Called to stay?

It’s funny, isn’t it, how eventually some mature Christians leave one church and move to another in their locality.  They are not moving because they have relocated for work or other reasons.  In fact, they still live where they always did.  It’s just their church home that they moved.

Sometimes I ask what is at the bottom of this.  What motivates some in their determination to move on?

I’d like to suggest two possible interconnected roots to this occurrence. One is a belief that we are entitled to have our perceived needs met.  The other is that mission hurts.  Let me explain what I mean.

Have you noticed that often, as Christians, we have this belief that church should meet our perceived needs?  Only we don’t call them ‘perceived needs’.  We say that they are real, proper bona fide needs.

And so, for some of us, it’s a perceived need for in-depth teaching on topics which tickle our ears.  We want to hear about prophecy or the end times or some esoteric point on something even more obscure.  And we kid ourselves that it is because we want to become mature.  Yet we reject teaching on basic holiness because ‘we’ve heard it all before’.  Hmm, but do we forget that the measure of our holiness is the degree to which we live what we know?

For others of us, it’s a need for friendship that we think the church should meet for us.  We become bitter that the pastor hasn’t called us or that no one talked to us on Sunday.  And, no, the fact that we didn’t make the effort to speak to anyone on Sunday or call them mid-week is definitely not part of the problem!

And so when our needs are not met, as will invariably be the case(!), we become restless.  We start to say that the church doesn’t really ‘suit us as a family anymore’.

Yet the real issue at hand is one of discipleship.  We think that we are entitled.  We think that the church exists for the good of me.  And for the good of my children.  And so we say: ‘well, this church is not feeding me or meeting my needs’.  Or perhaps we convince ourselves that we need to find another church for the sake of our children – which, of course, makes it sound all a little more noble!

But, brothers and sisters, where does it say that church exists for me?  Where does it say that my brothers and sisters should serve me and that I am entitled to demand that or move to a different local expression of the body to get what I want?

For still others of us, it’s the second root cause though.  Mission hurts and the church demands more than I can give.  Or maybe not exactly more than I can give…just more than I am willing to give.  We are tired of serving, tired of giving and we think that it’s fair enough to expect the ‘young ones’ to step up and take the weight.  This is where I am right now, after six years of serving endlessly in a young church.

But when I am tempted to wallow, when I am tempted to think of the nice churches all around me which would allow me to ‘sit and receive’, I ask myself one thing: ‘when did God ever say that mission would be easy?’

And then, hard on the heels of that question, comes the next: ‘where does it say that mission is an option for the people of God?’

This second root cause is one to which mature believers are perhaps more vulnerable.  The excitement of the mission has worn off.  We’ve come to realise that actually we don’t like to go to a church which pours out its strength in order to be a place that non-Christians love to be.

(Of course, even in Jesus’ day, the religious establishment never liked the kinds of communities that welcomed sinners either.  But that was exactly the kind of community Jesus established by eating with outsiders.  And it was exactly the kind of Jesus-community that God intended his church to be!)

And so, because church has become too much like hard work, we start to convince ourselves that God doesn’t require mission of us at our stage of life right now (with work/the children/whatever other excuse we come up with) and, even more worryingly, that if we change churches, the rest of the believers will not miss us.  But it is that last element of the thought process which is so completely mistaken.

First of all, mission is not a work for some; it is for all.  And, secondly, if a church is committed to welcoming the lost and providing a community of acceptance like the community Jesus instigated, then it needs all the mature saints it can get.  The church community may look healthy, growing, big even.  But if the majority of that community comprises new believers and non-believers, then mature saints are indispensable.  When a church is a lifeboat, it needs all its lifeboat crew!

I see this in our church context.  Of 45-50 adults, I can name five or six who are probably not believers.  I can name another fifteen to twenty probably who have become Christians in the last four or five years.  That leaves about twenty more mature believers (maybe half of whom are under 26 years of age) who have the experience to man the lifeboat as it goes out to gather yet more of the drowning.  The newer believers are still only learning to man the lifeboat.  And the non-Christians never will until they come to faith.  So if we, as mature believers, bail out by going to a church where they don’t need us as much, then what happens?

Hear me please: I understand that the pressures of life conspire against us to drag us down, to convince us that mission through the local church is for those who have time and that it is enough to serve a little bit in a church that doesn’t really need me.  But as one who pilots one of these lifeboats, I have to ask this:

  • Who will take the risk of staying in the communities where if we don’t man the lifeboat no one else will?
  • Who will commit their life to mission, not only in the workplace and the home but also to building churches which make non-believers think that they have come home?
  • Who will commit their hearts and lives to a community which may never meet their needs yet which fulfils the mission of God by demonstrating his love to sinners?
  • And who will do this not just for a season but for as long as it takes?

Maybe I am old before my time but I see Christians everywhere who are generous with time, with money, with possessions and yet who find it hard to commit their lives to a community of saints.  So many believers claim that they are just passing through, that God will soon have something better for them to do than serve in this local church, that God will not mind if they take things easy and let everyone else serve them.

Please, let me ask you to think this one through.  If you are called to another church community, then you are called and you must go.  But be careful that the language of ‘calling’ is not used to justify running away when mission is hard and the church seems to ask more of you than it ever gives back to you!

As for me, I know that I am called to stay.  I can’t promise that I won’t moan.  I have already had moments where I have whinged to God about this having taken all the years of my twenties.  I’m not proud of those complaints and yet I know they will not be my last ones on this issue.  But, you know, unless he speaks clearly to send me somewhere else I suspect that this church may have all my thirties too…and the rest, probably!

The mission of God as expressed in community is harder than you ever thought possible.  And it will break you in more ways than you ever signed up for.  (Someone should put this in the altar call prayer small print!)  But, in the end, I am convinced that it will have been beautiful in God’s eyes.

Let’s make disciples of all nations by building Christ-communities that feel more like home for sinners than perhaps they do for the religious people.  Don’t let’s choose the easier path of joining churches that cater exclusively for those religious people (that’s you and me!)…

…the glory lies in the other direction.

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