The family of God is a real and beautiful thing. Many of us tend to think of it in very abstract terms. It is the worldwide people of God. Yep, it is. It consists of all believers of all times and all places. True enough. It is eternal and universal. Totes. It is organic.
But we must wrestle with this: The Church is expressed through the local and concrete. It is specific people in a particular place. It has organization and structure. It gathers together for distinct purposes and it has a discernible mission. It has leadership. It has definable boundaries -- you can be inside of it or or outside of it, and you can know which you are.
We talk a lot today about being relational and about having community. We have mentors and coaches, and we have friends. We have prayer movements and we have mission movements. We have Bible studies and worship sets. But do we have church? Do we have what the first believers modeled for us? We have many of the activities of church: evangelism and prayer and worship and teaching. We try to fulfill the functions of church -- discipleship and extending the Kingdom. But we do so in a way that doesn't resemble the first churches. And we're missing out.
Community. Friends. Prayer movements. Worship sets. Bible studies. They are all good, and I don't want to take them away. But there is more! You need more, and you can have more. In fact, if you are going to change the world, you must have more. Not more as in, one more thing I should be doing. But more as in different. Enhanced. In fact, being part of an actual church family will help to reduce some of that scattered busyness that we confuse for spirituality and mission. It provides focus. It's an all-in-one.
You can have -- you must have -- more than a community of friends. You need a family of brothers and sisters. You can have more than teachers and mentors. You require fathers and mothers. You need more than segregated movements and activities. You are offered an integrated life that includes it all.
“Even if you had ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel.” -- 1 Corinthians 4:15 NIV
Many of you are living scattered lives. You are consumers of spiritual experience. You do prayer with this set of folks, mission with another, teaching via podcasts from your favorite guru, and maybe hang out socially with another group. Or, if it is all combined in one, full-package group of wonderful people, you insist that it must be only organic, not organizational. It must be free-flowing, not structured. Come and go (of course, as led by the Spirit), but no commitment. Do what you think best, but no submission. You "welcome" all, but in reality only accept those like you to be part of the inner circle.
If this is your life, you are not being discipled. Jesus didn't inaugurate a prayer movement and a missions movement and a discipleship movement. He launched a church movement that encompasses them all. Paul's method of discipleship was simple. Local churches. Churches that were families of believers, filled with the Holy Spirit, entrusted with the Word of God, and mandated to proclaim the gospel and make disciples.
I have a radical proposal for you. Why can't your real, distinct, local spiritual family be your house of prayer and your mission organization and your community?
You have chosen Kingdom passions, and God has given you world-changing dreams. You are ready to sacrifice all, and to spend yourself for the mission of Jesus. I sincerely honor you for this, and your vision inspires me. But I have to plead with you, don't try this alone. Don't think your loose and unstructured group of friends will get you there. You have to have the church. The real, visible, local, church. Not a building and not a corporation, but a spiritual family.
I need to add a disclaimer here. When I say church, I am not referring to a place you go on Sunday mornings to sing a few songs, watch the gifted ones minister, write a check, hug a couple of people, and then go out to lunch. Maybe you do gather on Sunday mornings, worship, receive teaching, give, and have some fellowship. But that is only a couple of hours in a full week of life and ministry together. You know these people, and are known by them. You serve together, and your gifts are needed. You are loved. You belong. You hang out together and dream together and pray together and serve together and proclaim the gospel together. You encourage one another and correct one another and support one another and take care of one another.
This is the church. Of course -- and here's where it gets tough -- the church is also other things. It is a family that fully includes the arrogant gossip, the annoying drama queen, and those bratty kids. The argumentative theology student, the lazy millennial, the over-enthusiastic vegan evangelist, and the pyramid scheme schemer. It's made up of the carnal hipster clique who spend their time watching sketchy movies and drinking beer. The social justice zealot who just wants to stick it to the man. The sickeningly happy dating couple who rarely seem to come up for a breath. It includes the social media whiner and the enraged political activist. The depressed and the anxious. The guy who is negative about everything, and the one who cannot admit to anything but happiness and positivity. People who know nothing about the Bible and scoff at your 'quiet time.' People who know everything about the Bible and love to stuff it down your throat. And it includes you. So deal with it. Seriously. This is family.
We need the local church, if for no other reason, to force us into the messy reality of... reality. You can't just live your life with the awesome people, the people who agree with you, the theologically correct, the fully compatible, the spiritually mature, the this-is-the-best-family-ever-s. You need the ordinary run-of-the-mill rascals like us. Because these are the ones Jesus uses to change the freaking world.
Think about the following questions:
* With whom did you take your last missions trip?
* With whom did you participate in your last local outreach?
* Who do you hang out with when you have leisure time?
* Who do you turn to when you need something?
* What biblical teacher has the most influence on you?
* Who counsels you when you are hurting / confused / in need of direction?
* With whom do you mostly pray?
If the answer to most of these questions has nothing to do with your local church, let me suggest some re-alignment work. Your foundation may be off. You are surrounded by people, but you are in fact a loner. You decide which ministries you participate in. You decide what teachings you want to hear. You decide who to hang out with and where to get help. You are in control. You're living like you have no family. Like an orphan.
Now, maybe you're in college or a discipleship program, and you have been engaging in the above activities through various campus ministries and outreaches. That is really good, and it is what God is using for you in this season. But it is temporary. One day you're going to move out of the dorms, and the training wheels will come off. And you will need the church. Let your experiences now ruin you for the ordinary. And understand that the church is the long-term solution. You need it!
"But I'm doing great!" My life is fruitful! I'm loving Jesus and making Him known!" I know! Way to go! But what if I told you that you could bring even more glory to the Father? And that what you're doing apart from the local church may be unsustainable? There will be cracks. Instability. I am talking about so much more than a "spiritual covering." More than finding a church to attend regularly because you have to. More than getting a local church pastor to say that they like what you're doing, and will try and support and help you. I am talking about an all-of-life walk with the same people for a long time.
In order for this family to truly be what you need to change the world, consider the following four characteristics. These are not meant to be the definition of a church, but these must be included if this is going to work in the long term.
First, there must be commitment. This is not a situation where you can just show up when you want, give according to your mood, and serve however you feel led. There are expectations that become priorities in your life. You are counted on. Your engagement is required. At specific times and for specific events. You will re-orient your life around this family and it's God-given mission. You are committed to this group of people, and you will not abandon them when relationships become difficult, when you don't get to use your gifts as you desire, or when you've found a better group. This ceases to be about you and your needs, and you realize you are in something for the long haul that is bigger than you. Of course, you may eventually leave -- but you will be sent out intentionally for the sake of the Kingdom, not simply wander off to a new thing.
Secondly, there must be leadership. The New Testament church is led by elders. This is family language. It speaks to the maturity and experience of those who lead. This is no random, unstructured group of friends. Families have moms and dads. There is order. There are different roles that must be filled. There are those who have been given responsibility for the family -- though in another sense all are responsible together. Yes, there is equality of value and equality of belonging. Absolutely. This is essential! But not everyone has the same role or exercises the same authority. This is also key. Study the New Testament, and you can't miss this.
Many of you have mentors and teachers that are wonderful and whom you greatly respect. They care for you and support you and encourage you. But they only know, for the most part, what you tell them. I'm sure you're honest and open, but it's still just your perspective. They do have the insight of the Holy Spirit, which is truly powerful. But still, mentors and teachers are different from fathers and mothers. God has made you for family. Fathers and mothers are those who see your messy bedroom and know what time you got home last night. They know if you are lazy or diligent, reliable or flaky. And they still love you and believe in you.
Thirdly, there must be submission. You are called to entrust yourself to this family. They must be able to hold you accountable, and even to discipline you when needed. They can correct and rebuke, and you are committed to humbly submitting. Of course, this is a mutual submission. You are part of the group that the others are submitting to as well. Even leaders -- especially leaders -- submit to the group as a whole, and can be called to account.
I serve in leadership with a group of elders in a local church. Although I am the senior leader in the group, I am submitted to the others. I promise them, for example, that I will not leave the church to pursue a different ministry or vocation or location, unless the elders agree with me that this is what God is calling me to do. Does that feel risky? Absolutely. I'm trusting my life to them! But in reality they are my safety net. They will not allow me to jump ship based on anything less than God's call. I need that.
Finally, I urge you to ensure there is a common purpose. You are committed, there is leadership, and you are submitted because there is something bigger than you at stake. All of you are unified in the conviction that this family exists, not to just care for and love one another, but to make the gospel known and to invite in and welcome the Father's lost ones. You are determined to find your mission together, and to pursue it with all your heart. You submit individual dreams and aspirations, only to see them enlarged as you throw them in the mix with everyone else's. You are "striving together as one for the faith of the gospel." (Phil 1:27).
So, attach yourself to a local church. Remember that your church is more a matter of a calling than a choice. It is more about service than preference. Let your roots go down deep in the good soil of spiritual family. Don't settle for a church to attend. Find a family to join. Take the risk. Please.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.