Monday, April 20, 2015

When Church is Challenging

A little more than two years ago, my husband and I made a decision to leave our church. We'd spent 18 years celebrating, mourning, growing, and living with a wonderful group of people. We stood in the parking lot in tears after informing our pastor we were leaving. Anticipation accompanied grief, as we wondered where the Lord would providentially direct us. There were no local options; we would have to travel to find the place we were looking for. The third church we visited was located in a community 45 minutes away. It is the family to which the Lord brought us.In the past two years, we have learned some important lessons about church and about ourselves.

It has been hard.

There are many, many wonderful things about our church. Being joined with this body of believers has been good. Despite the protestations of the current church culture, difficulty and goodness are not mutually exclusive. They are often woven together inextricably. We know - we cling to - this truth. It sustains us when we might otherwise feel like giving up.

Feeling connected is one challenge we face. The daily-ness of Monday through Friday makes it easy to put relationships on the back burner. I text a couple of ladies periodically, but for the most part I am so wrapped up in my own life and family that I don't make the effort to build new friendships. I've not had to make such an effort before, but it is a glaring reality now. We have virtually no contact with our church family from Sunday to Sunday. No running into each other at school events, in the grocery store, or on the ball field. No spontaneous lunch or dinner dates. No "I was in the neighborhood" visits. The reason we sometimes feel entirely disconnected from the church community is that we are not part of its surrounding community.

Another challenge is our level of involvement. In our former church, my husband served as a deacon. We were active in the choir, in teaching Sunday School, and as members of various committees. Our daughter was a leader in the youth group. Being so active was a large part of our identity that we planned to bring with us. It didn't take long to realize that adding 1 1/2 hours to any meeting or activity is an obstacle that is sometimes too difficult to overcome, especially considering my husband spends roughly 11 hours commuting to work each week. Service shouldn't necessarily be convenient; nor should it be impractical. I fear that our lack of participation has been seen as reluctance because people don't fully understand the extent to which we are hindered by time and distance.

So yes, it has been hard. Yet we have made a covenant with this church family. A covenant that requires us to be committed church members. I thought I knew what a committed church member looks like; in the past, all I had to do was glance in the mirror. However, the Lord is showing me that my notions - while not wholly inaccurate - were far from complete. Being committed to a church is much more than regular attendance and leadership positions.

In his book What Is a Healthy Church Member?, Thabiti Anyabwile writes that the expressions of a committed member are: regular attendance (Heb. 10:24-25), peace-seeking (Rom. 14:19), edifying others (1 Cor. 12, 14), warning and admonishing others (Matt. 18:15-17), pursuing reconciliation (2 Cor. 5-18-21), bearing with others (Gal. 6:2), preparing for the ordinances, and supporting the work of the ministry (2 Cor. 8-9).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer also sets forth the ministries of those committed to the Christian community in his classic Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian in Community. They are: holding one's tongue (James 4:11-12), meekness (Rom. 12:3), listening, helpfulness, bearing (Col. 3:13), and proclaiming (James 5:20).

As I think about these characteristics - these charges - I'm learning that my commitment to the church is not measured by how many positions I hold or the number of committees I serve on. In fact, it's not measured by any thing I do. Rather, it is only the grace of the Holy Spirit expressing itself in my life that demonstrates my commitment to the church family where He has placed us.

"The church isn't a circle of friends, but the family of God," writes Michael Horton (source). When I first read that statement, I thought it sounded harsh. As I've continually pondered it, I've realized that Horton is exactly right. In our former church, we were more than friends with our fellow members; they comprised our entire social circle.  Bonhoeffer writes that the Christian "...belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes. There is his commission, his work." We had insulated ourselves from the secular world. As we've emerged from the church cocoon, the harshness of that reality has hit us with overwhelming force. We find ourselves stumbling, but reaching for God's strength all the more.

I knew joining a church that isn't local would be challenging, but I thought it would become easier with time. Two years later, my family is still wrestling. Perhaps we always will. While we love our pastor and our congregation, I must admit that if we thought of church as only a group of friends we would not have made this choice.  Knowing that our Sovereign God has joined us with this family, that we have a responsibility to them (and they to us), that we are part of a true church, and that He is sanctifying us in the process - these are what thank Him for.   
It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of Christian brethren is a gift of grace, a gift of the Kingdom of God that any day may be taken from us, that the time that still separates us from utter loneliness may be brief indeed. Therefore, let him who until now has had the privilege of living a common Christian life with other Christians praise God's grace from the bottom of his heart. Let him thank God on his knees and declare: It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Serving in the Local Church

Lisa encouraged us to see the people in the church and serve them for the Lord's sake and for His glory. In this post, we will be sharing the different ways we labor for the Lord in our home churches. We hope this will encourage you in your service as well.


Persis:

I've been a member of a Reformed Baptist church since 2008. There are less than 100 members, so there are plenty of opportunities to chip in. I help out in the ever-growing nursery once a month and play the keyboard alongside other musicians as part of the music team. I also facilitate a small group of middle-aged women who meet every other week. We've studied books of the Bible and read books together. Currently we are finishing Made for More by Hannah Anderson. This has been a great way to get to know my sisters. We've had thought-provoking discussions and have been able to support one another in prayer. Some younger ladies have joined us at times, so it's not always strictly middle-aged.

Lastly, my primary area of service is Deacon of Library and Resources. I work mainly with the pastor to keep the church library updated with books that complement sermon series and Sunday school topics. I am also on the lookout for books which cover a range of subjects including current issues, theology, and those which help put our faith into practice. I love sound Christian books and take great joy in helping to provide these resources for my brothers and sisters. I'm also responsible for sending out the weekly prayer list and keeping the church calendar up to date.

I'm thankful for my church family and opportunities to serve. I'm also thankful for the elders who encourage the members to use the gifts God has given them for the benefit of the whole.

Kim:

I have been a member of my non-denominational, Baptist-leaning church since 1996. Our church has grown since then, to over 300 people. It's become big enough that I am beginning to see lots of faces I don't recognize. We have two services on Sunday morning, and it can be difficult to get to know everyone.

Since joining, I have served in quite a few areas, but mostly teaching capacities, and that is where I am now. We are fortunate to have five ladies' bible studies available: two on Sunday, and three which meet twice monthly at different locations. I have a class of about 17 eager students ranging from women in their 70's to young women with toddlers. Some of my students were once my students when I taught teenagers, and that is really neat to see how they have grown and are becoming godly women.

I also help out with the young mom's bible study, usually in the nursery. However, currently, I am filling a teaching need, but when September comes, I'll return to the nursery. There is always a need for nursery workers, and it's fun, too! I have really enjoyed teaching this group for the past few weeks. Some of the same faces have shown up in my Sunday school class. The format for the young moms' study is much less formal, and there is a lot more discussion, but these young women have a desire to know God's word, and that's exciting.

I'm really thankful that my church has so many opportunities for service.There is something for everyone, and I've never lacked for something to do.


Melissa:

"Being a Christian is a personal matter, not a private one. When you are born again, you are born into a family." - Mark Dever

"The health of the local church depends on the willingness of its members to inspect their hearts, correct their thinking, and apply their hands to the work of the ministry." - Thabiti Anyabwile

Two years ago this month, my family visited our current church home for the first time. It's a small PCA church with approximately 100 members. Prior to that, we were in a substantially larger Southern Baptist church. Through the years I've taught Sunday School (adult and youth) and Vacation Bible School, led women's Bible studies, served in the nursery, choir, and women's ministry teams. I've also gone on mission trips to New Jersey, Texas, and Peru.

Our current church does not have many of the programs and committees that we were accustomed to in a larger church. It's taken a while to find our niche. This year, my husband and I have taught elementary Sunday School together. I must admit, doing so was out of my comfort zone (I'm much better with youth); however, the Lord has been gracious. We've learned a great deal and had entirely too much fun. I also serve on the women's ministry committee.

A personal ministry I enjoy is sending cards to church members. I love to write encouraging notes and prayers to the members of my family. Often, I find myself encouraged as I remind them of God's love, provision, and promises.

(NOTE: The quotes I shared both come Thabiti Anyabwile's book, What Is a Healthy Church Member?, which I've found to be an invaluable resource.)

Lisa:

Like Persis, I attend a small church where opportunities to serve are many and varied. They are also often beyond my comfort zone! I rock babies in our ever-growing nursery once every few weeks and I teach the children during one eight week community group rotation each summer. And, if we’re being honest, it’s a long eight weeks for me and the kids both! Teaching children would not be my chosen area of service but I’m glad to serve both the future generations of my church as well as their moms. However, I draw the line—a hard line—at any and all crafts! :)

In a small church the hospitality opportunities also abound. The ladies of my church have monthly fellowships and I enjoy taking my turn either leading the devotion or hosting the fellowship in my home. An important part of our community group model is a fellowship meal so I also take my turn providing food for the community groups my family participates in and for other church events. One of the most exciting ways I am currently serving my church is through a committee charged with choosing the interior and exterior finishes as well as appliances and fixtures for our new church building currently under construction.

While it is not a direct ministry of my local church, I teach a community Bible study for women and it is my privilege to serve my church girlfriends who attend or listen via our podcast.

Having grown up in a rather large “mega” church, the small church has been something of a culture shock for me but I love it. I love my church and I love serving my church family in any capacity open to me, from text conversations about spiritual issues to laughter with friends around my kitchen table. Truthfully, I have been challenged by the need to serve outside my preferences and outside what I perceived my gift or talent to be. But the Lord is faithful and not only has He shown Himself sufficient in the sanctifying process but He has taught me how we the church are partakers together of grace as we love and serve one another.

Rebecca:

I attend a small Baptist church—small by North American big city standards, anyway, but it's probably one of the larger churches in my town. We've grown a lot over in the past few years, and if you show up late for the service you may have to squeeze in a pew to find a place to sit. And for the first time in my life, there are people who regularly attend my church whose names I don't know.

Officially, I serve as church librarian. This requires that I spend an hour or so a month keeping books organized, and several hours a month reading and reviewing a book for the church newspaper. Like Persis, I also purchase new books, so I'm always on the look out for books that will help fill out our collection. When I took over the library, it was rarely used, but now, while it's not used as often as I would like, it is used regularly.

I'm also a choir member, which requires me to attend choir practices whenever they are scheduled and sing on Sunday morning whenever we're slated to sing.

Unofficially, because I have 4 toddler grandchildren who attend, you'll find me in the nursery on at least two Sundays a month. While I may not know all the grown-ups in my church, I do know most of the under three crowd, along with their parents.  Knowing all these young families is one of the bigger blessings in my life right now.

Friday, April 10, 2015

See the People

As children some of you probably recited the rhyme (with motions!), "Here is the church / here is the steeple / open the doors and see all the people." I thought of its simple truth as I reflected on the church and her influence on me. It's true: I see all the people.

  • The senior adult who taught me in fourth grade Sunday school (I think). I remember the dioramas we made but more importantly I remember she cried when I told her my grandmother died.
  • The elementary grade Sunday School teacher who gave me a pin for memorizing the Lord's Prayer. I wore that pin for ages.
  • The college student whose excitement and passion for the things of God were revolutionary to me. And contagious.
  • Malcom, the big former Texas football player, who taught me in ninth grade; from his class I will never forget that bad company corrupts good character, that I am known by the company I keep and that what I reap I will sow. The amount of Scripture he had committed to memory was astonishing to me.
  • Trisha, my college minister's wife and my friend during those crazy college years, who modeled for me wisdom and intelligence. From her I learned that as a woman I could hear from and know God for myself and that He had a calling specifically for me.

And there are more, Sunday school teachers and leaders through the years who faithfully taught me the truth of God's Word. Most I cannot even remember their names, but I remember their love for me and their love for the Word. Their legacy, their faithfulness to the Lord, endures today. In me.

I am who I am because of the humble service of these saints of God.

We need the church. I need the church. You need the church. That's a truth for another post's exposition but it is undeniably the message of the Bible.

The Bible is also clear: the church needs you.

We need each other. If you belong to Christ you have been gifted by the Spirit to serve the church for the common good. There are varieties of gifts and varieties of services, but the same God who empowers (1 Cor. 12:4-7). Your church needs you to serve her people in the provision and grace of the Spirit. This is the privilege and responsibility--and joy!--of the saints.

It's interesting to me to note that as I catalog those individuals who profoundly affected my life and faith, it is most often the layperson, the humble Bible teacher, the Sunday school teacher who comes to mind first. They were not professionals. Those who influenced me most knew me, loved me, and served me in the context of relationship.

Will you be the Sunday school teacher who will love a group of young girls and who will cry with them in their grief? Will you infuse in teenagers the priority of Scripture? Or maybe you will rock babies in the nursery so their moms can enjoy a hours' respite and uninterrupted Biblical instruction. Maybe you can serve your church family as you cook. Maybe you could clean the toilets or vacuum the sanctuary.

Not sure of your gifting? Not sure where to serve? Ask. Find a need and fill it. Build relationships. See the people and love them as well as you can. As we do so may we see the Lord's glory in His church for His kingdom's sake!

As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace... 1 Pet. 4:10

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Why I love the local church

It will be seven years next month since I've been a member of my church. It's hard not to get teary-eyed when I think of the journey that led up to that day. It's also hard not to get teary-eyed as I write this and think of what this group of believers means to me. If you asked me 10 years ago whether I would darken the door of a church again, the answer probably would have been, "What!? Are you kidding?" Yet here I am today, a member in good standing of a local church.

There was a good chunk of time when my family thought we just needed us and Jesus. We had been through a difficult church situation and pretty much threw the baby out with the bathwater. I would strongly discourage anyone from going lone ranger for Christ now, but I am grateful that God was greater than the choice to do so. While this doesn't excuse sin, He uses all things to achieve His purpose, which included bringing me back into Christian fellowship again.

So here are some reasons why I love the church and specifically my local church:

- After being a Christian for 40 years, I finally heard the clear presentation of the gospel for the first time. Oh how sweet and freeing it was to realize that Jesus not only paid the penalty for my sin but also provided the perfect righteousness I so desperately needed. This message continues to be proclaimed week after week.

- This is the place to receive the means of grace. After being spiritually malnourished, sound preaching Sunday after Sunday and regular celebration of the Lord's Table are feasts for my soul.

- This is where the one anothers of scripture are put into practice. Love one another, exhort one another, pray for one another, and the list goes on.

- "[B]eing united to one another in love, they have communion in each others gifts and graces, and are obliged to the performance of such duties, public and private, in an orderly way, as do conduce to their mutual good, both in the inward and outward man."1 Suffice it to say, I have received abundantly from the gifts and graces of my brothers and sisters.

- Because of the gospel, I am united with those for whom Christ died and with those He loves. My lone-ranger days are over for good. And though we haven't arrived yet, we share in the promise that He will present the church to Himself without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, for which He gets all the glory. (Eph. 5:27)

… to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. Ephesians 3:21

Now that I've shared why I love the church, it's your turn. Why do you love the church? Please share in the comments section.

Monday, April 6, 2015

In Search of a True Church

This month my fellow ordinary theologians and I are discussing the church (you can read Kim's thoughtful introduction here).

Well then, the Children's Creed teaches us (as was said) that a Christian holy people is to be and to remain on earth until the end of the world...But how will or how can a poor confused person tell where such Christian holy people are to be found in this world?
- Martin Luther
quoted by Daniel R. Hyde
Welcome to a Reformed Church: A Guide for Pilgrims (103)
Luther's centuries-old question is one many Christians find themselves asking today. Maybe more so than in Luther's time.
Today the situation is more confusing, since so many organizations call themselves churches. We have everything from theological cults, such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to thousands of garden-variety nondenominational churches, to the so-called "mainline" churches, and everything in between. The Belgic Confession's words are just as true today as they were when originally penned: "all sects which are in the world assume to themselves the name of the Church" (Art. 29). - Hyde (104)
So, indeed, how is a Christian - whether newly converted, newly relocated, or newly convinced of a need for change - to find a church? We must begin with what Scripture says about the church, with - as Derek Thomas calls it in his commentary on Acts - the "pattern of how the church ought to be." (55) .
And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts,praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47, ESV)
Does such a church exist in our fallen world? I have wondered that myself. In January 2013 my family left our church home of 18 years. Our search for a new one was at times arduous and frustrating. And, as we were grieving our loss, it was also painful. Despite our all-over-the-place emotions, the Lord was gracious enough to keep our focus on the goal: finding a true church to call home. He taught - and continues to teach - us some invaluable lessons along the way.

Anyone looking for a church home must take the matter seriously, and prayerfully. Whether finding your first church or simply (for whatever reason) another one, the process will require commitment, discernment, and - I know I am repeating myself here - prayer.

Certainly, it helps to know what you're looking for. Careful study of the doctrine of the church - and prayer - are a crucial foundation of any church search. Hyde sets forth three marks of the true church: pure preaching of the Gospel, pure administration of the sacraments, and church discipline. In his book Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, Mark Dever sets forth even more distinguishing marks of a healthy church: expositional preaching, biblical theology, the Gospel, a biblical understanding of conversion, a biblical understanding of evangelism, a biblical understanding of church membership, biblical church discipline, a concern for discipleship and growth, and biblical church leadership. Both books have a solid foundation of Scripture, and Dever's was tremendously helpful. (I have blogged about how Dever's book aided in our church search)

We had a clear vision because we had experienced it at the church we attend whenever we visit our nation's capital and we had spent time studying Dever's book. With our mental checklist - and prayer - we formulated a plan for our search. Instead of rushing into a commitment of the first church we visited, we determined to spend one month each at three different churches we had heard of before making our final decision. As we were completing the first two months, we realized the third church we'd planned to visit was no longer an option. We were at a loss. Providentially, the Lord directed our steps to another church we'd never heard of but that has become our church home. In many ways it is not what we expected, but it is where, as Luther wrote, Christian holy people are found.