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 we 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.


  1. Love you guys! Glad you continue to make the effort to be a part of Hope. It wouldn't be the same without you!

  2. We have changed churches several times. Mostly because we are drawn to help a pastor in need. We help get them on their feet then move on (as Holy Spirit leads us). We are in this transition right now... It is never easy. We become attached to the people at each church and keep those connections. Our church family is very large! :)

  3. Melissa - We are in the same boat as we left our local church a couple of years ago and joined a church in a neighboring city. The way we solved the connection problem was by opening our home for a Bible Study twice a month on Friday nights. Being on Friday nights every other week makes it possible for those willing to commute this way and also for friends here in our town to come. It's been the perfect midweek fellowship/connection solution for us.

  4. A friend of mine shared your post with me because my family and I are smack-dab in the middle of this exact same thing. We left our previous church eight months ago & we are seeking a new place now. I posted this Saturday night & when she read your post, she thought of me & sent it my way. Thank you for your honesty. {This is the post she read:}