A number of years ago, I was helping lead a 20-something singles group at a church when a new pastor arrived and cryptically began to hint that he wasn’t sure he wanted our group around. Gradually, it became clear that he wasn’t going to get behind what we thought was a really fantastic ministry, no matter how many times we met with him to convince him otherwise. It was a deeply disillusioning time for all of us, because we didn’t really understand why he felt the way he did. Eventually almost everyone in the group, perhaps 30 to 40 people, went looking for a new church elsewhere because we no longer felt welcome or wanted where we were — myself included.
I share that story as a prelude to the topic I want to address today as part of Boundless’ ROCK THE BODY challenge: committing to a local church … and the challenges that can keep us from doing so.
In the wake of what felt like an eviction from a church that my friends and I had loved, most of us began looking for a new church home. Except for me, that is. I felt burned and bitter, disappointed and jaded. I was wary of plugging in again. I drifted into a kind of accidental churchlessness for a few months.
Meanwhile, one of my friends found a brand-new church immediately, and he couldn’t stop raving about it: the pastor, the worship, the vision, the overall feel of the place. Eventually, I decided to see what he was so excited about. Much to my surprise, I was as jazzed about this new church plant as he was, and I soon chose to become a member (where I stayed until I got married, as my wife worked at a different church).
Those two experiences are polar opposites — one deeply and personally wounding, one finding virtually everything I thought I wanted in a church. Most of the time, however, I think our hunt for a church falls somewhere in between. I also think those anecdotes illustrate two important elements that influence every person’s church search and willingness to commit to a specific congregation: our church “baggage” and our personal preferences.
Let’s start with the first of those elements. For those of us who’ve been wounded by a church, the thought of making a commitment to another congregation that might inflict similar scars can practically induce post-traumatic stress disorder. I don’t want to minimize anyone’s difficult experiences — and I know there are some awful ones out there. But I’d also suggest that if we let those hurts keep us from church, we’ll end up in a far more isolated place.
I know, because I spent several months in a season like that myself, one in which my bitterness about church became an excuse not to try again. Eventually, though, I could sense that I was starving spiritually — for good teaching, for worship, for genuine community.
Let me use that as a segue to the second issue that sometimes keeps us from committing to a church: our preferences. There’s nothing wrong with having personal preferences. We all have particulars we like and dislike when it comes to church, from preaching style to worship to a church’s overall direction and vibe.
Sometimes, however, that preferential list of what we “have to have” in a church before we’ll commit to plugging into it — whether that means serving, becoming a member, or both — becomes so long that no church ever makes the cut. As my wife and I have continued to minister in our congregation, we often hear from newcomers who like the worship, or the pastor, or a particular ministry in the church, but something else doesn’t “work” for them. Often, those people are soon gone.
We’ve also noticed that this “checklist” mentality is, generally speaking, more evident among younger generations. Their “list” for what they have to have can be so long and so specific that unless a church can meet all manner of requirements, they refuse to join or commit. They may show up, but they often have one foot out the door and are constantly considering other communities that might be better options. And with so many church plants happening these days (at least in our community), there’s always a hot new “buzz-worthy” church to check out if you want to do so — a factor that contributes to some folks semi-permanent church-hopping.
Now, I’m not advocating committing to a church that, on some fundamental level, you can’t stand. But I do think that at some point, we need to lay aside what can become a Holy Grail-eque quest for the perfect church and just plug in — and dig in, ministry-wise — at a local congregation that we more or less mesh with. As we do so, we have a chance to contribute to the ministry that church is doing. And one of the things that happens as we make those kinds of commitments and contributions as that we grow more passionate about serving others than about whether or not all of our personal preferences are being met.
I’d also like to add more thing here: Even if we do happen to find a church that seems like perfect fit, there can still be a kind of “church infatuation” that, again, is similar to romance. Over time, you’re likely to notice things about the church you didn’t see at first. And there are almost always changes — a new pastor, a new worship leader, a beloved ministry ending — that will challenge our commitment over time.
But if we bail out in search of greener church grass every time something doesn’t work just right for us, we’ll unwittingly consign ourselves to forever being dissatisfied church consumers. Committing to a local church, however, opens the door to growing, learning and serving as we use our gifts and passions — even if the church we’ve chosen isn’t always perfect.