I was raised in a home where regular, frequent attendance of church services was the norm. I was in church by the time I was just a week old, and I attended faithfully from that point forward. It was just a given.
Thus, it’s an interesting story how my wife and I decided about three years ago to stop attending weekend worship services on a regular basis. But it’s almost impossible to relate concisely. There is so much background information, learning over time, fits-and-starts and second-guessing, that it would take a book to explain fully. For this blog post, suffice it to say that we made this decision not out of disillusionment with the institutional church or with any ill feelings toward it. Rather, we had become increasingly intent on following Jesus wherever He leads and we found Him leading us out of this comfortable routine and into something, for us, more dynamic and more intentional.
Not that our attendance at church services and functions had become purely perfunctory. Anything but! I was learning and growing, serving regularly, involved in terrific community, establishing deep connection with fellow believers. At yet, the call away from the more formal “worship services” was unmistakable.
It was the definition of what we were being called into that was not so clear. I just knew I had a feeling deep down, an inward certainty, that there had to be more. Nothing was wrong with where we were, and, in fact, it had a lot to recommend it. It just did not seem to be enough. Like Reepicheep, I wanted to go “further up and further in” the Kingdom. So, we followed the Lord as nearly as we could discern, and boldly stopped attending church services to see what our lives as disciples would look like as a result.
Now, after three or so years of listening and learning and working, of tearing down and building up, of trying a bunch of different things and seeing what works, I can share a few things I have learned:
The problem was me, not the church. I was very comfortable attending church, because that is what I had done my whole life. It was easy to stay on that course, and many people encouraged me to do so. (In fact, we had quite a lot of resistance from well-intentioned Christian friends and family when we did decide to pursue a different one!) But this comfort and ease also allowed me to remain immature in my faith. I wasn’t really leading my family spiritually in any significant fashion. There were entrenched areas of sin that I wasn’t tackling and wasn’t planning on tackling. Far more than I was willing or even able to admit to myself, I was “holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power”, to use Paul’s humbling phrase.
I was looking for “more” in the church, but I should instead have been looking to my relationship with Jesus, for there is always “more” in Him. To make me take a more personal responsibility for my own and my family’s spiritual growth, I needed to be removed from the comfortable and the familiar. Once the fallback of the organized church was removed, I either needed to step up and take responsibility for a daily connection with the Lord or admit to myself that I didn’t really value such a relationship enough to do anything about it if it was only up to me. This was a defining moment! With the Spirit’s help, I found the narrow gate and chose to walk the hard road (Matthew 7). (That journey is another story in itself!)
Today, I know that my core identity, my truest self, is defined by who I am in Christ. I am able to live from this place of His strength, and I know with far less interruption His promised peace and joy. I am far more mindful of abiding in Jesus and staying connected with Him in a fresh, vital way through His Spirit, so that my life in every respect better represents the Name I claim. The “more” I was looking for has been found in every way. The lack was within me, not the church, but I had to step outside the church to be able to see that truth.
The missing piece at church for me was discipleship. Defining “discipleship” can be difficult, but by it I basically mean “becoming like Christ”. By summarizing the Law and the Prophets, Jesus gave us what has been called the Great Commandment: Love God and love others. This is the great “why” of life. For this, for love, we have been made, and in its pursuit and expression we find the making of our true selves. In His final words before ascending, Jesus gave us the great “what” of life in the Great Commission: Go and make disciples. So, if we would be His disciples, if we would become like Him in increasing measure until we come “to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-16), then we must learn what it means to orient our lives around loving God, loving others, and making disciples. As the Ephesians passage clearly states, helping each one to become like Him is the whole point of the Church.
This message was probably being clearly conveyed at church services and training activities, but it was lost on me. I readily admit this disconnect was likely a result of my spiritual deafness more than anything. I was getting the messages about fellowship with other believers and serving sacrificially, but loving those far from God who had no desire for Him so that I could then help them learn to follow Him seemed entirely out of reach.
As I remember it, the idea of “making disciples” was not communicated as such. Rather, there was more of an emphasis on “evangelism” and “sharing your faith”, which always seemed to me like spiritual vegetables: something I knew I should do and occasionally (reluctantly) did, even though I did not really have any taste for it. As a task-oriented introvert, nothing appealed to me less than crafting a polished testimony and seeking out opportunities to share it with (usually) uninterested parties.
On an organizational, institutional level, I do not know of any solution to this. As my experience these last few years has proven to me, the communication of the riches of Christ’s love to another human being made in His image is much more akin to meat (or dessert!) than it is vegetables. It is a life-giving privilege to be sought out, not a painful duty to be shirked if at all possible. But I do not know how this truth can be taught in any way other than by the Spirit changing the heart and planting it directly within. For me, it was nothing short of a revelation, albeit one that has emerged more fully over time.
Here’s what changed for me: I started following Jesus because it was what I wanted. I had found my core identity, my true self, in Him, and so I wanted (and needed!) to stay vitally connected with Him every day, and every minute of every day. There was no life to be found anywhere else! And in Him was not only life, but the life, undying and endless in its variety and wonder. I had been searching for my whole life (sometimes without fully realizing it) for that central puzzle piece that would make sense of everything else around it, and now I had found it! And as I became increasingly aware of the magnitude of the gift I had received, I realized that I could not, must not, dare not keep such a thing to myself. It had not been given to me to hide away within myself and benefit only me. What a waste that would be! (Maybe this is, at least in part, what the Parable of the Talents is about?) Instead, I began to desire more and more to somehow relate the inner peace and deep joy I had found in Jesus to anyone I came into contact with who seemed to be lacking them — lacking Him and His life. (Figuring out how to go about doing so in a way that is effective is a topic for another post!)
Forms do not matter all that much, but there must be some “form”. An auditorium full of believers on a Sunday morning singing together and being taught from Scripture in a lecture format is one form that “church” can take. This is one way that disciples are made. I have seen nothing to indicate it is especially effective at this task or to be preferred over any other. But it is the one that is most common presently.
A gathering of friends in a living room talking about where they’ve seen God at work in their lives over the past week is another form that “church” can take. This one is getting more popular these days. I do not know if it is more or less effective than other methods.
A group of men having an early weekday breakfast together so they can study Scripture and pray together before the start of another hectic work day is another form. A group of people in recovery from addiction, having acknowledged Jesus as the only higher power able to truly transform and save, sharing candidly with one another their struggles, failings, and successes; this is another form. Two women on the porch laughing and crying together, trying to make sense of life’s challenges and disappointments, turning to the Lord for a perspective that can be relied upon; that’s another. A group of twenty-something skateboarders at a skate park on a Sunday morning, coming together to worship God in the way they know best (by shredding hard, natch), is another.
If God is the focus of a group that gathers together, if He is at the center of their hearts and their purpose, then that group is an expression of “church”. Whenever groups of disciples, no matter how many or how few, gather together to encourage one another along the Way and practice together all of the other magnificent, life-giving “one another”s of the Christian (New) Testament, regardless of the forum in which this occurs, this is “church”. The definition of “church” I have embraced after reviewing many is: “The presence of Jesus among His people, called out as a spiritual family to pursue His mission on this planet” (more here).
Slavish adherence to one particular form, regardless of its helpfulness or effectiveness, does not seem to be a good idea. Nor does having no form, no method, no practice at all. There is no biblical injunction to attend church (i.e., worship services on a Sunday morning in a certain building), but there is most definitely a repeated command that we be the church (loving one another into maturity in Christ).
Relationships are key. Both inside and outside the church. I used to have many friendships with other believers but very few with folks outside the community of faith. I know now that both are vital. And, as I am not naturally gifted as a “people person”, I really have to work to ensure I am forming relationships with people who do not currently know Jesus, with the intention of introducing them to Him. This is a discipline for me, but it is not an onerous duty. As my heart has been changed over time, I see others more and more with God’s eyes of love, and I desire to get to know them just for who they truly are — who God made them to be. Sometimes they are far from a realization of who this person is. In these cases it is my goal and my great hope that I may, through a growing friendship, earn trust enough to gain a hearing for presenting them with the truth of who they are (and who they can begin living as right away!) in the ultimate reality of God’s Kingdom.
As I find the road difficult or the path forward uncertain, I am blessed to have significant relationships with other disciples, many much further down the road of faith than I am. They are a great source of encouragement and learning to me. God has been faithful to supply these traveling companions at exactly the right time. I am grateful for each one of them.
Only Jesus can lead us to a restored relationship with God, but many roads may lead us to Jesus. In fact, I am convinced that there is no back alley or dark cul de-sac where we will not find Jesus waiting to meet us, calling us gently but insistently to follow Him on a better road. What I have described above is a part of what the journey has looked like for me these last few years. I cannot recommend this exact route to any other traveler. It is simply the one I saw the Lord going down, and so I followed. I am so glad I did!
In its particulars, my route may or may not look like that of any other disciple, but I trust that in its essentials (and its destination!) it is very much the same: a deepening relationship with Jesus as Friend and Lord, a growing identification with Him as “all and in all”, an increasing degree and quality of love for others, an expanding heart for those who wander dead-end roads at their own peril, an inviolable unassailability so long as my eyes remain fixed and my mind remains stayed on Him. Life is to be found in no other pursuit.
Because of [Jesus’ hard teaching and the difficulty of the way] many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. 67 So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” 68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:66-69); emphasis added)
Further up and further in!
(As a postscript that may be of interest to some, this link was shared with me as I wrote this post. You will note some similar themes to what I have covered above.)