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A number of years ago, I was helping lead a 20-something singles group at a church when a new pastor arrived and cryptically began to hint that he wasn't sure he wanted our group around. Gradually, it became clear that he wasn't going to get behind what we thought was a really fantastic ministry, no matter how many times we met with him to convince him otherwise. It was a deeply disillusioning time for all of us, because we didn't really understand why he felt the way he did. Eventually almost everyone in the group, perhaps 30 to 40 people, went looking for a new church elsewhere because we no longer felt welcome or wanted where we were — myself included.
I share that story as a prelude to the topic I want to address today as part of Boundless' ROCK THE BODY challenge: committing to a local church … and the challenges that can keep us from doing so.
In the wake of what felt like an eviction from a church that my friends and I had loved, most of us began looking for a new church home. Except for me, that is. I felt burned and bitter, disappointed and jaded. I was wary of plugging in again. I drifted into a kind of accidental churchlessness for a few months.
Meanwhile, one of my friends found a brand-new church immediately, and he couldn't stop raving about it: the pastor, the worship, the vision, the overall feel of the place. Eventually, I decided to see what he was so excited about. Much to my surprise, I was as jazzed about this new church plant as he was, and I soon chose to become a member (where I stayed until I got married, as my wife worked at a different church).
Those two experiences are polar opposites — one deeply and personally wounding, one finding virtually everything I thought I wanted in a church. Most of the time, however, I think our hunt for a church falls somewhere in between. I also think those anecdotes illustrate two important elements that influence every person's church search and willingness to commit to a specific congregation: our church "baggage" and our personal preferences.
Let's start with the first of those elements. For those of us who've been wounded by a church, the thought of making a commitment to another congregation that might inflict similar scars can practically induce post-traumatic stress disorder. I don't want to minimize anyone's difficult experiences — and I know there are some awful ones out there. But I'd also suggest that if we let those hurts keep us from church, we'll end up in a far more isolated place.
I know, because I spent several months in a season like that myself, one in which my bitterness about church became an excuse not to try again. Eventually, though, I could sense that I was starving spiritually — for good teaching, for worship, for genuine community.
Let me use that as a segue to the second issue that sometimes keeps us from committing to a church: our preferences. There's nothing wrong with having personal preferences. We all have particulars we like and dislike when it comes to church, from preaching style to worship to a church's overall direction and vibe.
Sometimes, however, that preferential list of what we "have to have" in a church before we'll commit to plugging into it — whether that means serving, becoming a member, or both — becomes so long that no church ever makes the cut. As my wife and I have continued to minister in our congregation, we often hear from newcomers who like the worship, or the pastor, or a particular ministry in the church, but something else doesn't "work" for them. Often, those people are soon gone.
We've also noticed that this "checklist" mentality is, generally speaking, more evident among younger generations. Their "list" for what they have to have can be so long and so specific that unless a church can meet all manner of requirements, they refuse to join or commit. They may show up, but they often have one foot out the door and are constantly considering other communities that might be better options. And with so many church plants happening these days (at least in our community), there's always a hot new "buzz-worthy" church to check out if you want to do so — a factor that contributes to some folks semi-permanent church-hopping.
Now, I'm not advocating committing to a church that, on some fundamental level, you can't stand. But I do think that at some point, we need to lay aside what can become a Holy Grail-eque quest for the perfect church and just plug in — and dig in, ministry-wise — at a local congregation that we more or less mesh with. As we do so, we have a chance to contribute to the ministry that church is doing. And one of the things that happens as we make those kinds of commitments and contributions as that we grow more passionate about serving others than about whether or not all of our personal preferences are being met.
I'd also like to add more thing here: Even if we do happen to find a church that seems like perfect fit, there can still be a kind of "church infatuation" that, again, is similar to romance. Over time, you're likely to notice things about the church you didn't see at first. And there are almost always changes — a new pastor, a new worship leader, a beloved ministry ending — that will challenge our commitment over time.
But if we bail out in search of greener church grass every time something doesn't work just right for us, we'll unwittingly consign ourselves to forever being dissatisfied church consumers. Committing to a local church, however, opens the door to growing, learning and serving as we use our gifts and passions — even if the church we've chosen isn't always perfect.
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--3 years ago, I was "burned" by the church I'd attended for 27 years, the church I got saved and baptized in, and the church that I loved very much. I won't go into all the painful details here, but suffice to say that I was told (through actions and decisions, not with words) that my service to the music ministry was no longer welcome or wanted. I'd been volunteering for 10 years in a specific capacity, and with the arrival of a new staff member, I was suddenly out in the cold. There had been no complaints that I was aware of (in fact, many people asked why I'd chosen to step down...they didn't know I'd been booted out), and the new staff member did not even talk to me about anything that he felt was "wrong" with how I performed my duties. All I knew is that suddenly I was no longer wanted or needed, and that a relative of the new staff member had been given my position.
There were several months after I chose to leave that congregation that I "wandered" from church to church. I kept attending regularly, but I couldn't make myself commit to any particular place because I was still very hurt. I just thank God that He loved me through that and kept bitterness from completely consuming me. I've been in 3 different churches over the past 3 years, and liked different things about each of them. I don't think I'm holding out for the "perfect church," but the hurt from my previous experience kept me from really settling in until recently. Now I'm in a really good church with an amazing ladies group (no singles, though!), a knowledgeable and caring pastor, and Biblical teaching. I'm seriously considering officially joining that church, but for some reason I'm still hesitant about it. I know, I know...I need to just join the church and get over those hesitations! In the meantime, though, I'm grateful that I can still use my gifts and talents for God's glory as He opens doors for me to do so.
I know the feeling of having to leave a church... Finally it came down to my responsibility to God for my life. There were limits to which I could just grin and bear it, and as a steweard of what God had given me, I had to find a place where I could be repaired rather than damaged further.
--I've been in the same church for two years. It's a huge church which functions almost more like a Christian aid ministry than a church in some ways. The music is reasonably good, though a bit heavy on "fluff" CCM, but the preaching is extremely basic, and not very challenging. The application for most sermons is a) get saved if you're not and b) if you are, here's how you can serve (more) in the church. As a busy graduate student, that part drives me a bit batty!
I am part of an excellent Spanish group in the church (I speak Spanish almost fluently), but the group gets little pastoral/church support. The area has a large Hispanic population--ripe for ministry--and the church has lukewarm coffee enthusiasm towards trying to reach them. The most recent five-year-strategic ministry plan finally has a date--five years out--for finding a pastor for the group. Having seen the group fight for two years for permission to work towards getting a pastor and having a Spanish-language service, I'm frustrated.
Anyway, I finally decided this summer that my dissatisfaction had reached a critical mass, and I have begun looking elsewhere. It was the issue of feeling unfed by the church service that tipped the balance. I will put up with a lot from a church, but feeling spiritually malnourished after church on Sunday is a deal breaker. I would love to stay involved with the Spanish group at my current church, but I know that will not be possible in the long-term. Eventually I will have to choose one place and stick with it.
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