“But maybe community doesn’t have to look the way I think it does…” said my friend, almost as a side remark. She had recently left a vibrant local church to serve in the church where she grew up and it was hard. The church she’d left was a thriving, gospel-centered, missional community filled with her peers. Her home church on the other hand was a struggling ethnic church and there weren’t other people there her age. Still, she felt called there to serve a group of youth who wanted her help studying the Scriptures.
Many people I know who grew up in immigrant churches have wrestled with the same decision: Should I serve in my struggling “home church” (the church where I grew up) or find a healthier church where I’ll have peers? Those in Asian immigrant churches attest to the often missing 20-30 year old population in their congregations, and in response to the question of “stay or go?” may quickly point out the great need in these churches, calling for loyalty and service to those who first shared the gospel with us. Others who’ve left those church circles are quick to urge people to leave for more gospel-centered churches— why stay when there are so many serious issues?
Cookie Cutter Churches?
The Reformed Resurgence with its widespread internet reach has not only spread Reformed doctrine, but particular cultural expressions of what the Christian life and local church ought to look like. Every blogger, well-known preacher, or church planter speaks from his own church context, and that is unavoidable. But listeners and readers, if not careful, can equate choices other churches make in their specific contexts with universal Biblical mandates.
People in the field of missions often talk about contextualization and the need to distinguish between unchanging truths of Scripture (which cannot be compromised) and our particular cultural expressions of the truth (which can be diverse and still Biblically faithful.) Andrew Ong has written here on RM about one unintended consequence of New Calvinism in fashioning an “uncontextualized, one-size-fits-all Christian mold.” While Andrew was addressing this “cookie cutter” mold for individual believers, I’ve observed a similar phenomenon and mold with regard to the local church.
I am not going to tackle here the complicated issues of wisdom involved in choosing a local church and when to stay or go. But I am writing for those who are wrestling with the fact that their churches look different from the ones they read about on Reformed blogs or see friends share pictures of on Instagram.
I believe many of us New Calvinists are unknowingly carrying around a very specific vision of what the local church should be based on one type of church. God-centered theology, exegetical preaching, the infallibility of Scripture, have come to us wrapped in certain church cultures. (For example, an emphasis on cities and physical neighborhood boundaries, materials geared toward young professionals, certain assumptions of income level and literacy, specific methods of community outreach, and the interesting practice of “date nights” for married couples.) Additionally, social media gives us access to the “highlight reels” not only of individuals but churches, often reinforcing the idea that “real Christian community” must look a certain way and subtly shaping our understanding of an ideal local church. When our local churches look different from these pictured ideals, we then become discouraged, frustrated, and disillusioned.
Maybe you have recently taken up a call to pastor a small, struggling ethnic church, hoping to do the work of revitalization. Or you may be a layperson serving high school students in the church where you grew up. If you find yourself asking, like someone I know admitted, “Why does our church even exist when there are other, ‘better’ churches around?” or, if you’re starting to wonder as my friend did, “Maybe community doesn’t have to look the way I think it does,” I offer one reminder with important implications.
The Church is the People of God
First, the church is the people of God.
Every local church ought to be marked by obedience to the Scriptures, love for God, and love for neighbor. Yet while we obey the same Word and partake in the same Sacraments, there is great diversity between churches. This is because as the Body of Christ is made up of individual members, and every local church its own particular gathering of individuals and families. In other words, no two churches will (or can) look the same because no two churches consist of the same group of people.
It is easy in the work of ministry to lose sight of the fact that the local church is not primarily an organization with goals, but a gathering of God’s people. Each believer has his own testimony of God’s salvation and of what sanctification looks like now. Every person is equipped uniquely by God with spiritual gifts for the edification of the church. And so though my church ought to look similar to yours in its lifeblood, it must also look different because of our own particular combination of souls with unique backgrounds, gifts, and needs.
One breakthrough moment for me in coming to live, love, and serve joyfully in my Chinese church (while camping theologically in the American Reformed world) was realizing that gospel-flourishing does not have to look the same in our church as other churches. Just as we as individuals have different stories of God bringing us from darkness into light, our local churches will have different corporate stories.
In Chinese immigrant churches, for example, it is not uncommon for the majority of the Chinese-speaking members to be first-generation Christians who’ve grown up as atheists or Buddhists, worshipping idols and ancestors. These Chinese believers have a different set of hangups and God-glorifying testimonies, weaknesses and strengths, than, say, churched Americans who’ve grown up submersed in Christless “Christian” morality. Moreover, when God turns the hearts of these Chinese Christians to deeply love their neighbors, new acts of service and hospitality flowing out of the gospel will carry their own distinct cultural flavor.
Our churches are made of the people in them. Remembering this helps us see why the needs felt, conflicts fought, and victories celebrated in our communities can look different from another churches’ even as we all may be equally grounded in the gospel of Christ. We can then lay aside the weight of comparison and its partners, discouragement and discontentment, and joyfully seek the Lord with fresh eyes and hearts. Rather than being burdened in striving to make our church fit one particular mold, we can rejoice when we see unique signs of his work and begin asking with anticipation, “God show us what it means for us to be obedient to your Word and faithful to the gospel in our church.”
Most importantly, the church is the people of God.
Those serving in small, struggling churches often feel forgotten and overlooked by God. Why would he look upon our weak, insignificant church anyways?
Moses declared it was God’s presence, his nearness in answering the cries of his people, which set apart the Israelites from all the nations (Deut. 4:7). Likewise, it is the Holy Spirit dwelling in the temple of God— the church— which sets us apart as a people. God has promised to finish the work he’s begun in us and by his power the whole Body grows with a “growth that is from God” (Col. 2:19). He is making a name for himself through group of raggedy, struggling saints. And he has declared that your church is his church.
You may feel like your church has been forgotten. But know that he remembers and looks upon it because it is filled with his people. And God’s people are just that— his people, the sheep of his pasture, his treasured possession, loved with an everlasting love. Our Shepherd’s eyes are ever upon his sheep and he is committed to us. He has promised us his presence. He is building his church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.
Years ago I heard a successful church planter respond to a discouraged ministry leader struggling with the question of, “Why do we exist when there are better resourced church plants moving in?” His suggestion was for their church to come up with a simple, one-sentence mission statement of what sets apart their congregation from any other. Though I understand the logic behind his answer, it misses the mark. The church is much more than a group of motivated people with a unique mission statement. Still, here is my one-sentence answer now: Our church is the people of God.