This article was first published in the AWAKEN issue of The Joyful Life Magazine Relationship status: ‘it’s complicated.’
Contemplating my relationship with 'church' brings a raft of emotions rushing to the surface: pain, loss, disappointment, rejection, grief, busyness, and confusion, just to name a few. However, these feelings are simultaneously accompanied by joy, a sense of belonging and purpose, commitment, generosity, hope, and sacrificial love. Names and faces spring to mind too--precious people whose lives have become indelibly entwined with my own.
Like anyone who has spent any amount of time in church, there have been times when the call to live in community with other believers has felt exceedingly complicated. And yet, in spite of this, I possess a deep abiding love for, and belief in, this thing we call 'the church.'
My own love affair with Church began as a child. My mother tells me I used to gather the neighborhood kids, along with an assortment of soft toys, to play 'church,' enthusiastically leading them in worship and sharing the message. She had to step in and lay some ground rules though when I attempted to take up an offering! Growing up as a pastor’s kid and then later becoming a pastor myself, church felt like a second home. The first to get there on a Sunday—and usually the last to leave—my life was measured by its rhythms.
Until one day it wasn’t.
After nearly 18 years of being planted in our local church—nine of which had been spent on staff—God was leading us into new beginnings. A year earlier, after the birth of our last child, I’d resigned from my role as Associate Pastor, sensing God was asking me to trust Him that ministry could take a different form in this season. At the time of resigning, we fully intended to remain committed members of the beloved church we had helped to plant and had poured our lives into. However, it soon became clear that God had other plans for us, and the difficult decision to move on was made. Neither of these ‘endings’ were quite as healthy as we had hoped and prayed for, and the aftermath brought with it a season of intense grief. I was left wrestling—and not for the first time—with what place Church had in my life. And all this wrestling caused me to me pull back.
At first I pulled back to process—to rest and allow myself to heal. But then I pulled back because I felt alone—somewhat adrift—and I didn't know where I fit anymore. My husband and the kids would head off to services at our new church without me. “I just need some time alone with Jesus,” I'd tell him. And honestly, I welcomed the extra time a Sunday without rushing provided.
Yet the more I pulled back, the emptier and more adrift I felt—despite the health of my personal relationship with God. Because the truth is, we are not just called to relationship with God, we're also called to relationship with His people. No matter how hard it is; no matter how messy and complicated it gets, we are called to belong to a family, and you can't belong from a distance. In time, I began to take small yet deliberate steps back toward committed community—rediscovering in the process what it means to belong and all the blessings that go along with that.
MORE THAN A BUILDING
“There’s my kindy!”my four-year-old son excitedly exclaimed as we drove past his preschool. “And that’s a church on top, aye, Mom?” I answered with a simple “yes,” but I wanted to say so much more. I couldn’t help but think about how much has been robbed from the body of Christ—and from my own life—by reducing Church to a place we go, when the truth is, it’s so much more.
A bride, a body, a family, and yes, a building—these are some of the ways that the New Testament describes the Church. Through these varying descriptors, a rich and multi-dimensional picture is painted for us of how God intended His people to relate both to Him and to one another. The intimacy of a bride and bridegroom and the sacredness of their covenant love; the cohesiveness of a body and the power that is realized when its members harness their unique strengths to work together; the belonging of a family and the invitation to live out of the riches of the inheritance the Father has wisely stored up for His children; the stability and permanence of a physical structure built to create a place for His people to gather and His presence to dwell. And while each of these motifs have their own distinctives, at the heart of them all, they share this commonality: the call to be in relationship. Yes, even the ‘building’is one constructed from “living stones” (1 Peter 2:5)—lives melded together and purposed “to becomea dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit”(Ephesians 2:22, NIV).
The word translated ‘Church’ throughout the New Testament is the Greek word ekklēsia. Originally, it was used to refer to a gathering of citizens in a public place, usually for a specific political or religious purpose. The New Testament and early Church writings retained this meaning, using the word to refer to meetings of believers in specific geographical regions as well as of the Church as a whole, looking to the day when all believers, past and present, would be together.Derived from the word kaleōwhich means ‘to call or invite,’ the ekklēsiahas often been defined as those‘called out’ of the world to belong to Jesus. Kaleō, which can also mean ‘to bear a name or title among men,’ is a powerful reminder that those who belong to the ekklēsia—and ultimately to Christ—bear the name of the Father. They have been united as a family to live under the banner of His love and to demonstrate its nature through their communal life.
INVITED TO BELONG
One of the occupational hazards of vocational ministry is that your identity can get caught up in working for the Father. As I worked alongside my dad, who was also our Senior Pastor, this tendency became exacerbated in my life. My relationship with both my Heavenly Father and my earthly one became characterized by ‘doing’ and ‘performing.’ Yet even without having a formal role in ministry, modern Church, with its plethora of programmes and service options, can leave us feeling exhausted, or worse still, burnt out from the ‘busy.’ His church should be the means for belonging—a place that calls us to abide more fully in Christ—rather than one that leaves us weighted down with ‘doing.’ If we’re not careful, we can all lose sight of the truth that God has not called us out to perform for Him, but to belong to Him.
The apostle Paul prayed a beautiful prayer in Ephesians 3 for us to be rooted and established in the love of God, reminding us that “every family in heaven and on earth derives its name from God—the first and ultimate Father”(Ephesians 3:15, AMP).Names define us—not only as individuals, but also as families. A shared surname marks out a group of people who belong to one another. God could have chosen to establish a corporate structure and splashed His name all over fancy billboards, but instead, He chose to birth a family, knowing full well the complications that would ensue. He chose to adopt us as His own—to bestow on us the privilege of carrying His name.
In giving us His name, the Father wants us to be confident in our belonging, not only to Him, but also to each other. He wants His immeasurable love for us to define our interactions; for the security of His love to undergird all that we do for Him. When we live out of this invitation to belong, we are set free from striving and competing. There is room for us all. There is a place for us all. And as we gather together, united by the Name that defines us, we are able to participate in His life, not only as His sons and daughters, but also as brothers and sisters, and as mothers and fathers in the faith.
CALLED TO GATHER
The early Church gathered with regularity and conviction. Meeting both in homes and in the Temple, they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship, prayer, and the breaking of bread. There were signs and wonders and they themselves performed practical ‘miracles,’ pooling their resources to provide for one another’s needs. The way they did life as a family was so attractive to those looking on, that their number grew daily (Acts 2:42-47). But don’t be fooled—even in the midst of such vibrant community, they too wrestled with complications and found that their motivation to meet with other believers waxed and waned. Why else would we read this exhortation in Hebrews?
“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near”(Hebrews 10:23-25).
We hold tight to Him who is our hope, but we must also hold tight to one another. And just as we delight to be in His presence, we must grow in our delight to be in the company of His people.
These verses are not a denial of the mess that will inevitably come wherever people with all their human frailties gather together, but they are a promise that in the midst of that mess we will find beauty. We will find encouragement and hope and be spurred on to keep doing the good things God is calling us to do, both individually and collectively.
In those transitional years between churches, as I wrestled on the fringes of community, I was reminded just how deeply I need connection with the body of Christ--how much I need the encouragement and input of others, but also how much I am renewed and transformed when I reach out to serve and work alongside other believers. Coming together to worship recalibrates my heart and keeps me focused on the truth that it's not all about me, it's about Jesus--about establishing His Kingdom here on earth, and not my own.
Yes, I can listen to podcasts and watch services online; I can open my Bible and create an atmosphere of worship in my home with the music I put on--and I am so grateful these mediums are there when gathering with others is genuinely not possible. But they were never intended to replace doing life with other believers in committed community. ‘Gathering’ is an essential part of what it means to be the ekklēsia.
Community is where I am discipled and refined. Community continually gives me opportunities to become more Christ-like as I learn to love and serve like He does. Community is also how we show the world what it means to belong, and just how powerful the love of God is.
COMMANDED TO LOVE
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another”(John 13:34-35).
The Church was birthed out of the sacrificial love of Christ, who “gave Himself up for her”(Ephesians 5:25). And He now invites us to gather in that same love, allowing our love for Him to draw us toward unity so a watching world can see what the love of God looks like (John 17:23). Sadly, we often show them the opposite. It’s so easy to get stuck in our little denominational boxes and focus on the theological issues that divide us, losing sight in the process of the Truth that unites us and of the Savior who is head over all the parts of His body—not just our particular one.
In the same way that the individual members contribute their unique gifts and strengths to the local body, so the different streams of Christianity contribute to the global body. There is only one Church, and the different emphasis and strengths of the varying denominations can bring balance to the body as a whole if we will allow them to do so. Now serving in‘para-Church’ministry, my own faith has become stronger and richer through working alongside women from different theological backgrounds than my own. Their questions challenge me to dig deeper into the Word—to measure my practices not against culture or my particular experiences, but against the truth of Scripture. And though at times we must navigate doctrinal differences, we remain steadfastly united. Our unity is not because we agree on all the nuances of our faith, but because we are united in our love for Christ and our desire to share the gospel and bring Him glory.
When we stepped away from our church family of 18 years, I had no idea how much my own understanding of ‘Church’ desperately needed to be expanded, or that my love for the local Church had waned. It took her absence in my life to reignite that love and forge a new and deepened commitment to doing life in community. We’re now planted in a new part of God’s family. Is it perfect? Far from it. But it’s stretching me, encouraging my heart, and refining my faith, allowing me to know and be known.
Jesus is coming back for a spotless bride—a bride without blemish and filled with His splendor (Ephesians 5:27)—and I want to be a part of making her beautiful for Him. So I continue to gather with other believers. I continue to push through the complications and all the hard stuff that comes with community, asking Him to give me His heart for His people so my life can overflow with the same love and grace He has so freely and generously extended to me. Because the bottom line for me is this: Jesus loves the Church—and so will I.
TIPS FOR NAVIGATING WHEN CHURCH GETS COMPLICATED
-Believe the best of people and seek to understand those in your community of faith. Ask clarifying questions rather than jumping to assumptions.
-Refuse to be easily offended. Proverbs 19:11 teaches us it is to a man’s glory to overlook an offense—when we extend grace and allow love to cover a multitude of sins, we reflect the character of God.
-When an offense cannot be overlooked, process your hurts and grievances and make a conscious decision to forgive. Reconciliation may not always be possible and wisdom may necessitate keeping boundaries in place, but we can still walk in forgiveness—in fact, we are commanded to.
-Pray for your church and ‘the’ Church. Ask God to pour His love into your heart by the power of His Holy Spirit, to enable you to overflow with His heart for His people.
-Choose your words wisely--especially when you are hurting and disillusioned. James 3:9 warns us against blessing God and with the same mouth cursing people made in His likeness. Guard your speech, but even more importantly, guard your heart because as Jesus taught, our words flow from the treasury of our hearts (Luke 6:45).
-Commit to play your part. You cannot be responsible for how other people navigate the call to live in community with other believers, you can only answer for how you love and how you serve.
-Sometimes, it is necessary to move on from where we have been planted. As much as it depends on you, guard the unity of the body of Christ and leave with a spirit of blessing. Write a note of thanks to those who have led and ministered to you, send flowers, or purchase an appropriate gift--even if (perhaps especially if) you feel this is not warranted.
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