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Biff and Mable have been struggling in their marriage for years. Biff took his first sip of alcohol when he was 19-years old. He never stopped drinking. He’s 41-years old today and a closet alcoholic. Mable pled with Biff for over a decade to stop his drinking. He’s a mean drunk. She stopped begging 11 years ago.
They came to counseling after Biff lost his third job in the past year, and though he did not know it, Mable had been living in adultery for the previous four years.
It became apparent at the core of their problems–though there were many of them–was a lack of connectivity to the local church. At every turn, they were doing life outside a caring community of Christlike disciple makers.
Sadly, Biff and Mable did not see the importance of being connected to their local church. Their obliviousness was enough for me to pause and reflect.
Charles Spurgeon preached a message about the local church called, “the dearest place on earth.” Spurgeon saw the church as the center of the Christian’s life. Our individualistic, isolated culture that prefers to connect in cyberspace is a universe away from the culture in Spurgeon’s day.
Today, the individual is at the center of it all while the church sits on the periphery. A typical local church is a weak competitor in the fight for calendar space in the Christian’s life–a far cry from the early church.
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common.
And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. – Acts 2:42-47
Imagine if Biff and Mable had the values of the early church. I’ll list three of them for you while challenging you to examine your life to see how you compare to the first followers of Christ.
Community – all things common: The community life of the believer is lived out in reciprocal relationships. You cannot experience the full measure of your church if you are not seeking to live with one another in a community. Genuine, authentic, transparent, and honest relationships are essential to life in a community.
Service – distributing proceeds to all: Giving your life away without being controlled by an expectation of anything in return is at the heart of the gospel. You are a steward of God’s stuff rather than an owner of your stuff. And your stuff also includes you. You are not your own (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).
Worship – praising God: God wired us for worship. Worshipers are who we are and what we do. The vertical relationship between you and God is the first and greatest commandment of all (Matthew 22:36-40). The degree of adoration and affection you have for God determines how you live out your life in the context of your local church.
One of the sadder by-products of the seeker-sensitive movement is the creation of a new category for Christians, the church “attender.” Never in the history of the church have we had such an accommodating category for the Christian.
This lack of commitment to the local church is, in part, what keeps me in business as a para-church organization. It is rare for me to counsel people who are actively involved in their local church and are living in authentic, reciprocal relationships with other genuine believers. Active church engagement is the point Biff and Mable missed.
Unless I’m going to become someone’s “life coach,” I am not able to provide the long-term care in the way they need care. No para-church organization can do this, and no para-church organization is called to do this. Long-term soul care is the job of the local church.
Let’s get personal: I am not going to stop sinning in this life. I wish I could stop sinning, but I’m a realist. I’m a Christian who sins, and because of my sinfulness, I need external care from others.
My sinfulness is one of the primary reasons I am committed to my local church and my small group, which is a component of my local church. Biff, Mable, and Rick need help.
For the glory of God and the sake of my wife and children, I plead with my local church to come alongside me to care for me so I can mature into the man God wants me to be. I cannot fathom being a “regular attender.”
Acts 2:42-47 revisited
And they were not devoted to the pastors’ teaching or fellowship, or to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And grumbling came upon every soul, and many wondered and critiqued the things done through the leadership. Though they believed, they were a group of individuals.
And they were selling all kinds of stuff to keep the proceeds because they were quite greedy. Whenever they felt like it, they attended the church meetings, while beating it to the restaurants afterward. They received their food with glad and gluttonous hearts, superficially praising God because they craved the favor of all the people. And the Lord added more regular “attenders” to their number day by day, and the church continued to weaken. – RLT version
A pastor is a man called to care for his people. The Bible elevates the seriousness of the pastor’s call by stating that God will hold him accountable for how he cares for his members.
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. – Hebrews 13:17
Peter weighed in on the seriousness of the call by using the metaphor of a shepherd and his sheep.
Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. – 1 Peter 5:2-3
James came from another angle while speaking on the seriousness of the call when he said God would hold teachers to a higher standard of accountability.
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. – James 3:1
Once upon a time, I was part of a pastoral team in a local church. The verses above, along with a few others, helped me to understand the seriousness of the call God had on my life. Caring for people is important to God, and it is important to me. However, it is not humanly possible to care for everyone.
A person who attempts to care for everyone will not be able to care for anyone well. But when a person committed to our local church, we were not only humbled by their commitment but sought to bring consistent and practical care to them.
However, there was another group of people where the lines were not as clear. They were the uncommitted ones. It is hard to discern what level of care I should provide for them. At times I prayed this way:
I love these people, but it seems like no matter how much I teach or beg, they won’t commit to our body. Lord, would you be so kind to change their hearts? Would you persuade them to plug into our local church or lead them to another church where they would be in faith to commit?
Please don’t hold me accountable for them if they are unwilling to commit to our care. Will you give me the words to say to them that would encourage them to engage or find another church?
There were questions in my mind when a person attended but never committed to our church. Though I did not ask the questions the way they are listed below, they do convey the ideas I tried to communicate to the occasional “attender” who would never commit.
As a pastor, my desire was to commit to those who were part of our local church. However, their commitment was the key to the how, when, why and what of my pastoral care.
God was holding me accountable to some people, but He was not holding me accountable to all the people who walk through our doors. Appealing for commitment was why we tried to draw a line so we could work hard, wisely, efficiently, and with much joy, without sacrificing our families in the process.
I am not saying we had cornered the market on how to do church. We were always changing, but at the end of the day, it had to look like something, and we had clear ideas of how to care for people, so we presented our method and asked for a commitment.
Sometimes people did not prefer our model of care, and that was okay. We praised God for how other biblical churches provided care, and if an “attender” did not want to commit to us, we tried to find them a place where they could fully invest their lives.
Ultimately, the church is not yours or mine; it’s God’s. Likewise, a local church does not grow because of what we can scheme and manage. There is no magical formula to achieving a vibrant church life. God gave us gifts that we must apply in the wisest ways we know how while trusting Him for the results.
His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.
For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:3-8)
Biff and Marble were regular “attenders” at their local church. Their commitment to their local church was similar to their commitment to their marriage: it was weak. They never fully engaged the dearest place on earth for the glory of God, the benefit of themselves, and the blessing of others.