Today’s question comes from Sharon. She writes: “I believe, when a person becomes a Christian, they automatically become a member of the Church Universal, made up of all Christians. So, my question is, why is it important to become a member of a local church?”
Sharon, what a GREAT question. Your timing couldn’t have been better – as I’ve been thinking a lot about this matters since our church is heading into its annual membership season which happens during Lent each year.
“Why join a local church?”
Because the experience of joining a local church can give you an understanding of discipleship like nothing else on the planet. Let me unpack that a bit for you.
Over the years I’ve noticed something interested about us human beings. It’s easy for us to grasp ideas on an abstract level. We can talk about helping the poor, for instance, and say that’s a good thing. It’s another thing, however, when a homeless person – struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome and smelling badly since he/she hasn’t been able to shower in days – walks into a meeting we are in and starts making a ruckus. We can also talk about having a compassionate approach to immigration in one breath, only to find ourselves railing about those “foreigners” when a child or grandchild loses out on a job to someone born in another country.
In other words, embracing ideas in the abstract is easy. Actually living out those values is something else!
Same thing goes with our spiritual lives.
It is sooooooooooooo easy for folks to talk about the values of Jesus. We can say, for instance, that Jesus reached across lines (i.e. gender, race, religion) to love others and so should we. It’s another thing to REALLY love someone who sits beside us in our weekly Bible study and hear them talk about the nature of Scripture in ways that make us squirm. We can also say that we are all about forgiveness. It’s another thing to live it when someone at the church council meeting speaks in vehement opposition to a mission project we love deeply and attacks us personally for our support of that mission!
Life in a specific Christian community forces us to move beyond rhetoric and put those words into practice.
“Okay,” you might be thinking, “I can see why it’s important to PARTICIPATE in a local church. But why JOIN?!”
Here’s where the life and ministry of Jesus is particularly helpful.
When Jesus was forming the first expression of Christian community with his disciples, he asked them to make a commitment: a commitment to follow him in a particular time, and in a particular place. In return, Jesus made a commitment to them!
In the years that followed, I’m sure both parties wondered if they had done the right thing. Jesus was constantly frustrated by the disciples and their inability to “get it”. Their argument about which of them could sit on his right hand … Their inability to effect healings … Peter’s three-fold denial in the courtyard…
Likewise, there were days when the disciples – too – were frustrated and probably second-guessed their commitment. The days when Jesus expected them to feed thousands with a couple loaves of bread and a few fish … The days when Jesus embarrassed them by creating a ruckus in the Temple with the money changers … The hours following Jesus crucifixion …
But something powerful happened because that raggedly band of followers came together and promised to share their life and their faith with each other through thick and thin. That commitment to a specific community generated a powerful understanding of discipleship (i.e. “what it means to follow Jesus”) that changed the world forever. Those disciples could NEVER had developed such a depth of faith if they had spiritual-leader hopped (the ancient equivalent of modern “church shopping”) – and simply followed Jesus until someone/something better came along.
That’s why I’m such a STROOOOOOOOOONG supporter of joining a local church. I want people to join a local church NOT to benefit an institution. I want them to join a local church because that experience (as maddeningly and joyful as it can sometimes be) helps people grow in their understanding of discipleship like nothing else.
So what about you? What do you think?