides approval of your life decisions made Monday through Saturday, makes you feel valued, and meets your personal definition of "beneficial" and "worthwhile." On the other hand, you seem a little irritated at the idea of having to serve others in the church through "social investment" in them, or when church would encroach on other things that you personally view as good or preferable. I also saw no mention of God's plan — clearly visible in Scripture — to glorify himself specifically through the love of God's people for one another in the context of the local church.
I would humbly suggest that while a more individualistic and consumer-driven notion of church life has gained some ground in the last 30 or 40 years, the Bible presents a more robust, selfless and engaged vision of life together as believers. In fact, under this vision, loving one another actively — deep social investment — is not only part of the deal, it comes close to the very heart of church life. In many churches that hold to this understanding of church life and membership, they give formal voice to that commitment through the adoption of a document called a church covenant, which is a short series of promises made by the members of a church to God and to one another about how they will live together as believers. For example, here's a typical example of a church covenant (with biblical support for each idea) that explains this vision of biblical church life a lot more efficiently than I ever could:
As we trust we have been brought by divine grace to embrace the Lord Jesus Christ, and by the influence of His Spirit to give ourselves up to Him, so we do most solemnly covenant with each other, that God enabling us: (John 1:11-12; Matthew 28:19-20)
We will walk together in brotherly love (John 13:34-35);
That we will exercise a Christian care and watchfulness over each other, and faithfully warn, rebuke, and admonish one another as the case shall require (2 Timothy 2:15; 1 Corinthians 5:1-2; Hebrews 3:12-14);
That we will not forsake the assembling of ourselves together, nor omit the great duty of prayer both for ourselves and for others; (Hebrews 10:24-25; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; James 5:16)
That we will participate in each other's joys, and endeavor with tenderness and sympathy to bear each other's burdens and sorrows; (Galatians 6:2; James 2:14-17)
That we will earnestly endeavor to bring up such as are or may be under our care in the nurture and admonition of the Lord; (Titus 2:1-6; Deuteronomy 6:4-7)
That we will seek divine aid to enable us to walk circumspectly and watchfully in the world, denying ungodliness and every worldly lust; (Ephesians 5:15-21; 1 Peter 2:11-12; 1 John 2:15-17)
That we will strive together for the support of a faithful evangelical ministry among us; (Philippians 1:27; 1 Corinthians 15:58)
That we will endeavor by example and effort to win souls to Christ; (Acts 1:8; Matthew 4:19; 5:12-16)
And through life amidst evil report and good report seek to live to the glory of Him who has called us out of darkness into his marvelous light (Colossians 1:11-14; Galatians 1:1-5).
The first and last paragraphs of this covenant bring us back to the idea of motivation — why are Christians to live together in the way this document describes? We love one another actively, deeply, even sacrificially, because Jesus loved us sacrificially and saved us from our sin and God's condemnation, and because Jesus said more than once that one of the primary signs that we are actually converted is the love we have for His people (John 13:34-35; 21:17; 1 John 4:20-21). Is this vision of church life messy and challenging? Absolutely. Does it demand more commitment and effort from us? Of course. It is also a biblical recipe for spiritual health and growth and joy, for true fellowship, and for the glory of God by His design.
All this may be more of an answer than you were looking for, but what can I say — we're in the middle of ROCK THE BODY! I will pray for the Lord to give you a rich life among His church, and for you to have wisdom in the decisions you're facing.
Copyright 2013 Scott Croft. All rights reserved.