It was August 2002, on the high plains of Waco, Texas. I was 18 years old, a freshman at Baylor University, and 500 miles from my all-my-life home of South Louisiana. I still have vivid memories of saying goodbye to my parents as they got in the car and left me, for the first time, on my own with the responsibility to make some substantial choices for myself.
Those choices and questions were obviously many, but one that still stands out starkly in my mind is this- Where and how do I find a good church? And what do I do when I get there? For every day of my 18+ years up to that point, that wasn’t a choice I had to make or a question I had to answer. I simply went with Mom and Dad- Sunday mornings, Sunday evenings, Wednesday evenings too, with the occasional extra opportunity thrown in too. Yes, we were one of those families, and despite what you may have heard about those families, my experience was fantastic- and incredibly formational to who I am today. I wouldn’t trade what my parents taught and modeled when it comes to the value of the local church in the life of a Jesus follower for anything.
But back in Waco, in those fading summer days of 2002, I didn’t have anyone to answer my question for me. I had to go out and find what I was looking for. To make a not-that-long-anyway story even shorter, it didn’t take me long to connect to a great church with a great community of Jesus-loving college students and adult leaders. Over the next four years, the people I met there would invite me, encourage me, challenge me, and occasionally make me uncomfortable (in the best way) as they sought to spur me on in my now-adult faith in Jesus. The experience was invaluable.
Now, as a pastor, I’m on the other side, encountering many people on a day-to-day basis who are asking the same questions I was- Where can I find a good church? And what am I supposed to do when I get there? And unfortunately, I’m concerned in far too many cases- not only for first timers, but also for “long timers”- the first question people are asking to “filter” their choices regarding the local church is setting them up for failure before they even begin.
This question is one of enjoyment, generally phrased like this- How much do I enjoy it? On the surface, this doesn’t seem like a bad question to ask; it actually seems pretty wise to consider. And to be fair, it is a question that has its place. Certainly no one is out looking for a church family which they find to be lifeless, meaningless, and miserable. But beneath the surface of this seemingly innocuous approach lies a mindset that can often undermine the place of the local church in our lives- and our joy in being a part of her.
Here’s what I mean- Often, we interact with the local church much like we interact with our favorite restaurant. We like the “menu” (e.g. preaching, music, kids’ programs); we appreciate the quality service; we get to know the other “regulars”; we even have our favorite places to sit! If any of these variables were to change in our favorite restaurant- say, they took our favorite item off the menu, or our favorite server found a job elsewhere- we would likely just find another place to eat. Substitute “restaurant” with grocery store, salon, gym, etc, and you have a pretty accurate picture of how we function in a consumer-centered culture.
So what’s the problem, then, and how does this impact our view of the church? Breathing the air of our consumer culture, we very naturally- almost unthinkingly- ask the church to treat us as our favorite restaurant does. “Keep my favorite items on the menu.” “Make sure the service is always up to par.” “Don’t let anyone else sit in ‘my seat’!” You get the idea. And when the first, most important question we ask of the church has everything to do with our enjoyment, we quickly become disillusioned by things- and people– that fail to meet our expectations (which they always, eventually, inevitably will). And because we are so accustomed to responding to such disappointments by just filling in that “gap” with some other seemingly promising alternative, we jump from church to church to church- and in some cases, tragically and most destructively, to no local church at all. And in the end, it is our soul that suffers the loss.
I’m more and more convinced that we need to shift our first question- from one of enjoyment, to one of engagement. Rather than asking first, How much do I enjoy it?, we ought to consider, How much can I engage? Rather than approaching with a consumer mindset- which almost always eventually becomes a critical mindset- we should approach the church with the perspective of a contributor. That doesn’t mean that sound, biblical preaching (or quality ministry to kids and students, or compelling opportunities to worship, grow, etc) aren’t important; it simply means that rather than expending our energy pointing out all the church’s problems, we commit to rolling up our sleeves with our brothers and sisters in Jesus to become an integral part of the solution. Rather than backing away from these tensions, we choose to lean in, taking our place in the “body of Christ,” as 1 Corinthians 12 calls it, or the “household of God,” as it is defined in Ephesians 2.
In your favorite restaurant, or grocery store, or salon, or gym, you likely don’t have that opportunity- or that responsibility. But in the local church, you undeniably, absolutely do. Enjoyment isn’t a bad thing, but it is never enough; God has put us together for far more than just that. Examine your heart today; ask God to show you how have applied consumeristic standards to your life in the local church; and consider what it would look like to ask that first, most important question instead- How can I engage?
Returning to Waco one last time, the truth is, I didn’t really know what I was doing when I looked for a church for the first time. I knew it was important, but I didn’t really know how important. I knew it could be beneficial, but I didn’t really know how beneficial. It was only by God’s grace that He connected me quickly to people who would invite me to walk with them as they walked with Jesus and taught me how to do the same in a brand new season of my life. They invited me to do more than enjoy the church; they invited and challenged me to engage. I invite you now to do the same.