This message was preached at Woodvale Baptist Church on Sunday the 9th of July 2017.
Scanning through my FB feed this morning, I came across a link to a page announcing itself as the “Unchurching Community”. The initiative comes from a former pastor, Richard Jacobson, who left his role as a pastor in 2003, following a crisis in his faith. His doubts were not about God or the church. Rather, his crisis consisted of him “having doubts about the way we do church today.” Unchurching the church then, is an attempt to draw together all those people who, despite having not abandoned their faith, nevertheless are seeking “genuine church community outside the box” which they did not find in more traditional expressions of the local churches they have left.
They “unchurched” the church.
What I appreciate about the site is that the clear intent is to promote “constructive dialogue” about the church without resorting to “verbal fistfights.”
It is in the spirit of being constructive that I write this article and it is my genuine hope that it will cause us all to re-think the church.
My premise is straightforward enough: It’s time we re-churched the church.
Next March I commence as the Senior Pastor of what will be my fourth church and coincidently, the day of my induction also falls on my 33rd anniversary in pastoral ministry.
I have been a pastor since I was 23 years old!
I have seen and learned a lot in that time and my view of the church today, now in my 50s, has matured greatly to what it was when I first stood before that tiny congregation in rural Queensland. Back then, I saw a lot of what I believed needed “straightening out” in how people were living their Christian lives and I was the man for the job!
These people “need to mature in Christ” was my catch cry.
And I needed to as well…I just didn’t see it myself at the time.
My point is plain enough. There are always going to be deficiencies, failings and immaturity in every local church.
There have always been and always will be churches who do community poorly. And there will always be a generation of Christians who will rise up and say, “We can do better!”
And I genuinely thank God for those who are willing to step out in faith and launch into fresh expressions of the local church. After all, surely that is what we would expect from a community that claims to have at it’s centre the Risen Jesus Who has made everything new?
But allow me to make some cautionary observations.
Think carefully about what you are looking for.
When people state that they are looking for a church “where we can all do life together and live in genuine community”, I am amazed at how undefined their idea is of what this actually looks like.
Usually the conversation turns to, “Well, we want to be like the Early Church was…you know?”
And my response usually is, “Which Early Church do you want to be then?”
Corinth was filled with partisanship, spiritual pride and sexual immorality.
The churches of Galatia struggled with legalism.
The church in Ephesus had to not only battle heresy but also the sin of gossip.
These are hardly the types of churches that we would hold up as our model for “doing life together” and yet, that is precisely what they are. These people were certainly doing life together, but it was life at its messiest and filled with shortcomings, immaturity and a distinct lack of love.
Yet Paul still called them saints, “holy, set apart ones” no less and he relentlessly called them to pursue and live a lifestyle worthy of the name.
So you want a Christian community like the Early Church? Great!
Just remember that “doing life together” is more than sitting in a circle, holding hands and singing “Kumbayah”.
Genuine Christian community is experiencing life when it is at its messiest and still loving each other.
Over a four year period in a church I was pastor of we ministered to over 200 men who had been broken by their sexual sin.
When it comes to mess – listening to the stories of men held in sexual bondage for most of their lives – it doesn’t come much messier than this. And well over 90% of them were Christians.
But out of it came genuine community. We learned to support each other, care for each other, pray for each other and hold each other accountable.
We did life together.
By all means, develop a church based on the Early Church. Just remember that it will involve a lot of mess and brokenness.
And that you do not simply “unchurch” the group when it is not living up to what your ideal is.
Remember why the church exists in the first place.
Deeper love for and fellowship with, each other is an admirable goal for all Christians.
But is not the only goal.
If you are seeking a fellowship which has as its primary aim the seeking out of other disillusioned Christians and who gather together to discuss the shortcomings of the established church, then please think again before you commit.
Fellowship is only one reason for the church.
There are also the important purposes of prayer, worship of the Risen Christ, teaching and mission. (See Acts 2:42).
The church exists for the express purpose of calling people from every nation, tongue and tribe to join a community of people who are intent on relationship with the loving God Who created and redeemed them.
The church calls out to all people everywhere to be a part of a community that is, I believe, God’s best hope for the world in seeing people restored to wholeness through a relationship with Jesus.
To belong to a community that has as its sole purpose the care of others “who think like us and are as fed up as us” is to aim too low.
Aim high! Shoot for God’s purposes and you will find that a loving community is the natural by-product.
Love the church you’re with!
“What?” I hear you cry! “Don’t you get it? The church I belong to does not know how to do community, much less know how to love each other and you’re telling me to love them?!”
So show them.
Show them how to love and how to love each other.
Among the many distinctly uncomfortable things that Jesus said, one of them jumps right out at you: “Love your neighbour as yourself”. (You choose the reference for this one – He said it a few times!)
He even went so far as to say, “Love your enemies”. (Matthew 5:44).
“Okay Lord. Loving Mother Teresa I get…but Donald Trump? Seriously?”
Jesus said that there are two distinct hallmarks of the servants of God:
Loving God seems to come quite naturally to us as believers. We are overwhelmed by His grace, love and compassion for us and our hearts open up to Him in love and devotion.
But our love and devotion is severely tested by the elderly person who scowls at us for sitting in “their” seat at church or the person who makes a point of seeking out the preacher every week in order to enlighten him about the shortcomings of his particular view of eschatology!
Nevertheless, we are called to love each other and to love each other well.
Paul’s remedy for the faction ridden church at Corinth? “Love each other!” (1 Corinthians 13).
In fact, he went so far as to say that the goal of all Scriptural teaching is that we love better; God and each other. ( 1 Timothy 1:3-5).
I love good Bible exposition but if it doesn’t challenge me, or the people I serve, to love God and people more, then what is the point?
So here is my radical thought. Rather than leave the church you are in because of its perceived failure to love and do life together, why not become an agent for change there?
In other words, love the church you’re with.
Believe me, like you, I have many reasons for un-churching the church. When I left the first church I pastored, I was disappointed. I had not given up on God, the church or ministry, but it is safe to say that I felt that the responsibility for the church’s problems lay with the people.
Were they spiritually and emotionally immature? Certainly! But so was I and thankfully, through the work of God in my own heart, I came to see that more clearly and I began to grow.
Over the course of my next two ministries, in Cairns and then Perth, I came to understand what it meant to love a group of people in spite of their flaws and shortcomings.
And I discovered that they loved me, with all of my own baggage, in return!
This change in me came about because I began to apply a truth that had been taught and modelled to me by two or three outstanding men in my life.
Rolling what they all said together into one short statement, it was this: “Be careful how you treat the church because Christ loved her and gave His life for her…”
Looking back, the moment I began to live that truth out was when, with faltering steps, I started loving God’s people, His church. I see now that it was also the moment when I and my ministry, began to mature.
Imagine what could happen in our churches if each of us took the bold step of trying to love each other well? I believe it would launch a spiritual revolution in the wider community that would realise the vision Francis Schaeffer had: “When the church is just a little of what it should be, people will come.”
Love the church you’re with!
Loving well is about being emotionally mature.
How we love God and each other says as much about our emotional maturity as it does our spiritual maturity.
And it also involves healthy boundaries.
While the idea of being part of a community that “does life together” sounds idyllic, it can also have a number of pitfalls. Geri Scazzero highlights this in her book, The Emotionally Healthy Woman. Speaking from experience, she explains how she often suppressed her own feelings of being stifled by so much community with others, including her own desire for personal space and reflection. In time, she learned that healthy community does not mean that you have to know everything about everyone or do everything with them. Its okay (and necessary) to set healthy boundaries for yourself and others and because you do, it does not follow that you are not loving others well.
In fact, emotionally and spiritually healthy people know how to set wise boundaries while still loving God and people well.
So you want a church community that loves well and does life together?
Great, because so do I!
Will you join with me then, in re-churching the church?