I was sitting at the funeral dinner last weekend. I was talking with the daughter of the deceased, and another mutual friend, about all sorts of things, as you do. We were catching one another up on life and opportunities and paths we were on and such like. They were very interested in this new twist in the road I was on in ministry and asked lots of questions about it. Then suddenly, one of them sat back and said, “I’m worried about you.” “What? Why” I said. “Well,” came the reply, “think about it. Yes, you’ve moved lots of times, but until now everywhere you’ve gone you moved into a community of faith who welcomed you and included you and La Donna and the kids into their family. You had a network of people there to help you find a way forward through a new place. But now you’re going to an office. Sure it’s ministry, and they may even become friends, but they live all over Nashville and probably worship in different churches. So, you’re going to have to find a church home for the first time in your life!”
I hadn’t thought that much about it, to be honest. For a while we were working under the assumption that I would be appointed to a weekend church somewhere in addition to my full time job so the community would be built in again as we moved. Then when we discovered that it wasn’t going to happen because of the Conference situation and the needs down there, we were stressed about how to find a house and an area of the city or the surrounds to live in that we hadn’t thought much about the church where we would worship.
That we would worship didn’t even need to be said. It is built in. I read recently an article about a group of “church leaders” who were no longer worshiping regularly in a local church. They had kind of given up on the church, even while they were still training pastors and speaking about the value of the faith community all the time. Seemed ironic if not hypocritical to me. I guess I can understand. These days there is a lot of giving up on the beleaguered institution of the church. Some are feeling like the church is abandoning them. Some feel like they no longer recognize what the church is or has become. So, I get it.
But then, no I don’t get it. Is the church a disappointment? Sure, often. Is the church a place of brokenness and failure? Certainly, it reeks of it. But is the church a glimpse of the Kingdom of God, at least once in a while? Of course. And that’s why it is worth hanging in there. Or finding a community where you can find your way. It isn’t really negotiable.
Hebrews 10:19-25 Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
The Letter to the Hebrews has an interesting history. First considered one of Paul’s letters, but then that was quickly debunked, even in the years after it first appeared. But nonetheless, it was considered to have authority in the church which is why it was included in the canon, even without a clear Apostolic authorship. In other words, it just made sense.
Those who have read and studied Hebrews might argue with the “it just made sense” designation. There is a lot that is confusing and or convoluted to our modern way of thinking. But if you dig down and stick with it, there is so much that lifts the spirit and guides our steps. And the view of Jesus, the Christology, is higher and more grand than in any other book in the Bible. So, it is worth the effort of reading it.
These verses remind us that we need one another. The following chapter is probably the most famous from the letter, and it waxes eloquent about the people of faith throughout history who live a life of faith as an example for all those who follow behind. And then the next chapter is the one that reminds us of the cloud of witnesses who cheer us on and bring us to run with perseverance the race that is set before us. And if you just read chapters eleven and twelve, you might come to the conclusion that this cloud is all those who are no longer with us. Those who have gone before and now we can read about them and gain inspiration from them. All of which is true, but not the whole story. If you read chapter ten, particularly the verses I chose to highlight, then you will see that the cloud of witnesses includes those who are around us now. Those friends of the heart with whom we may communicate electronically more than physically now because of distance and divergence of paths. But they remain important to us, instrumental to us despite that distance. But then there is also the community of faith with whom we worship week by week. Let us not be “neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some.” This leaving church phenomenon isn’t new, apparently.
But let’s buck the trend, let’s hang together. Let’s be the church. And the purpose, according to Hebrews anyway, of being the church together, of meeting together, is for encouragement. Not for reprimand, not for condemnation, but for building one another up. And, of course, that will call for transformation, for repentance and a new start. But that always happens best inside the church, alongside those who are also being transformed. Deciding who can come in and who isn’t welcome isn’t the remit of the church anyway. Our job is to welcome, and then encourage all.
So, I’ll learn to worship as one who sits in the pew again, next to my wife – yeah, that’ll be weird for both of us. But we’ll get there. And we’ll find a church that fits us, that cares about the things we care about, that speaks about the things we need to hear and to say. It may take a while, this is important. And yes, there may be reasons for leaving the church you’ve been a part of for a while. Relocation reasons, for example. Or maybe the Spirit has left that church, it does happen. Maybe things have gotten so toxic it isn’t really functioning as a church anymore. We humans are capable of fouling even the most godly things. But you still need a community. You still need a family around you to encourage you, to challenge you, to build you up. And the church can be that place for you.
I’m not giving up on the church. I pray you won’t either.