My series at For the Church, “Letters to a New Believer,” continues. The first post addressed the dangers of rushing into leadership roles. The second takes a step back to look at getting grounded in the Bible. The third, is my encouragement to tell the story that’s yours. The fourth looks at trying to untangle the tangly bits of getting saved while also living with your girlfriend. The latest, part five, begins a look at developing convictions about what makes a church a church:
One morning, after worshipping at Bedside Baptist (the largest mega-church in the western world), Emily and I went for a walk, our toddler in tow, enjoying the sunshine and the crispness of the air. While we waited at a crosswalk, for some reason I said, “We’re not going to be at our church forever. I’m not sure when, but we’re going to leave eventually.” Emily wasn’t shocked, or concerned. She just said, “Yeah, you’re probably right.”
Despite it having been the only church I’d attended, it wasn’t long before I felt like a square peg in a round hole there. A key issue was my emerging doctrinal convictions. Our church was Pentecostal in denomination and doctrine. I was not. While they didn’t push speaking in tongues too much on Sunday mornings, the response to any suggestion that perhaps not all are gifted in such a manner (1 Corinthians 12:30) was usually met with, “Well, why wouldn’t you want all God has for you?” They tended to be unsure how to respond when I told them I prayed and God emphatically said no. (True story.)
The church’s methodology was firmly in what many now call the “attractional” camp, with a slick praise band and “seeker” friendly messages featuring seven alliterated steps to improve your money, marriage, or motorcycle maintenance, even as the leaders proclaimed they were desperate for people to read their Bibles. More and more, I was becoming convinced that the best way to encourage this was to preach the Bible itself. They were sure that, while no one can snatch you out of the Father’s hand, you could climb out any time you please. I was convinced that if you could do anything to lose your salvation, you would.
As time went on, I was increasingly convinced that we needed to consider not simply whether or not to leave, but what we expected of church. I don’t mean whether or not we wanted to be part of a seeker church, a missional church, a vintage church, or a vertical church. Those are just descriptors (and, frankly, kind of silly ones). No, before we could go we had to understand what the church is, according to the Scriptures.
It’s not easy to think about the local church clearly. Because the church is tied so closely to personal relationships (as it should be), we can either blow our issues out of proportion, or minimize things that are seriously wrong because we don’t want to offend or hurt anyone. My goal with this article (and the one to follow) was not to write a definitive manifesto of what church is, but to help those who might be in similar situations to where I was several years ago—people who are trying to figure out what “church” is supposed to be, and whether or not the church they’re a part of is actually where they should be.
I truly hope that this article and the one to follow (which deals with knowing when to leave a church) accomplish that goal so that those who can stay where they are do so joyfully, and those who need to leave can do so gracefully.