A Phrase to Retire
I first heard the line from a pastor friend that I like and respect very much. I thought the phrase was catchy, in your face, and made a good point so I repeated it several times. Soon I noticed others, hearing it from me, starting doing the same.
But before too long I began to question the wisdom of those words. In fact, it really only took a few minutes of sustained reflection (after using the phrase for a few months) to realize that the line, though loaded with good intent, was lopsided and biblically untenable. The line is one that pastors like to use to startle their congregations out of their holy huddles. It goes like this: “Church is not for you.”
On our best days, here’s what pastors are trying to say: “Don’t just think about yourself. Don’t get comfortable here because you have your friends and your programs. Think about the people who aren’t here yet. Think about our neighbors who need to hear the gospel. Let’s be willing to make some sacrifices for the sake of the lost. Let’s forgo some of our preferences and some of our ease so that new people can find a home here. We have salvation. We have a church family. We know Jesus Christ and have the hope of eternal life. Out there they have hell and are without God in the world. Let’s not be an ingrown church when there are so many lost people outside these walls.”
That’s what I meant to say by the line “Church is not for you.” I’m sure that’s what my friend meant as well (though some people may mean worse things). But as much as pastors may want to emphasize evangelism and outreach, telling the congregation “Church is not for you” is the wrong way to go about it.
One of God’s great gifts to the Christian is the church. It is for us, because God is for us too. The worship, though ultimately for God, is meant for our edification–for believers’ edification, not immediate resonance with nonbelievers (though we want our services to be intelligible to them too). Just as important, think of the one another commands. Church should be a place to bear each others burdens, meet physical needs, express comfort, demonstrate care, exercise hospitality, exchange greetings, offer encouragement, administer rebuke, receive forgiveness–basically faith working itself out in love. And isn’t love for each other the distinguishing mark of the Christian community?
One other thing: don’t forget that the Great Commission calls us to make disciples not make decisions. I am all in favor of decisions for Christ (rightly conceived), but the church’s aim is not simply for conversions. Jesus told the disciples (and by extension the church I believe) that their commission was to teach the nations to obey all that he had commanded. We must grow up in Christ as much as we must come to Christ. So Sunday school is not a distraction from mission. Small group Bible studies (again, done well) are not some lame expression of bubble Christianity that take us away from the real purposes of the church. Sermons, even the kind that go into disputed areas of theology or highlight doctrinal distinctives, do not have to be exercises in stuffing fat Christians full of more knowledge while the world perishes without Christ. Theology is not the enemy of conversion and wanting church life to be a blessing is not what’s wrong with the world.
Amen to evangelism. Amen to services that recognize the presence of non-Christians. Amen to poking long-time believers to serve in ways besides the reading of books. But boo-hoo to chiding church members for wanting a church that loves them, teaches them, and watches over their souls. The phrase sounds prophetic and I understand the good intentions, but there is simply no biblical warrant for saying to God’s people “church is not for you.” Better to say ala the Apostle Peter: “Church is for you, and for your children, and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God calls to himself.”