One of the most important questions you’ll ever ask yourself is why do you attend your local church. Your answer will be instructive and life-changing. So let me ask: Why do you attend your church?
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You may want to read:
- Read Rick’s Book, The Local Church
- 20 Questions When You’re Hurt By Your Church
- How Do You Leave Your Church?
In 1988 my now ex-wife chose an adulterous relationship over her marriage. She subsequently divorced me two years later. I lived alone for the next nine years. During those first two years, no one from my church came alongside me to help me through the most horrendous and devastating experience of my life.
In one day I lost my wife and two children, an irreparable breach in a family. After the first year of living in solitude, I went to my assistant pastor of a 1200 member church and asked him why no person in any leadership capacity had come alongside me, inquired about me, or tried to help me through that long, dark, night of the soul.
My separation and subsequent divorce were well-known in our church body because I was well-known in our church body. After I had made my query to my pastor, he said,
You did not break your leg.
I appreciated his words. Really. They were honest. He was transparent. He went on to explain if I had broken my leg, the church would know what to do because they knew how to send flowers and make hospital visits. They did not know what to do with someone like me. In response, I said to him,
Perchance you run into someone who is in a similar situation, please let me know because I know what to do.
My response to him was more arrogant than honest. The truth was that I did not have a clue what to do. I could not help myself, let alone help anyone else.
- I have not shared this story with you because I am angry. I am not mad.
- I have not shared this story with you because I am bitter or have an ax to grind.
I share this story with you because you need to know my worldview. You need to understand my soul care presuppositions. I cannot detach myself from my worldview or my presuppositions any more than I can stop being a Christian.
Because I did not know how to disciple myself and because my church did not know how to care for me, I spent the next twelve years learning how to do soul care–mainly on me. Now you know why discipleship is my worldview, my presupposition, and my passion. What happened to me is why our ministry exists.
My passion for sharing the life-changing message of the gospel was born out of a broken heart restored by God and redeemed for His fame. – Rick Thomas
My pastor and the other leaders of our large church did not know how to do soul care. They could not take a broken down Christian and walk him through the transformational steps to be whole again.
They also were not able to provide transformational contexts for people like me to receive soul care. It is a miracle that I was restored in spite of the inability of the body of Christ, specifically that local church.
Preaching Center or Discipleship Community
My experience is the point of the question: Why do you attend your church?
In 2001 a well-known Christian leader asked me why I was a member of the church that I attended at the time. I said, “Because of the preaching.” He did not respond to my answer, but I have never forgotten his question, and it has been rolling around my mind ever since.
If you were to ask any person in the mega-church that I attended in 1988 why they attended that church, nearly every one of them would have said because of the preaching. That church was a preaching center; it was not a discipleship community.
It was a famous church–within their circle of churches–for preaching. At one point it was the king of the hill when it came to popularity, a popularity built upon the personality and preaching style of the preacher. Today, it is a congregational shell that is held together by a handful of gray-haired loyalists and a few zealots.
Back then, my church was an amazing church. I loved it. We were doing ministry all over the world, but when it came to soul problems and soul care, we were not able to help each other in transformative ways. The truth is that the pastor was a spiritual abuser with a gift for preaching.
That church and that pastor are not abnormal. I have seen this scenario play out hundreds of times with individuals, couples, and families. Nearly all of them were part of the conservative, evangelical, Bible-believing, and doctrinally sound churches. Similar to a hospital with the best equipment, but the doctors were not trained to help the hurting.
Complete Gospel Transformation
If your first response to why you attend your church is the preaching, I appeal to you to rethink why you attend. Your first reason must be better than that.
- Where is the accent mark placed in your church?
- Is it more of a preaching center or a discipleship community?
- The answer to that question must be tied to how you think about and live out the gospel.
The gospel is about one thing: transformation. The purpose for Christ (the gospel) coming was to transform people, which begins at salvation and continues through progressive sanctification, until the glorification of the body after death.
Regeneration does not bring complete sanctification. Your salvation is a point-in-time, non-repeatable event. Like walking into a gym (fitness center) for the first time, it gets you in the door, but it does not entirely change you.
Progressive sanctification is the daily working out of your salvation (Philippians 2:12-13). The two primary contexts for working out your salvation are your home and your local church. It is this aspect of salvation that is weak in many churches, and because some churches don’t sufficiently address this problem, some of God’s children are unnecessarily struggling.
You Affect Others
I praise God for fantastic preaching, but if that is all you have, you do not have enough. The last few years have seen the rise and fall of good preaching and good preachers. They built their local congregations on the personality of one person, and when he fell, the church fell proportionally.
There has been a lot of cyber talk about why these ministries and preachers crumbled. The reason is simple: They did not do sanctification well. Poor sanctification practices will eventually manifest in a person, marriage, a family, and an organization. It almost always goes that way, which makes assessing the problem somewhat straightforward.
One of the ways you can discern how well your leadership understands and practices sanctification is by evaluating the condition of the sheep. If the church people are not well cared for in their sanctification, it points to deficiencies within the leadership to provide that care. This problem may be more serious than you imagine.
Each local church is a reflection of the leadership, good or bad. You cannot provide for others what you do not possess yourself. You may be able to impress the masses for a while, but, ultimately, there is no discontinuity between what you are and what you do (Luke 6:45), thus what you are will affect those around you.
If there is a large sample size of the church not being appropriately cared for, there needs to be a deeper conversation within the leadership about their personal, marital, and familial practices of sanctification, as well as how they are exporting those practices to the sheep they are called to shepherd.
This idea is a similar conversation I have with parents, who bring rebellious children to me for counseling. It is rare for a teen to be so messed up and confused without negative shaping influences from the parents. There can be exceptions to this, but they are exceptions only, not the norm.
Who you are has a direct impact on your spheres of influence, and if your church is not doing well in sanctification, the first thing to address is not more programs or small group initiatives. The wiser move would be to look at the leadership to assess their personal lives, marriages, and families. What is their sanctification competence?
- Are the pastors vulnerable, transparent, honest, and accountable with their lives and marriages?
- Are the pastors and wives mutually and reciprocally discipling each other?
- Are they able to walk each other through their relational problems?
There are other reasons a church does not do soul care well, but you must not avoid this one.
Why Do You Attend Your Church?
The reason you go to your doctor is that you believe he (or she) can help you. The reason you go to your mechanic is that you trust he can diagnose and repair your vehicle. The reason you go to your dentist is that you have faith he will be able to preserve your teeth.
- Are your pastors and their wives authentically pursuing the sanctified life together? How do you know?
- Do you believe your pastors can walk you through your relational and situational challenges?
- When things go wrong in your life or relationships, who do you call?
- Are you confident your church can provide what you need to mature in your sanctification?
When your life takes a turn that you did not anticipate, and your heart breaks, is your church your sanctification center of choice? If you are not calling on your pastors (or the contexts and the means they provide) to walk you through your problems, you need to reconsider why you attend that church.
Call to Action
I have spoken to many of you because you are members of our community and have been faithfully reading and learning from this site for years. One of the most common responses you have made to me is this church problem. I understand this dilemma, and if that is true for you, here are some suggestions for your consideration.
1 – Make a Difference – Do not choose anger or other divisive responses to this problem. Do not complain about what your church is not. Begin praying about how you can be part of the solution.
2 – Have a Conversation – Talk to a leader in your church. Start by humbly and compassionately stirring the pot (Hebrews 10:25). Do not let the conversation die. Draw attention to the problems you perceive. You can do this in non-divisive ways (Ephesians 4:29).
3 – Train Yourself – If you do not know how to walk an adult through an addiction, or a wife through the adultery of her husband, or a teen through the hurt of an angry dad, learn how to disciple. You are welcome to explore our two-year training program, which you can complete through the Internet.
4 – Immediately Implement – Do not wait until you think you’re competent to bring care to another person. The woman at the well told all she knew at that time. She did not wait until she became a Greek scholar to care for others.
I ignorantly told my pastor if anyone came to him with a problem they did not know how to repair, let me know. It was a good thought, I suppose, but the truth was that I had no clue how to help anyone, especially myself.
My response to him set me on a course to learn how to do more than lead someone to Christ. You can do it too. You do not have to be church dependent. If your church is not going to change or does not know how to change, you change.
If you are interested in learning how to do soul care, then join our community. You can find help here. We are a training and equipping site. That is what we do. We are not the local church, and we have no intention of replacing the local church, but we do want to partner with local churches, hoping to help them move beyond being preaching centers.
Also published on Medium.