Three Misunderstandings about the Church that Muddle the Mission
Growing up, I was at church almost every time the doors were open: Sunday morning, most Sunday evenings, Wednesday evenings, and special events. Unless I was sick, my parents rarely let me miss church. For the most part, I actually wanted to be at church every time I was there. But, there were some Sundays that came after long Saturdays of dance competitions or late Saturday nights with friends, and I wanted to sleep in rather than go to church. And I never really understood why it was a big deal to miss one Sunday every once in a while.
Now that I’m an adult, I’m grateful my parents took me to church that much, even if it was forced sometimes. I look back on my attitude toward church when I was a kid and know I didn’t really understand what church was supposed to be. In fact, I’m still learning about what the church is supposed to be.
I grew up in an established, traditional church. I was part of a launch team for a church plant after college. In seminary, I joined a young church a few years after it planted, which grew quickly. And now I am in a small church that was planted seven years ago. All of these churches are different, and context does affect a church environment. But in each case, there are always varying levels of commitment among church members. I am still young, so my experience is limited. However, there are three common attitudes I’ve noticed among church members that probably need to be corrected:
Church should be consumed.
The adage “20% of the people do 80% of the work” is often very obvious in a church setting. There are various reasons why church members might not serve the church regularly. Some may have health issues. Some may work jobs that have them traveling or working on Sundays (like the hospital system). But serving the church is not relegated to just being present at a Sunday service. While some members may not be able to attend every Sunday morning service, there are other ways they can serve the church during the week, from helping with administrative tasks to hosting a small group.
However, many others come to the church to consume. These are the same people that church hop because they’re “just not getting anything out of the service” or “there are just not enough programs for my kids” or “they just aren’t connecting with other members.” These are the people that will always find something they’re not content with in their current church.
No church is perfect, but consuming church is “me-centered” and contrary to everything we learn about the church in Scripture. Acts is full of stories of church members sharing possessions and serving others sacrificially. In addition, the church’s purpose is to make disciples, not simply provide spiritual nourishment or meet the felt needs of its members. While certainly the church does aid in our spiritual development, we as believers and church members hold a measure of responsibility in the church’s mission.
Church should be the location of ministry and mission.
This goes beyond the “church is not a building” argument. Many who know the church is not a building may still adopt this attitude. This one is tricky because on a surface level, it doesn’t seem wrong. This is why many churches adopt a “come and see” model of mission. They create programs for people of all ages, host fun activities for various holidays, or build gyms and coffee shops. These are done with good intentions—churches often host these events and build these amenities for the purpose of inviting nonbelievers who may not come for a Sunday service. However, what ends up happening is that most of the people who come are existing church members. Fact is, most nonbelievers are not going to spend their free time at a church building, regardless of what’s going on.
When we misunderstand church as a location, not a community of people on mission together, we run the risk of becoming insular. We end up spending most of our time teaching existing members everything Jesus commanded and not enough time making new disciples. Certainly, teaching and training are an important part of the church’s mission, but we cannot neglect the outward mission of making disciples of all nations. And this requires going out of the church building to the places nonbelievers spend their time.
To be clear, I’m not saying that churches absolutely shouldn’t have a gym or a school. But, members of churches with these amenities need to be cautious of doing their entire life within the church building. A strong church community is important, but it should be oriented around the church’s mission, not around its amenities.
Church should fit into our work-home-family-life balance.
This seems to be the most common attitude among my own generation. We are all about finding that perfect balance in our life: working enough but not too much, resting, spending time with our family and friends, getting enough exercise, and fitting church into all of that. However, this search for harmony is a fool’s errand when we misunderstand what church is, compartmentalize it, and place it alongside these other life categories. Church is not an event; it is a community of Christians serving together on mission. When Christians treat church as one more time commitment, it is often the first thing to go when the balance gets off. After all, you can’t get fired from your church. I especially notice it among students—when they get behind on homework, their church small group is suddenly low on the priority list.
The trouble with trying to find a balance is that it’s very hard to achieve when the things we’re trying to balance are all isolated events. We go to work. Then we come home and rest. We try to make time to go to dinner with friends. We go to Bible study. We eat dinner with our families. But if you’re like me, your time is never as structured as you want it to be. So, we often have to cut or cancel things to maintain a perceived balance.
Instead, we should both prioritize the church and weave it into the fabric of our daily lives. When we do that, our family time includes other church members. Our time at the gym becomes a way of meeting nonbelievers and sharing the gospel with them. The worship service reminds us to find rest in the One we’re worshipping, even in the busyness of our lives.