I was initially going to apologize to Joshua Harris for stealing the title from his previous book, but after I wrote this post I discovered he had written a whole book on this topic as well. Click here to get a copy of his book, Stop Dating the Church.
Moving to college was the first time I had to find a new church. My situation was probably similar to many who read this blog. I was 18 and was always part of my family’s church. In fact, we were dedicated members of my home church. My parents were both involved in ministry leadership, my mom played the piano, and I occasionally led worship. From childhood, my life centered around the weekly rhythms of corporate worship, fellowship, and service. Those were the bedrock activities of life and everything else was filled in around that foundation. At the time, I did not realize how significant this way of life was to my spiritual well-being.
College was different. I went to an excellent Christian university, and unlike many who found themselves in a spiritual vacuum with no Christian friends, I was inundated with spiritual stuff. Instead of having no options, I had way too many options. There were dozens of Bible studies, campus ministries, outreach groups, Christian organizations, and of course churches. Good local churches were numbered in the dozens in close proximity to my university.
I knew I was supposed to be involved in ministry, and I knew I was supposed to “go to church.” After all, that is what good Christians did. So, I began to sample the buffet of avenues for Christian service and “check out” churches. Weeks turned into months, and months turned into semesters. Before I knew it, I was a junior in college and I did not have a church home. Now, to be clear, I was sitting in a pew most every Sunday and I regularly attended studies, worship services, prayer gatherings, and service activities. However, I floated from one local church to the next, from one campus ministry to the next, trying to find where God wanted me to be.
As one of the guys I pastor with says, I was “dating the church,” and that was a big mistake.
It took me until to my junior year to realize the damage that had been done. I could not understand how, in the middle of such fine ministry opportunities, I had stagnated in my love and worship of the Lord. And yet, here I was, realizing that my spiritual growth had actually stunted by moving into this Evangelical oasis.
I learned a tough lesson at the end of my college experience: there is no such thing as a lone ranger Christian. The good news of the kingdom is not simply that I am saved from my own sin, but that Christ is creating a people for his own glory. That people is placed on mission. When I was raised to walk in a new life, I was raised to do so alongside God’s called-out people. The church is this called-out assembly, and my mission is to be part of the church’s mission.
The church stands at the middle of God’s plan to reveal his mysteries to the world. It is through the church that the manifold wisdom of God is made known (Eph. 3:10). But how does that take place? Simply put, God’s church exists all over the world in little, local congregations. These congregations are the church, and every, single Christian on the planet is supposed to be a part of one.* I serve Christ best in and through one of these local assemblies, and so do you. No matter what kind of good work you are doing, if you are doing it apart from the local church then you are doing it outside of God’s plan.
During college, I placed a desire to find my own, individual path from God ahead of a biblical understanding of the church and its role in God’s mission. In the process, my relationship with Christ’s church became casual, like a dating relationship. I was far from committed, and when I found other ministries that I thought suited my fancy I would drift there for a while. Ironically, it was this search for spiritual fulfillment that pulled me away from a life-giving connection to God’s community.
At the time, I viewed church as an event instead of a community. It was a thing I needed to attend, because God wanted me to. This poor understanding of church allowed me to think I could actually find God’s will for my life apart from a local church. Of course, this was a dead end. Over the years, I have had countless students step foot into my office confused about God’s plan for their life. It is an all-too-common situation, and one to which most of us can relate. Unfortunately, I regularly meet students who are searching for a unicorn. They are waiting on some mystic word from God about his plans for their life.
What they really need is to roll up their sleeves and get involved in the plan God has already established in his church. It should come as no surprise that the clearest path to our purpose is found in the center of God’s plan in the church. When I was a junior in college, I never imagined where God would take me. The plans I laid out for myself are far afield from where I find myself today. Once I stopped dating the church and committed to her, God used my service to Christ’s bride to lay out my steps before me.
*I understand there are many places in the world without local congregations. However, individual believers in places with no local congregations is not the ideal presented in Scripture. The Bible assumes membership in a local congregation, even for those sent to places without established churches, and the goal of our efforts should be establishing churches where there are none.