Freedom is fun, isn’t it? When you are young, options seem endless. You can make choices that will leave you fulfilled, happy, proud, successful, and God-honoring. Hooray for freedom!
Except … it doesn’t always work out that way. Many never move beyond freedom. They love having options, but don’t realize that avoiding commitment also has high costs. While we all have the ability to choose a church, grow a church, and leave a church at will, how do we know when we should stay or go?
Too often people use their freedom to float from place to place, avoiding conflict and discomfort and obligation. There is an unsettling, rising number of roving, easily-shaken Christians who will move on from a church for any number of silly reasons; perhaps the sermons are too long, there are too few programs, or they received some perceived slight at the church picnic.
This is not healthy. As a church elder, here are my desires for you, my hope for your good, and my best advice for experiencing all the church has to offer. Deep, abiding joy as a church member comes from experiencing things that are both promising and challenging.
Join a church you will get from, and find a church you will give to.
Yes, I want you to go to a great church! Your church can be fun and exciting, calm and restful, developmental and missional. And yes, it can be tough to discern the “best” church in your area because there are many factors to consider. But while a church’s pastor is important and worship is meaningful and serving is valuable, your best growth and experiences in the church will come only when you commit to a single body for an extended period of time.
God has mysteriously and wonderfully designed us as beings of great complexity. The greatest riches of community, then, happen as we spend extended quality time with each other, learning the facets of personal histories, philosophies, and dreams for the future. I cannot recommend strongly enough that you choose a local church to be a part of, and then do your best to stay committed for as long as possible. A great church, one that is committed to the authority of Scripture and practices strong theology with wisdom and humility, will be a place you can learn and grow and thrive over time.
But don’t stop there! Too often, great churches are filled with stagnant Christians. Time spent with people is good, but time serving with people is even better. The Bible uses metaphors like a body or a building to describe how the church is supposed to work. The important thing about these metaphors is the truth they convey: every member has a role used to makes the whole stronger and better. By committing to one body and serving it faithfully, you will have a much better experience in the church than if you treat it like your local coffee shop. Certainly come to build community, but then serve that same community with enthusiasm and joy. Your contribution is invaluable—you were created with an exact skill set that allows you to serve in a way no one else can. The church needs you, and you need to serve.
Show up, but rest with joy.
I know it’s especially challenging to be consistent in church and event attendance when you’re single. Going to church by yourself can be so lonely. But consistency has powerful rewards! When you’re consistent with your presence, you build a greater store of shared memories with your fellow congregants. Faces become familiar, and relationships begin to form. Further, you will find that people will come to depend on you, and this trust brings still more opportunities for connection and community. Commitment and accountability, when submitted to with joy, have a funny way of clarifying and reinforcing the bonds that tie people together.
On the other hand, I know there are many who say yes to pretty much every service request they are given, and it can become exhausting and embittering. Singles are often tasked the more demanding jobs at church because they have fewer constraints on their time. But setting up for the service each Sunday and then wrangling 13 toddlers for an hour and a half can be grueling. So rest without shame! Take a vacation from church activities when needed, step down from small group leadership for a time, or visit a friend at a church across town. But let people know you are doing it. View yourself as one with obligations to a particular community — but also one with the right to invest in your own energy and refreshment.
Serve with your strengths, but make self-giving sacrifices.
The more you tie yourself into the community, the more service options you will have. Churches often project an “all hands on deck” mentality, and while this can be fun, it also means you can get roped into doing things you don’t actually enjoy. In fact, other people may feel you’re a perfect fit (or even “called”) for a ministry in an area that doesn’t interest you or match your skillset. No matter the needs your church may have, as a church elder I can tell you this is something we don’t want for you. Be clear about your likes and dislikes, your skills and passions, your desires and goals. Find ways to serve that energize and excite you, and do them with joy!
That doesn’t mean needs won’t arise though. Church life is full of acts of service that aren’t our favorites, like creating the nursery rotation, moving tables and chairs, planning event details, or hosting small groups. Those are good ways to bless the church even when we dislike them. We follow a Savior who probably wasn’t a fan of washing feet, but He did it anyway. So look to serve primarily in those areas that energize you, but also be willing to make some selfless sacrifices for the benefit of the whole. A good rule of thumb is to use your passions and interests for long-term, open-ended service in the church, but keep service in areas you don’t like specific and time-limited.
Love the quirky, but stand for truth.
You will have weird people in your church. Enjoy them. When you avoid people who are different, it’s a passive statement that you think God did His best work on you and so those who are different have nothing to offer. This is wildly, offensively incorrect. You are deeply flawed as well, and your best hope for growing in wisdom and Christlikeness is to immerse yourself in the diversity of the church community with open arms and a listening ear. Many of my best church memories and learning opportunities have come when I intentionally made connections with people who used to drive me crazy.
That said, the church is never free from sin. You will face all kinds of subtle pressures and potential confrontations as you connect with others. Few people will be overtly racist, but many will talk about other cultures in a way that highlights deep-seated bitterness or a lack of understanding. Few will explicitly challenge the pastor, but many will offer “feedback” that never moves past the negative. Few refuse to endorse a biblical view of love and intimacy, but many will look the other way when a cute dating couple is obviously living together. In those moments, your call to love others remains but so does your responsibility to stand for truth. Manage the tension wisely, but don’t back down from it.
Learn to answer hard questions, but practice loving humility when discussing answers.
I’ll offer this final note. The evangelical church in America is staring down a dangerous precipice. After long years as the majority, we are rapidly moving to a place where the kingship of Christ is not acknowledged by the majority of our country. As a result, beliefs that were long viewed as no-brainers are now being challenged on an almost daily basis… and I fear we are not well-prepared to defend them.
My great fear as a church leader is that too many in the church are unable to study, understand, and explain the biblical view on these matters. Their faith perspectives are defined by the people around them or by years of tradition rather than by the witness of Scripture. When challenged to defend their views, they grow hostile and defensive or they crumble, and the wisdom of God is made to look foolish.
Be different. Learn to study and understand Scripture. Read good books about biblical interpretation. One of the greatest acts of service you can do for your local church is to be a dependable interpreter of the Bible, discerning good from evil and battling both legalism and ignorance. But take note! Nobody likes a know-it-all. Learn to share the things you learn from Scripture in a way that is humble, wise, and loving.
You are young and “free,” and in a sense I envy you. But I also know this can be a dangerous time where the temptation is to cling to freedom so tightly that you miss out on the benefits of binding yourself together with a local church community. Don’t make that mistake. Commit yourself, serve, build, defend, lead, and love the church. I promise God’s rewards for you will be rich indeed.
Copyright 2016 Benjamin Bartlett. All rights reserved.