Why Church Matters

Why Church Matters

If I were to write a memoir, it would be filled with stories about the church in my life. I couldn’t talk about me without helping you see the way the church has criss-crossed every chapter of my life, acting as God’s platform for teaching, filling, preparing, sustaining, stretching, and calling me in countless ways and shapes throughout my years.

It hasn’t been one church, or even one denomination of the Christian church that I look back on. Actually, there’ve been 8 churches where I’ve spent considerable time and involvement since childhood, and a handful more that I’ve traveled in and out of frequently while in transition. As I’m not currently writing my memoir, I’ll share briefly about why the church has mattered for me. I think it’s important–we can get stuck in our own stories, our own questions and struggles with church, or in a sense that we don’t belong at church and never could.

Before I do that, let’s be clear on the meaning of church. There are actually two forms of church–the universal church and the local church. Fairly self-descriptive. The church universal is the church worldwide–Christians everywhere who have, collectively, become the body of Christ and are joined together through the bond of the Holy Spirit. [We’re called the body of Christ because when Jesus left this earth and ascended to heaven, he put his Spirit in all believers and now we are the presence of Christ in the world.] This universal church includes all who believe in Jesus Christ as  Savior and who live in relationship with him. The local church is the particular group, or congregation, of people who meet regularly together for worship, prayer, and teaching. Here, I am talking in particular about the local church, although knowing that I’m part of the universal church has long grounded me, and there have been times at large-scale gatherings where I’ve gotten to experience that universality of the church in impact-full ways.

Teaching. Early in my life, really since infancy, the church began to teach me about God. They taught me God’s Word through Bible stories and memory verses, through songs and Sunday school and  preaching in church services. They taught me to pray and to listen to God. They taught me how to live in a relationship with God where I expressed love to him throughout my days, read his Word on my own, sensed his love made real to me in big and small ways. It’s good for kids to receive this kind of teaching early in life. It frames in important ways the perspective they have on life and themselves, on decision-making, on identity, on truth. It forms their awareness from the start that life centers on God, and any other center will mislead us and bring pain. The church continues to be an important conduit for God’s teaching in my life. My church’s teaching through Sunday preaching and the Bible study I do with others at the church continues to deepen my knowledge of God and my daily life with him.

Filling. It’s in the church that I have so often sensed God filling me with himself and empowering me to go into the world and live with God and for him. God certainly does this in my personal time with him at home as well, but there is something distinct and important about the way he does it when I am gathered together with other believers in my local church. It’s a little hard to explain, but I once wrote to a pastor about this sense in a thank you as we were leaving the church after a making a geographic move.  I don’t attend church out of obligation or routine, I attend because when I am gathered with other believers, worshiping God, hearing the Word, celebrating the Lord’s Supper, joining in prayer, I am filled anew to live with Jesus and for him in the days that I am apart from these fellow Christians. [I find life hard a lot of the time! You, too? There is something real and renewing about time with with others in God’s presence.]

Here is what Bonhoeffer says about the connection between solitude and community. What a revelation!

Only as we are within the fellowship can we be alone, and only he that is alone can live in the fellowship. Only in the fellowship do we learn to be rightly alone and only in aloneness do we learn to live rightly in fellowship. ~ Life Together

Preparing. It’s God’s Word, the stories of Bible characters and God’s movement in their lives, the modeling of Christians around me at church, the opening of their lives to me, the Holy Spirit working in me as I encounter all of these that prepares me for what I will encounter in my life. God has used the church to build me into the person He desires.

Sustaining. God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. (Psalm 46:1) Often, God has been present to me through the church’s presence when my life ‘s been troubled. The church has cared for me through prayer for me and sometimes with me, through encouragement, through counsel, through meals, and often just through loving presence. Philip Yancey writes that if he had to summarize very briefly the gist of his book  Where Is God When It Hurts? he would simply ask another question: Where is the church when it hurts? The church has been there when I’ve hurt. Not always perfectly, but there nonetheless, and it’s mattered. I’ve felt God’s care in big ways.

Stretching and Calling. Church has acted for me with a curious blend of developing my gifting while also nudging me to step out where I’m not so gifted. From the time I was in my teens I have periodically taken spiritual gifts inventories and have approached life and choices according to these revelations about who God has made me to be. The church has affirmed these places of calling along the way and has opened doors for me to use my gifts in fulfilling ways. Not that it’s always felt comfortable or easy. It has felt right.

And, in a way that could only involve God, the church has been God’s training ground for the calls he has on my life that do not feel in any sense natural or logical. Just yesterday we looked in church at the  passage from Exodus where God called Moses to lead the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt, a couple million people, and this was Moses’ response: “O Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of  speech and tongue. … please send someone else to do it.” (Exodus 4:10, 13) Moses did not feel naturally gifted to lead millions to a new homeland, yet he was God’s choice.

The poet Christian Wiman speaks of these curious callings in his own life and how one measure of genuine spiritual experience is the way in which it “demands uncomfortable change.” “Solitary writing is quite natural to me,” he explains, “and we should be suspicious when God’s call conforms so neatly to our own inclinations.” He tells how God has recently moved him into speaking and preaching, “at times quite discomfiting.” For me, often that nudging to places and roles beyond my inclinations has begun and been confirmed in the church.

These influences by the church, all of the above, have shaped my life and my self in a way I couldn’t imagine being without. I have not always felt 100% “at home” in the church where I was settled. But I’ve tried not to church-hop and to stay committed and involved rather than letting my feelings dictate my attendance or my contribution. Always God has met me in some significant way and guided me forward through life with his people. Church matters. God is at work in the world through the local church. God wants to be at work in each of us through the church. You do belong. So come on over. The church is waiting for you.

What keeps you away from church? What keeps you uninvolved while attending church? How has church mattered to you? Keep your stories coming .. and this week, invite a friend to church. It matters!

{Thank you to Flickr/Wilmascraftcorner for the use of your photo!}

Next week: First steps for Joining a Church (and a giveway!)

See related posts in this series:
Why Go to Church?
Finding a Good Church

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