By Rev. EC Lathrop, Pastor of Lanark First Brethren Church
“Church” - I have heard a myriad of descriptions and perceptions of church. To some it is a hinderance to an otherwise perfectly good weekend of sports, farming, or rest. Many believe church to be a way of gaining a few points with God. That view is a hidden way of saying those who do not attend are rejected by God, while those who attend church possess an inside track to God.
In reality, it is not going to church which establishes one’s relationship with God. It is one’s relationship with God through faith in Jesus which establishes relationship to the church. If church is doing what it ought to do, it is a gathering of Jesus-followers who are commanded to faithfully gather, grow, and mature in faith through a committed relationship with each other. Biblical churches are characterized by teaching the Word of God, the Bible, enjoying the fellowship of the Lord’s Supper, baptizing, and caring for and sharing with one another.
In other words, one reflects a personal relationship with God through Jesus by connecting in a growing, committed relationship with other Jesus-followers. The gathering is a response in humble obedience to God and His rightful grasp on our lives. God does not intend that Christians and their families live in isolation from other believers. Someone has said, “A Christian without a church is an orphan.”
Even pastors fail at recognizing the true calling and purpose of the Church. We tend to be self-centered and anxious to see people join “our thing.” We contrive marketing campaigns, community events, mission and guilt trips to promote ourselves. In our culture where buildings are built and expenses need to be met, the more people we are able to pack into a house of worship, the more effective we consider our ministry. We create a “come to my thing” sort of mentality and receive our accolades by the number of, backslidden or not, backsides in the seats. If we are not careful we can do great harm to the local church and to the perception of the church at large by the surrounding community.
Church members also appear to fail at doing church. Most of us have conflict in our homes, at our jobs, in our neighborhoods, and with our dealings. Of course we bring those weaknesses into our gatherings, while claiming to have a growing relationship with Jesus. Therefore, when others consider gathering with us, they refuse. After all, why in the world would anyone desire to be around additional conflict on their only day off during the week? All they really want is more comfort and peace. In reality, that is the beginning of true comfort - discovering how “normal” spiritual people can be. It is at that point where we begin to understand how God is creating His story in each of us. Once that is accomplished, the joy of growing with one another demands continued gathering. Is it no wonder that the book of Hebrews directs us to not “…forsake the gathering of yourselves together.”
Parents also believe that they must put the needs of their family first. But that ought not mean that we lay wisdom aside. As parents we are to accommodate the needs of our children, not only their interests. With sports, contests, school, and preparation for life, we wonder when children will have time to be children. Church may seem to interfere with the idea of family first. Many parents, however, realize that when we set aside gathering with other Jesus-followers we are also laying aside what is truly important.
A few years ago, youth in another community received an invitation to attend an annual, God-centered event sponsored by their denomination. Many were fine athletes and were threatened with losing their positions on their local team if they chose to go to the conference. With dedicated hearts toward God and their church, not rebellion against their coaches and team, they chose to put their positions on the line and went to the convention. Sometimes choosing what we believe God lays on our hearts has its consequences. When all is said and done, however, we may discover that we put our faith first in order, in the deepest sense, to keep our family first.
“Church,” then, becomes a refreshment and not a burden when we consider that Jesus teaches a “go” or “as you are going.” mentality. We who are called Christians gather in order that we may go away from the gathering ready to live more effectively. We are then “sent” into our own households, neighborhoods, schools, work places, sports fields, our communities, and into the world.
As we go and meet the needs of others, the size of our gatherings may very well increase, but the increase itself is not the goal. The higher goal is to gather, to go, and to be to others as Jesus is to us.