The church is important. The Bible says so. Statistical studies can also demonstrate how it’s good for you in various ways. No matter what though, we still can’t get over the lingering attitude that church involvement is barely peripheral to the Christian life. Statistics show that 20% of a church membership usually carries all the efforts of that ministry. These overworked folks frequently mention the word “burnout,” even in congregations that deliberately scale down activities to the barest scriptural minimum.
A further 20% of church membership only hesitantly involves itself in the life of the church—“kind of committed”—and will pitch in as long as something more interesting doesn’t get in the way.
The remaining 60% watch the other 40% from a safe distance, happy to avoid extra things on its plate. This last group either accepts spiritual malaise in passive silence, or hits the road looking for better programs, preaching, and music. Since there’s always better programs, preaching, and music, this group is the most mobile.
The whole dismal picture sounds odd when we consider how much the New Testament emphasizes local believers meeting together.
I’m not making these observations to nail anyone, especially Christians who are legitimately maxed out by life. It’s simply ironic that we spend so much time worrying, thinking, reading books, and talking to people about God’s will, when His will is tied up with the church, the very thing that we treat with near ghetto disdain.
In Matthew 16:18, Jesus says, “I will build my church.” That’s a blatant statement of intent that ought to draw our attention like a bullet. It’s a grandiose proclamation that promises to build up human beings together into full conformity to Christ.
For two thousand years this has been a project in progress. Nothing else can compare. Governments and empires have risen and fallen. People have come and gone. Ideas have hatched, gained ascendancy, become status quo, faded, and disappeared.
But an unbroken effort with an unchanging leader that constantly flexes and survives? Nothing remotely like the building of the church appears to match that description. In contrast, our own country, one of the greatest superpowers ever to exist, has only been around a few hundred years.
This great “I will” subsumes all of Christ’s other work. Jesus gave Himself up on the cross for the church (Eph. 5). He rose from the dead in order to give spiritual life to the members of His church (c.f. Eph. 1). He ascended to heaven and sat on the throne where He heads up everything in history—the good, the bad, and the ugly—“for the church.” (Eph. 1:22-23).
This purpose is the ‘x’ on the treasure map. It’s where I want to stand.
I’m not some kind of religious Mr. Spock. I have hopes and dreams. Yet I see them all connected to what Christ is doing inside the people He gave His life for.
As for my vocation, pastoring is a lot more than a way to pay my bills. I’m in full-time ministry because the purpose of Jesus in building the church has somehow mandated it. As for where I live, I love the south and think about it every day. But I’m marooned in Columbus, because living above the Mason-Dixon Line is currently a feature of my life within God’s greater purpose.
People in our church would add the same—that being engineers or lawyers or medical personnel, and living where they live now is all conditioned by their understanding of Matthew 16:18. When we live this way, it’s not that we don’t have preferences or personal goals. Our individual desires which are many, exist as a smaller constellation of hopes within His will.
A movie called The Astronaut Farmer illustrates this point. The film was all about a farmer who built a rocket in his barn so he could blast off into space and orbit the earth. His purpose deeply affected his family.
The kids knew advanced math and physics and could run controls from their house like a command center. Household finances were tied up in the venture. The entire family bore the imprimatur of “weirdo” just because of the size of Famer’s dream. Otherwise, life went on with its myriad interests and small diversions.
People laughed at the Farmers. They speculated a rocket launch would end in disaster. NASA tried to block it. They pitied the poor wife and kids.
Then on a certain day, the project was done.
Photo credit: Amarit Opassetthakul