And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. – Hebrews 10:24-25
When I was a child, we learned this little fingerplay about church. “Here’s the church; here’s the steeple; open the doors, and see all the people.” As an adult, church has become less about a place, or steeple, and more about people. So the fingerplay I teach children now about church says only “Here’s the church” – with the two hands, palms up, with intertwined fingers. That’s church. There are three things I see in that visual that are good to remember: 1) Palms up – we need God. Church is about God. 2) Fingers – we are all people (stay with me). 3) Intertwined – we get close, which means we know each other very well, too well sometimes (unless grace is always applied). With people, church can get messy. We are all those people.
There are people I love who have walked away from church, citing, “They’re all a bunch of hypocrites.” Seriously? Aren’t they right where they need to be? An old saying goes, “Church is a hospital for sinners.” Maybe it’s also a rehab program for hypocrites… Either way, if I’ve given up on church, then at some level, I’m giving up on God. He loves His church, and we, as followers of Christ, are a part of that church He loves. To leave it, because of the hypocrites, the legalists, the gossips, the other sinners…just. like. us…is not the answer.
We left a church ourselves. The details won’t help this narrative. Suffice it to say, I wouldn’t wish the down side of that experience on my worst enemy. It wasn’t just our down side, or that of others who left…it was the pain and confusion of those whom we left as well. We would have had that go very differently, if we had had the freedom to do so… That sort of leaving doesn’t heal easily, and the wounds break open as easily as a social media post reminding us that we are not in each other’s lives anymore.
That’s just so wrong. Jesus let nothing or no one keep him from his Father’s House. The Temple, in those days. My desire is to always follow His lead in life. We’ve learned a lot, some of it painfully, about church in recent years. There are writers on this subject far more wise and eloquent than I (just a few of whom wrote the pieces linked below). However, I would be so grateful if God allowed me to help someone be restored to His church. Also, for anyone who has never really been in a church community, maybe it would help to know what to consider.
Here’s my Quick List of 7 Things to Consider in Searching Out a Church Community. As you peruse a church website, or listen to a pastor/teaching elder’s podcast, or visit a worship service or community group, think about this:
1) Love for God – His Word is taught in ways you are meant to apply both inside and outside church. Worship is really about Him, not just a stage show. Humility, not arrogance, is apparent in handling God’s Word and His church. Prayer, not just for stuff, but to purely enjoy His presence is a sign of a God-centered church.
2) Love for people – The church operates out of a clear desire to creatively express God’s love to people in the church and community, neighbors to nations. It’s not just about that church’s presence or preeminence (superiority) in a town or city, but the goal is to be about Kingdom work – God’s Kingdom, not that church’s. Look to see if the church cooperates with other believers, other churches, other organizations to serve its city and the world. Partnerships tell you a lot about a church. Prayer opportunities, too.
3) Decision-making in the church – Who gives input for strategy or direction? Is the polity (or church governing) the pastor or elder rule? Or is there a clear flow between church leaders and the congregation? Is servant leadership development of all a part of the vision of the church? Can you get a sense of “the priesthood of the believers” (1 Peter 2:9) – where there is “safety in a multitude of counselors” (Proverbs 11:14)? Elder ruled vs. elder led churches both have Biblical support. A lot has to do with accountability and the leaders themselves.
4) Discipleship Throughout Ages and Stages – What happens on Sundays is vital, but it is just a part of church life as a whole. What opportunities does the church promote for growing in the Lord and serving Him both locally and globally? Pre-discipleship can start with young children, and discipleship continues through all life stages (we are grateful to know people in their 80s still serving actively in church). Young moms desperately need discipleship, too. Churches that make that happen must really please God.
5) Finances and Stewardship – What happens with the money that is given through the church? Who decides how it’s used? These answers may not be easily discovered. Is the budget presented by or published to the congregation? Or are the financial decisions made wholly by the elders? Is missions giving encouraged? Is sacrificial giving a pattern in the church? Not just for paying salaries or managing the operation of the church, but for critical needs beyond the church.
5) Church Membership – What are the steps to becoming a member of the church? Maybe you’re thinking you aren’t interested in church membership. Still this is something to consider. What are requirements of the members? Do they have to sign anything (a church covenant, a giving pledge, etc.)? [Signing your agreement/commitment can be a good thing, but realize things can change in the church such that what you signed can mean something different as part of that change. So just be aware…] What are the privileges of membership (teaching, children’s ministry, etc.)? What are the responsibilities of membership? These speak to the priorities of the church. They also speak to leadership/authority. Are members held with open hands, recognizing we belong to God first and then the Body?
6) Church Discipline – You may think that churches don’t all have a church discipline protocol. That may be true. I am thinking that church discipline is part of most churches, whether spoken/written or not. How does one even look for how the church does discipline? The sermons can give some sense of what is “tolerated” or not. That’s a sad thing to have to say, but we all know the expression “bully pulpit” which can happen in churches as well as in politics. Shunning is prescribed rarely in Scripture (Romans 16:17, 1 Corinthians 5:11, Titus 3:9-11). Honestly, if a church uses shunning as a discipline, I would run. It would require the church to have such humility and such wisdom. Who is able, over months or years, to do it with a pure heart? Jesus taught on discipline in the church in Matthew 18:15-20. It’s so like Him to place that teaching between the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the unforgiving servant. Think about it.
7) Style and Substance – Be careful you don’t make a decision about a church based on some element of style rather than substance. Just say, you don’t care for the style of worship. Or the preaching goes a little long. Or…fill in the blank. No church is going to be “perfect” because the church is made up of people, like you and me. Just don’t miss the church God has for you over something that matters so little. What does matter is that you get yourself in a situation where you can grow in knowing God, where you can serve Him and those around you as part of the church, and where you can heal…from whatever got you out of church. Don’t let that experience define your life. Please.
Just, please, give church another try. Do you know the story (Acts 15:36-40) about the Apostle Paul and his ministry partner, Barnabas and how they had a huge disagreement about another young partner, John Mark? Sometimes, disagreements happen – so strong, in fact, that maybe they can’t do ministry together for a season. Does that mean either of them are “the bad guys”? Paul even came to a place, near the time of his death, that he asked for John Mark to come to him (2 Timothy 4:11). The Scripture doesn’t tell us whether either Paul or Barnabas was right or wrong. Yet, we are left with a huge door of reconciliation open to us in their story.
May it always be so with us – to the glory of God and for the sake of His Kingdom.
Jesus, you were once broken apart. You know how it feels to be so shattered by the good-byes of life. Help me to believe that I will one day experience wholeness again, that I will not have this terrible feeling of being torn into many pieces. Keep reminding me often that the Father raised you to new life, to a powerful wholeness that you had not known before. Encourage me to believe that, in time, I will no longer have this deep pain and hurt in my heart. I want to believe. Help my unbelief! Amen. – Joyce Rupp, Prayer for Wholeness in Praying Our Goodbyes
Healthy Church vs. Toxic Church – Bart’s Barometer (Bart Breen)
9 Marks of an Abusive Church – The Wartburg Watch
9 Traits of Mean Churches – Thom Rainer
9 Traits of Church Bullies – Thom Rainer
9 Ways to Deal with Church Bullies – Thom Rainer
14 Symptoms of Toxic Church Leaders – Thom Rainer
10 Traits of Pastors Who Have Healthy Long-Term Tenure
9 Reasons It’s Hard to Attend a Church Once You’ve Been Involved in Leading One – Carey Nieuwhof [Applies to all of us really, not just church leaders]