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”Belonging” Made Easier
Why do many believing Christians have difficulty belonging to churches? Could it be because both have expectations of each other that are difficult to meet?

Some Sunday mornings the last thing I want to do is go to church. I’m feeling grumpy or just plain worn out, so the thought of having to dress up, be cheerful and sing hymns with high notes I can’t reach, makes a slow morning at home a lot more inviting.

… there are churches and Christians who are not quite so strict on each other.

But I know if I drag my tattered self to the service, good things happen. The conversations may not be all that deep and the sermon may not relate much to what’s going on in my life, but the simple act of being together with fellow Christians has a marvellous and miraculous way of lifting the spirits. I can enter the door an old grump and leave a different man.

I’m glad I belong to a church, then. But it’s not that way for a friend of mine, who finds it difficult belonging to a church because churches have such strict requirements. His wife’s church, for instance, expects all its members to tithe their income, give their all to church growth and believe that non-Christian children go to Hell if they die, all of which my friend has trouble with. And then there are the prayer groups, the men’s breakfast meetings, the endless programs on evangelism and all the other stuff that “members in good standing” are expected to attend and do. It’s an enormous package he will have to take on, a huge machine in which he must become a compliant cog.

He can’t belong to a church like that because he knows if he signs up as a member the church will rule his life. On the other hand, he has several strict rules and requirements of his own, too. He’s not going to join a church, either, that doesn’t comply with his preferences and beliefs. For instance, they’d better not wave their arms during hymns, or sing hymns that repeat verses over and over again. He wants a church with proper structure, but not so much structure that there’s no room for discussion or for the Holy Spirit to guide. Oh yes, he has his demands, too.

So, here we have churches and believers, each with their trenches dug, both unmoving in their expectations of each other. Is this why believing Christians are having difficulty belonging to churches, then? Is it because churches are saying in effect, “If you join us, you’d better do what we do,” and Christians are replying with, “Is that so? Well, I won’t be joining you anyway if you don’t do what I want,” and there they both stand, glaring at each other, unable to come together.

However, there are churches and Christians who are not quite so strict on each other. I know one Christian couple, for instance, that happily attends and serves in two different denominations with no difficulty whatsoever. The reason is simple. The churches aren’t pushing their denominational identity tags as essentials that all those attending must wear, and the couple isn’t demanding their preferences be met, either. Instead, they’re all operating on the premise that when people are meeting in Christ’s name, then Christ is with them, and even amidst imperfection He will supply them with all they need. Christ can feed His sheep wherever. It lets both sides relax, and it certainly makes belonging easier.

There is a risk involved, though. A pastor can get himself in hot water for not enforcing his church’s entire denominational package and the couple might be frowned upon by their home church for attending another church with “questionable beliefs.” Why? Because it’s still so important to protect and promote one’s own denomination as the best package out there. It’s a dinosaur that won’t die.

However, maybe the dinosaur is about to feel her age because believers and churches are finding ways around the old girl. I notice it happening in my own area. I pastor eight churches, in all kinds of configurations, so it’s been interesting to experience for myself why in some churches there is a sense of belonging, while in others there is a tension in the air still that keeps people apart. In the churches that have settled and glued together as family, it isn’t difficult to see why.

No one is demanding things be done a certain way for “church to be church,” no one is pushing his or her own preferences as “the only proper way to worship,” and no one is sulking or making obvious hints that they wish things were different. I notice, too, that they aren’t having to fend off members mesmerized by all the latest evangelical fads and programs, nor are they having to “tippy-toe” round members stuck in traditions long gone. They’ve escaped all of that and they are at peace with what they’ve got. They are churches “at rest.” They’ve found a way round the dinosaur.

So, how did they manage it? Well, the answer I hear most from people in these churches is that Jesus made a promise that He’d be with any group of people meeting in His name, even if it’s only a gathering of two or three. The only essential for “belonging,” then, is the simple act of being together with fellow Christians because that’s all it takes for Jesus to be there with them. And it’s that startlingly simple thought that gets them up after a rough week to go to church. The church may not be all they’d like church to be but they naturally presume Jesus will be good to His promise, so good things will happen. Jesus is brilliant at feeding His sheep, even on pasture that’s sparse and patchy.

Therefore, I’m realizing that there’s no “best way” for sheep to worship, nor is there only one set of beliefs and practices that wins trophies for the “best-fed” sheep. I’m learning that sheep can be just as well fed in a formal service as an informal one, and the quality of feeding doesn’t suffer if we meet in a home rather than a church. I watch sheep being fed who don’t meet together every week, don’t include hymns in their service and don’t follow any set routine. But since when were any of those things required anyway? They weren’t required by Jesus. In fact, He doesn’t require much at all, does He? Christians being together will do. Formal or informal, it doesn’t matter to Him. He makes belonging easy!

Jonathan Buck pastors the Barrie, Huntsville, North Bay, Peterborough, and Sudbury congregations of the Worldwide Church of God.

Originally published in Northern Light Magazine, July/August/September 2007.




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