Reason #3: To Commune
The third reason that many attend churches is the desire to be a part of a community of believers, or perhaps a more shallow way of putting it, “a desire to make new friends.” There is no question, whether we are talking about socialized or transformed individuals, this is clearly a more mature step in a journey through church life. Entering into new relationships always has a risk factor. It is risky to allow others to know you and to take steps toward new people, engaging yourself in their lives. New relationships always have the potential to create strong bonds as easily as they can create new conflicts. People who are willing to take these steps are willing to make some form of sacrifice. When this kind of sacrifice is happening, it can bring great vitality to the social culture of a congregation.
Community through Socialization
I once believed that longing for community is a void that everyone had, and that it was a high priority in the lives of most people. From my experience as a minister, I conclude this simply is not true in the American culture in which we live. I do believe people still long for community, but their scope of what community is has become much smaller while the overall burden for it as a whole has decreased. For many people, the immediate and extended family is enough scope for a community. One or two good friends are often enough community, a few closer acquaintances at a workplace or even regular interaction on Facebook and social media can fill the void of a community. Sure, most would love to be known by many and even have many close friends, but when it comes to making decisions to move toward new and closer relationships, it is just not something that most will do, or even know how to do. As such, people coming to church for others is a good thing. Socialized people that pursue community are pursuing relationships, but not necessarily pursuing relationships to foster their spiritual growth or contribute to another’s spiritual growth. They are willing to take the risk of making new friends and developing more engaged relationships, but the only spiritual prerequisite for these relationships is that they attend the same church.
Community after Transformation
When one who is being transformed begins consuming the things for God and makes a commitment to a church community, they recognize that there are other Christians in the congregation that they need to engage to grow spiritually, just as they notice that there are relationships that they should pursue to help others grow spiritually. A key point of validation to determine whether one is pursuing community for transformation or socialization is the content of their dialogue outside of worship or Christian education settings. People in socialized church relationships will never speak of the Holy Spirit, sin or victory when they are together in non-programmed moments, except maybe for a prayer request from time to time. But those who are being transformed will look upon a brother or sister in Christ as one of the only people that they can talk to about such things. Sure it will not be the only topic of their interactions, but when these matters of the heart conversations are happening, spiritual growth is happening.
My call into ministry began with a moment like this. When I was 19 years old, I had a transformative moment when I had an encounter with Jesus Christ. A month before this experience I had just moved into an apartment near my college campus with four other guys so I could have the full “college experience.” When I became a Christian not only did I not know anyone else my age that was living their life for Christ, I didn’t even know if these types of people existed. Within weeks of this transformative experience, the Lord led me to about 15 other young adults at a church right around the corner from my apartment; with whom I soon wanted to spend all of my time. This desire was so strong that I joined the program they were in and began training for ministry; when I actually just wanted to have Christian community. My relationships with these young men and women were based on the common bond that we all had, to love God with our lives and to sharpen and encourage each other to grow closer to Christ.
Reason #4: Calling
A final reason why just a few attend churches is a sense of calling, purpose, and responsibility. Transformed people who are giving their lives over to the will of God will begin to have a sense of mission and destiny. They will begin to recognize that there are few coincidences when we walk with the Lord and that there is something sacred about the opportunities that they have been given to build the church of Christ. When congregation members begin to see themselves as called to a body, they no longer speak of a church as “this church” but rather “my church.” Called members have a sense of ownership in the congregation, but ownership is really only the first indicator, and it is one that can be easily confused with a socialized commitment.
A better indicator is when someone who is called begins to talk about challenges in their congregation; you will not hear them pointing a finger in the other direction, but rather asking or finding a way to be a part of the solution. Transformed, called people see their church as a spiritual mission, that they are responsible for. A final indicator that we will mention is found in consideration of transition. Those who don’t see their church as part of their calling as a Christ-follower can easily find reasons to leave the church. These reasons usually come in response to a new void that is found in one of the previous reasons why they originally attended; they don’t like the new pastor’s sermons or the new kid’s programs (consuming), they no longer want to serve in the capacity that they have been serving in or have been asked to serve in a different way (commitment), or there is just too much conflict in their relationships at church (community). A transformed person who is called, will not transition from a congregation for any of the above reasons, because they recognize that they are not at their current congregation on their own terms, but rather the Lord’s. The primary reason why someone who is called would transition from a congregation would be that they get a genuine sense that the Lord is leading them in a different direction. This leading is far beyond their own personal preferences, but a moving of the Holy Spirit in their life.
This last reason of calling was not placed in two categories as all the others, because the final reason is a rare reason why one would attend church and one that is hard to socialize. For the lay member, it would take the work of cult-like manipulation to be socialized into attending a church because they are called. Paid clergy, on the other hand, can in fact slip into a mode where they can socialize their own calling from the Lord. I would guess that if you ask 99 out of 100 clergy if they felt called to their congregation, they would say yes, and express many of the feelings and language of calling. However, the socialization creeps in when they see themselves in the role as “sent from God,” but are no longer working hard to produce spiritual growth in their congregations and rather begin to go through the motions, keeping the peace and making others feel good about themselves while collecting a paycheck. It is in the hands of severely socialized clergy that the church begins to be in danger of removing the transformative power of the Gospel from their church.
A Way Forward
As a minister who has now journaled my assessments of my current congregation along with experiences in different congregations, I will conclude with my convictions and a commission that is a way forward for all churches in the middle of this tension between the socialized and the transformed. First, ministers who are being transformed or have at once been transformed must return or draw near again to Christ seeking his plan and his will for the church they pastor. They must be burdened with love for the spiritual growth of their people. Secondly, they must realize that transformed people are the hope of their congregation. They must begin to focus on some key relationships within their church and not be afraid to ask them the tough questions about their faith. This task is truly spiritual, which is why much of the burden must be placed on the work of the Holy Spirit through prayer. This description is of person to person discipleship, which must be passed on from clergy to lay members and lay members to other lay members and/or the unchurched in their communities. I do believe that the Church of Jesus Christ is the hope of the world and the Church will fulfill its mission when lives are being transformed by the Holy Spirit.
This blog post is the final installment of a three-part series based on a paper written for Russell Haitch’s Educating in the Spirit class during the fall of 2016.
Brody Rike is Pastor of West Alexandria Church of the Brethren in West Alexandria, Ohio, where he has served the last four years. Brody is a current MA student at Bethany Theological Seminary and holds a BA in Biblical Studies. At 36 years-old his ministry experience includes ministerial roles as a senior pastor and youth pastor with the Assemblies of God. Brody also has experience working in Christian education as a Bible Teacher, Athletic Director and Principal. He is happily married and a father of three, who remains active in his community, coaching varsity basketball and coordinating ministry programs in local public schools.
Photo Credits: Doing Life Better and Center for the Advancement of Christian Education (CACE)