Question. Somebody invites you to come with them to their church. What’s the first thing that pops into your head? If you answer with a resounding ‘absolutely not!’, I bet there’s some history behind your response.
I remember quite vividly such an invitation when I was hitchhiking in California in the late 80’s. I was around 20 years old and trying to get home from San Diego to L.A. I was broke, alone and strung out on drugs, again. One of the people who picked me up was a Christian who genuinely thought that going to church with him would be a good idea. I didn’t need to think about it. Absolutely not! My mom had raised me Catholic as a boy. I walked away from church and God in my teens in pursuit of all that life had to offer. To me those two things, life and church, were mutually exclusive. Irreconcilable. The idea of ‘me’ in ‘church’ was inconceivable. Not only was there no attraction whatsoever for me, I knew I wouldn’t have felt worthy or welcome.
People steer clear of churches for lots of reasons. Some good, some bad. If, like me, it’s simply because you know you’d feel miserably out of place, that’s fair enough. Possibly you’ve already ‘tried’ church and seen firsthand the infighting and politics that sometimes tears them apart. Perhaps someone at work or a neighbor who considers themselves a Christian has forever soured your opinion of church by their actions and attitude.
After 25 years in church ministry, I’ve heard most of the reasons why people have been turned off of church. Betrayal and broken trust. Corruption and control. Financial and sexual failures. Antiquated ideas and approaches to modern problems. These are all real issues that give real reason to the question of why going to church is worth bothering with.
Without excusing any of the church’s breaches, I believe at the heart of many peoples struggle with the church is their very concept of what it is. In fact, my usage of the term ‘church’ in this article hasn’t really been a biblical one, but a secular one. At some point in history, probably as the church became more institutionalized, a gross misconception emerged. Church became known as a place where only ‘good’ or ‘godly’ people gather. Christians inadvertently became known as people who think they are better or holier than everyone else. As the church’s walls grew higher, the divide between the ‘church’ and the world widened. With that kind of reputation, it is inevitable that the church would fall and its sins would provide a huge bullseye for anyone looking for an excuse to reject it.
If you are among those rejecting the possibility that the church has any relevance in your life, or in the world today, I’m asking you to consider a couple things before you turn the page.
First of all the church is not a ‘place’ at all, but rather a ‘people’. The Greek word for ‘church’, Εκκλησιά, or Ecclesia, means ‘to be called out’, or ‘the ones who are called out’. Jesus adopted this word to describe the experience and character of those who followed Him. Jesus calls out His followers, whether then or now, from their old lives into a new life of faith.
Jesus’ original church, or ‘called out ones’, weren’t the religious elite or the rich and powerful. They were normal, everyday people, including coarse fisherman, despicable tax-gatherers and ostracized prostitutes. He so identified with the common man that Jesus’ enemies accused Him of being a ‘a glutton and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!”. Jesus wasn’t a reclusive religious fanatic, but an approachable merciful Savior. He said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened… I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Gentleness, humility, kindness and grace were the distinguishing marks of His life. One of my favorite references to Jesus’ character states, ‘A bruised reed He will not break, and smoking flax He will not quench.” Jesus broke every religious and social norm in His day to set people free from their burdens of sin, shame and defeat. He is the good Shepherd who ‘left the 99 to find the lost one’.
His church, the real church, the Biblical church, will live and love like Him. Jesus called His church to Holiness, but not the kind that sequesters them in impenetrable fortresses, far removed from reality, but the kind that lives in the world, living out His love, grace and compassion.
It is a tragedy that a lot of what the world calls ‘Christianity’ today looks and acts so little like Jesus. I believe He gives you permission to reject whatever doesn’t reflect His character. After all, Jesus told his followers, “the world will know you’re my disciples by your love…’ Where you don’t find it, it’s not likely Him. But where you do find it, there you will find the real church.
Jesus has always, only, had one church. It is the one that looks like Him.
It was more than 25 years ago that Jesus found this lost sheep in a jail cell and changed my life radically. He freed me of my addictions, my loneliness and shame. Not long after that I found Jesus’ people, the true church, the global community of believers which I’ve had the profound privilege of being a part of ever since. Today, the idea of life and church being separate is inconceivable to me. After all this time I am still amazed at the faithfulness, humility and gentleness of His people.
We are so very far from perfect. But we seek to be like Jesus. We fail. We fall. By His grace and the help of His Spirit we pick each other up and push forward, reaching out to those around us with His love.
If I haven’t changed your mind about the importance of the church, I pray I’ve at least provided some clarity about what it is and is not. But if I have changed your mind, even a little, then maybe now you’ll consider my invitation…
Would you like to come to church with me?
By Pastor Tim Mattox
Paphos Calvary Chapel