Learning to Love the Church
I have a confession. I love the church! This may not sound profound upon an initial hearing, but let me give you some of my history because for me to say “I love the church” is quite radical if you know my story.
I had what you might call a nominal religious upbringing. Church was a very small part of my childhood, but I quit going to church when I was thirteen. The pastor yelled at me and my friend Alex for fooling around in the back of church during a service. I was so embarrassed that I left church that night and never returned to any church for five years. During those five years, my life spiraled into a world of drugs and alcohol. By the grace of God, a Campus Crusade for Christ area director led me to Christ shortly before I graduated from high school.
After attending a Campus Crusade for Christ summer conference in Colorado, I learned that Christ-followers were supposed to belong to local churches where they could worship, serve, give, and grow as a disciple. So in the summer of 1978, I began attending a local United Methodist church that was in the midst of tremendous growth. This was at the height of the charismatic renewal movement.
In that church, I began to grow as a Christian. In that church, I began to sense the stirrings of the Spirit calling me into pastoral ministry. In that church, my calling was affirmed and confirmed, and from that church I was sent to Asbury College and Asbury Seminary to prepare myself for a lifetime of local church ministry as a United Methodist pastor.
Upon graduation and ordination, I began ministry in the local church. And little did I know it but an underlying bias was soon to confront me—I despised the church. In spite of a life-saving conversion, in spite of a wonderful local church where I was discipled and called to ministry, in spite of a wonderful theological and practical education where I was prepared for parish ministry, I hated the local church. The church was at best a necessary evil for me to endure while I went about saving souls for Jesus.
Some of the more cynical might say that my disdain for the church was legitimate. And to some degree the cynics are right. There are so few examples of vital biblical churches in America. I had little to no exposure to a church that functioned with Kingdom purposes and values. Most of my experiences were in churches that often majored in minors and wallowed in minutia.
Some of my more sociologically minded friends might say that my local church dis-ease was a function of my age and demographic crowd. Baby boomers have been called an anti-institution age group, and I am one. My generation is hardwired to be distrustful and skeptical of government, industry, schools, and religious organizations.
But something like a second conversion happened for me. Three encounters led me to question my bias. The first encounter happened in 1992 when I was appointed to Christ Church United Methodist, Fort Lauderdale, to serve with Dick Wills. Christ Church was in the embryonic days of her turnaround. God was up to something new in that place, and every once in a while I began to catch a glimpse of a high functioning, biblical church. I could feel a new move of the Spirit that began to confront my deeply ingrained bias against the local church.
Second, I began to hear the stories of congregations that were doing church in a fresh and new way. I first heard of places within my denomination like Christ Church in Memphis, Tennessee, and Frazer in Montgomery, Alabama. Then my horizons were lifted to places like Willow Creek in Chicago and Saddleback in southern California. Each encounter challenged and confronted my anti-local church bias.
Finally, I began to read the Bible differently. It was as if the Spirit gave me a new set of lenses with which to read. I began to see that I had been guilty of theological shortsightedness. The Bible painted a picture of the local church that is the hope of the world. The biblical picture of the church was of a pure Bride adorned for her Bridegroom, of the Body of Christ functioning symbiotically and effectively for Kingdom ends, of a like-minded people linked together by a common allegiance to Jesus and his Kingdom who worked together for the loving takeover of planet Earth.
God used the church I was serving and other Kingdom-minded local churches and his Word to slowly, yet efficiently, transform my bias. In my heart and mind, the church was no longer a thing of disdain or hate, but rather an instrument of delight and honor. My first conversion was to Jesus and my second one was to his Bride, the church.
Friends, I really love the church! She is no longer a necessary evil for me. Instead, I now am devoted to helping her come alive in all her beauty. I have committed the rest of my life to building a highly vital biblical church that honors God and helps people. If you asked me to name the number one thing I preach and teach on, it’s the church. I stay awake at night dreaming of ways to grow a highly vital biblical local church. It’s my one driving passion!
And, yet, I am a realist. I understand that leading a church, whether you are clergy or laity, is hard. Some call leadership in a local church difficult and even dangerous work.
But vigorous vitality is the hope and dream of God for every church in every place. There are conditions under which this kind of vitality is not only a possibility but a reality. God has done his part. He has given us all that we need for our local churches to be vital: the Holy Spirit with his gifts and fruits, and ordinary people to be instruments of community and world transformation. Let’s join Jesus in his mission.
Excerpted from the author's new book, Vital: Churches Changing Communities and the World.