From time to time members of my local church leave to join another Christian fellowship in the area. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does it is always a painful shock. The reasons given usually have something to do with one of the following: the children need a bigger church group; the music is too loud/quiet/fast, or slow; the preaching is too expository and not topical enough; or someone offended them.
These losses to the local church family sadden and confuse me. I feel like a father who comes home from work, notices that his daughter is missing and asks his wife, “Where is Sandy?” “Oh” his wife responds, “She says the food is better at her friend’s house down the road, so she’s gone to live there!”
The church is the household of God. It is a unique family, based on the relationships within the Holy Trinity, and with Christ Jesus as its head. Ephesians 3:14-15 and 21 capture this essential nature of the church; ‘For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name…’ And, verse 21, ‘to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.’
Now I realise that the church is more than just the local church. Most of the church is already in heaven, and the church still on earth is spread across the face of the planet. Never the less, only the local church gives expression to the church universal in a particular location and time. The church universal is more a concept for most of us, but the local church is a concrete reality.
Paul addressed his letters to actual local churches in Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, and so on. When he was on route to Jerusalem for the last time, he called for the Elders of the church in Ephesus, and this is what he said to them; “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.” (Acts 20:28) Of course, Christ died for all of humanity, so that the church universal might come into being, but here Paul applies the blood of Christ to the local church. The local church is of huge value to God, but how important is it to us?
The local church is an extended family, and a family is defined as ‘a group of people, related to each other in some way, who have a long-term commitment to support, nurture, protect, and develop one another.’ A natural family has a parent as its head, but the local church has Christ Jesus as its head. The local church is a group of people related to each other through the new birth. We have the same spiritual DNA. We also have a long-term commitment to support, nurture, protect, and develop one another. A natural family produces sons and daughters whilst a local church family produces children of God.
The local church is important. Christ died for it. It is the tangible expression of the universal household of God. It is a family. So why then do members leave it to go down the road and live with another family? I believe there are two major responses to this question.
Firstly, the family model in modern society is, in many cases, corrupted and dysfunctional, and people project this broken model onto the church. Fathers leave their families and move in with the woman down the road. Mothers neglect their children for the sake of a higher standard of living. Children demand and get self-centred instant gratification. As with the family, so with the church.
The second reason is that many churches have abandoned the extended family model of church life. They position themselves instead as spiritual schools, cinemas, or supermarkets. They see themselves as suppliers of spiritual and psychological goods, and their members as consumers. I call this Ecclesiastical Consumerism.
Consumerism is all about satisfying wants; it’s about getting. “I want my church to teach me how to get on in life and be prosperous. I want the music to make me feel good. I want the church to entertain me and my children.” Now, if I regard my wants as a high priority, and I regard the local church as a supplier, then I will surely leave the church if I don’t get what I want, and I will join another church I think will supply what I want. Sadly, many churches support this attitude by having professional music groups, fog machines, constant dynamic life-skills preaching, self-improvement programmes, and so on.
How then should we respond to these two dysfunctional models? Concerning the breakdown in the family, I believe that churches need to work hard in strengthening and equipping families in every way possible. Regarding Ecclesiastical Consumerism, we need to present the local church, not as a supplier but as a participating family of God. Most of all though, each of us needs to recognise our role in the local church family – we need to live out the definition of the church as ‘a group of people related to each other through the new birth, who have a long-term commitment to support, nurture, protect, and develop one another.’ We, together as the local church, are the environment where people can come to know Jesus, become like Him, and help others to do likewise. This is our unique role and responsibility.
As with the world, so with the church? Perhaps, but this is not how it is supposed to be. It should be ‘as with the church, so with the world!’