By / Jun 30

Why is belonging to a church such a challenge? As Christians, we need to overcome at least four obstacles to live out the biblical vision of a gospel-centered, Spirit-filled community in the church.

Obstacle One: Sensationalism

Many Christians are stuck on the dramatic. We get excited about huge conferences, someone else’s pastor, or the latest controversy. Thrill-seekers simply don’t find life in a local church stimulating enough to really get involved and stay involved.

Caring for the elderly in a local church? Restoring a wayward member? Helping the single mom? Serving in childcare? These things don’t usually excite sensationalists. But while these acts may not be sensational in many people’s eyes, they would turn the world upside down if we began to live them out. What’s more, the endless search for something bigger, greater, and more extraordinary is in the end exhausting.

We need a renewal of Christians who are wholly committed to living out basic Christianity with their faith family.

Obstacle Two: Mysticism

When it comes to life in the Spirit, many think of mystical, miraculous, or private experiences. This is nothing new: Simeon the Stylite, the first of the “Desert Fathers,” constructed a short pillar in the Syrian desert sometime around AD 423 and lived there for six years out of his desire to live in communion with God.

But is that what it means to be spiritual? Being a desert hermit, away from people and worldly distractions, elevated off the ground? Not everyone can go live in the desert alone, and even if they could, that’s not the picture of discipleship in the context of community that we see in Scripture.

In contrast to the hermit’s approach, consider the opening chapters of the book of Revelation, where we see Jesus giving his evaluation of and instruction to seven churches, or “lampstands,” in modern-day Turkey. Jesus is described as “walk[ing] among the seven lampstands” (Rev. 2:1; see also 1:13).

Think about this: Christ is walking among the church! This is why I want my life intertwined with the church. This is why I refuse to give up on the church. Where is Jesus? He’s among his church. He’s up close and intimate with his church. He’s the Shepherd, the Head, the Vine, the Foundation, and the Husband.

To be best placed to experience Jesus in a deep, fresh, life-changing way, you don’t need a perch in the desert; you need a pew in a church.

Obstacle Three: Idealism

In Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic book Life Together, he talks about the problem of having a “wish dream” when it comes to the church. Bonhoeffer explains how idealism is the enemy of true community: “He who loves his dream of community more than the community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial” (p 26).

Wish dreams destroy community. Some have wish dreams related to small group expectations, pastoral expectations, or program expectations. Real life together will involve highs, and it will involve lows; it will involve frustration, disappointment, and struggle. But by grace, we press on together as sinners redeemed by Jesus. This doesn’t mean we don’t work hard to make improvements in every area in the church (we do!). It means we rethink our expectations.

I often chuckle when wish dreamers say, “I wish the church could just get back to the way it was in the first century; those people had it all together.” I want to ask, “Have you read the New Testament? Have you read 1 Corinthians? How about the story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5? It’s hard to get much earlier than that!”

Letter after letter in the New Testament addresses problems in the church! The seven letters to the churches in Revelation contain rebukes to five of the seven churches. Pattern our church after the New Testament? Yes. But let’s not pretend that churches in the first century were faultless. Let’s kill this wish dream and be quicker to identify evidences of grace in the church rather than function as a church critic. 

Let’s celebrate when the church has biblical priorities and show grace when our church may not prefer our preferences.

Obstacle Four: Individualism

Many (often without realizing it) live isolated lives, especially in the West, never experiencing the satisfying joy of biblical community. We know so many people, but we go deep with very few (if any).

Technology won’t give us what our hearts long for either. Technology may strengthen relationships, but it can’t replace them. The COVID-19 pandemic taught us all this. After two weeks of video calls, I was sick of digital interaction. I thought about 2 John 12 during this dreadful experience: “Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete” (my emphasis).

John says there are limits to pen and ink (or, for us, the computer/texting/video). Emails, texts, and calls are poor substitutes for embodied relationships. Something is clearly lacking without face-to-face interaction. A lack of real embodied relationships will lead to a loss of joy.

It’s a privilege to be in community with brothers and sisters. This has nothing to do with whether you are outgoing or shy, introverted or extroverted. It’s at the heart of being a Christian.

Bonhoeffer put it like this:

“It is by the grace of God that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly in this world to share God’s Word and sacrament. Not all Christians receive this blessing. The imprisoned, the sick, the scattered lonely, the proclaimers of the gospel in heathen lands stand alone. They know that visible fellowship is a blessing . . . The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer . . . The prisoner, the sick person, the Christian in exile sees in the companionship of a fellow Christian a physical sign of the gracious presence of the triune God . . . It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren” (Life Together, pp. 18–19).

We need each other. This doesn’t mean we need to live together in a Christian commune. It doesn’t mean community is easy, or that it does not sometimes feel hard. It will never be perfect in this world, but it can still be experienced in a way that is wonderful. This doesn’t mean that all of our friends should be Christians (that can’t be the case if we want to be Christ’s witnesses). It simply means that we fix our minds on a vision of the Spirit-filled Christian life that essentially involves being in community, and we must be committed to pursuing that.


This is an extract from Love Your Church by Tony Merida. A free small group kit is available to help small groups read through the book together, discuss it, and apply the principles.

By / Apr 7

America is no longer a Christian nation if one goes by the official membership rolls of churches. According to a recent study by Gallup, church membership dropped below 50% for the first time in their 80 years of studying religion. This follows a decades long trend of increasing disaffiliation, rejection, and apathy of faith by Americans. The data from Gallup points to some trends that all pastors and leaders in ministry should be aware of, but it also holds some important points about how to stem the growing number of people walking away from Christianity specifically, and faith generally. 

Problem of decline

The decline noted by Gallup is not a new phenomenon. As Gallup’s polling shows, church membership held steady at roughly 70% for most of the 20th century. However, in the mid-to-late ’90s, there was a sudden uptick in the number of people moving away from religious identity. These “nones” represent the fastest growing segment of the American religious landscape. As Ryan Burge has written in his study of this group, it includes those who are atheists and agnostics as well as those who are “nothing in particular.” It is this third group, who eschew religious labels even as they retain a limited number of religious beliefs, that account for the decrease in religious behavior. For an interview with Burge, view this ERLC article. 

However, the rejection of affiliation is not just from those who dismiss the tenets of the faith. Even among believers, formal membership has declined. What can account for this? While there has always been a fluidity to church membership in America’s religious marketplace where people could leave one church and go to another without much trouble, a trend that has accelerated with the rise of larger parachurch organizations and the ability to “go” to church online. But based on the rapid increase, it seems that there are other reasons for this decline rooted primarily in our loss of trust in institutions across society of which religion is just one victim. 

Crisis of institutions

The trend toward declining membership began in the late ‘90s and has accelerated over the past two decades. While monocausal explanations are rarely sufficient to capture the complexity of any situation, it is not a understatement to say that the past two decades have revealed deep rot within our institutions and a growing distrust by the public that institutions serve the public good. From the scandals of sexual abuse within Catholicism and Protestantism to the #MeToo revelations in the halls of Hollywood, not to mention abuses by celebrities and leaders (both religious and secular), the last decade especially has evidenced the deep problems that exist. 

And the effect of this crisis is that younger generations are less likely to see a reason to join any traditional institution because of a creeping cynicism about the motives and purpose of the institutions. Rather than being places of formation, the institutions are viewed as means for those in power to protect themselves and ensure their ongoing prosperity. And the response increasingly is “Why bother?” Why bother with a church that prioritizes politics over fidelity to the gospel, an abusive leader over protecting the vulnerable, or that is satisfied with “only preaching the gospel” without ever asking what the gospel requires of us when we go into a world filled with injustice? A church that is no more sanctified than the local Kiwanis Club is not worth the effort it takes to invest your life, and at least the Kiwanis don’t require you to give up a Sunday morning. As Russell Moore has said,

“The culture often does not reject us because they don’t believe the church’s doctrinal and moral teachings, but because they have evidence that the church doesn’t believe its own doctrinal and moral teachings. They suspect that Jesus is just a means to an end—to some political agenda, to a market for selling merchandise, or for the predatory appetites of some maniacal narcissist.”

Places of hope and renewal

But it is not all bad news. In fact, the problem reveals the solution, even if it is a generations long project. First, though church membership is declining, religious belief still remains strong. Though the nones are growing, and growing rapidly, over 70% of Americans still identify with some form of organized religion, even if they are unwilling to formally join that religion. As discussed above, it is the institution that needs to be reformed as well as the individual; just because people aren’t on the roll at their church doesn’t mean that they aren’t finding their identity somewhere else. So the task of Christian leaders and congregations is to help situate their members’ identity primarily in the gospel, and especially in the context of a local church that is part of a global body. Institutions are strongest when they are places of character and identity formation.

Someone who goes through the military comes out a certain type of person. He or she has been molded and shaped by the norms of the institution into a person who values, loves, lives, and acts in accordance with institutional norms and expectations, often to such a degree that it is apparent in all areas of their life. 

The church should be no different. The decline in church membership is not the real problem, only the evidence of the deeper problem that people are not being formed into the type of people that prioritize the local body. In order to change this, a perspective is required that looks not just at the immediate circumstances, but generations down the line and into eternity. As C.S. Lewis reminds us, it is in the everyday choices that we are being conformed into either a heavenly or hellish creature. It is an ongoing process of formation and molding—or sanctification, to use the terminology of the New Testament—that occurs over a long period of time. 

More importantly, the church should hold out the beauty and power of the community that is the church to the world. The early church had its share of struggles and growing pains, with division between rich and poor, Gentile and Jew, and controversies over who had baptized them, all of which were rebuked. They were also called to unity and community because of their shared identity in Christ. It has become increasingly obvious over the past year that we are not meant to live life alone. Isolation is not good for our souls. And the community the church offers in its rituals and membership is a fellowship that goes deeper than just a Kiwanis meeting. 

The church is a place of vulnerability as we reveal our pains and hurts. It is a place of love as we are served by and serve those around us. It is a place of welcome as we are brought in without regard for our past and are seated at the table where the cup and bread are passed from one broken individual to another. And it is a place where the markers of identity that matter outside the church—race, gender, income, marital status—are not ignored, but they are subsumed in the deeper identity shared by all who are united to Christ. People are looking for community. May they see the church as a place where they are pursued and welcomed into deep, lasting relationship.

By / Mar 8

In a recent docu-series entitled Can’t Get You Out of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World, Adam Curtis says, “In the age of the individual, what you felt, what you wanted, and what you dreamed of were going to become the driving force across the world.” Being a Christian in this “age of the individual” can be challenging. Our culture prioritizes self-expression, self-assertion, and the realization of our internal dreams and desires. Often, this vision for living conflicts with the call of our cross-bearing Savior.

Yet Christ has offered us a resource to combat the temptation to exalt our self-fulfillment above all: church membership. According to Jonathan Leeman, church membership is “a formal relationship between a church and a Christian characterized by the church’s oversight of a Christian’s discipleship and the Christian’s submission to living out his or her discipleship in the care of the church.” God has designed our reconciliation to Him in such a way that it grafts us into a community with others. Our faith journey is a communal project.

By committing to a local expression of God’s Church, we confront the idols of individualism. By faithfully committing to a local church, we are bound and rooted in a received community. While this commitment can be challenging, the practice of church membership counter-culturally forms us as disciples of Christ.

Here are three ways that church membership challenges the individualism of our culture.

  1. Church membership means we can’t choose our community.

By exalting self-fulfillment as a supreme good, individualism communicates that our relationships are contractual, contingent upon their ability to meet our needs. As a result, our social groups are typically chosen, made up of people we intentionally select to associate with.

To paraphrase Harper Lee, you can choose your friends, but you sho’ can’t choose your church family. Church membership binds us to a community that is received rather than chosen. While we can determine the church we join, membership places us in proximity to people we wouldn’t necessarily spend our time with freely. Thus, church membership offers a countercultural experience. 

By committing to a local expression of God’s Church, we confront the idols of individualism.

Chosen relationships are prone to land us with friends who share our experiences, opinions, and affinities. Like the lunch tables in high school, our table fellowship is exclusive to our clique. In contrast, church membership leads us to share the Lord’s Supper with varying age groups, ethnicities, cultural backgrounds, and political convictions. If we experience conflict or disagreement with a fellow church member, we are encouraged to pursue reconciliation and bear with one another in love (Col. 3:13). Covenant relationships like these brush up against the conditional view of relationships offered by our individualistic culture.

As people made in the image of a Trinitarian God, covenant community and committed relationships are good for our soul. We are social beings who flourish only while living alongside others through the ups-and-downs of life (Eccl. 4:19-12). The commitments we have to our church family deepen our discipleship by forcing us to de-center our preferences and priorities in community with others.

  1. Church membership means we are rooted rather than detached.

American culture fosters transience. We are encouraged to chase lucrative salaries, comfortable conditions, or adventurous experiences to new locations without being rooted in a community. Each new place exists to give us what we want. As such, we often lack connection to our neighbors or physical community.

Church membership is a resistance against the flighty tendencies our culture encourages. “For people who have been discipled by our society,” notes David Swanson, “to imagine themselves removed from creation, able to move here and there with little thought about the consequences, the decision to prioritize rootedness and presence will not come easily.” Church membership encourages us to build our lives around relationships in our church and take an interest in the community surrounding our congregational meeting place. While this can challenge our deep desires for autonomy and flexibility, it also grants us a rich experience of the body of Christ and forms us towards faithfulness.

A recent study (pre-COVID) reports that more than 3 out of 5 American adults are lonely. In an age of loneliness, church membership opens the door to loving relationships that can combat alienation and offer us a lifeline as we navigate the rocky seasons of life.

In an age of consumerism, rootedness calls us to reject viewing our church and community exclusively by what we can receive from it. We are encouraged to ask questions about how we can contribute to and bless our church family and neighbors (1 John 3:17).

  1. Church membership means we can’t curate the opinions around us.

Technology feeds our individualism. We curate the information, opinions, and ideas that we encounter daily, conveniently selecting our news sources, social media follows, podcasts and commentators. When we disapprove of what we see or hear, we can block or unfollow. And if we miss a spot, our feed picks up the slack by giving us more of what we liked yesterday.

Self-selecting our information consumption is no new phenomenon. Scripture warns against the temptation to exclusively pursue voices that “tickle our ears” (2 Timothy 4:3). Without covenant commitment to a church, we are free to curate a chorus of voices that reaffirm what we already believe. Healthy church membership, then, is a resistance against this deceptive habit, a reminder that we share a common faith and practice with those in our church body. 

But beyond core doctrines, committing to a community means we will often encounter opinions and ideas with which we disagree. Proximity to diverse opinions will often challenge us to reconsider deeply held assumptions. Moreover, we are encouraged to open our lives up to the input of our brothers and sisters (Hebrews 3:13). As such, church membership is a bulwark against the social media silos and internet algorithms that simply reaffirm what we already know and believe. It is countercultural for dissenting voices to coexist. It is even more so for those dissenting voices to love one another as family. Within the church, we are called to precisely that.

Last year, amidst the political tensions our nation experienced, it was jarring and often difficult to share a church with various social and political perspectives. I witnessed outbursts, awkward silences, and tense follow-up conversations as we discussed sensitive issues with one another. Yet, I treasured this experience, as it reflected the unity we have in Christ. While our culture is eager to cut off and defriend one another over tense disagreements, our unity in Christ is strong enough to bear the freight of our dissent.

Practicing church membership

Christ presents us a thrilling alternative to the exclusively conditional, chosen, and curated bonds offered by our society. Challenging our deeply held desires for autonomy and self-exaltation, church membership forms us into more faithful Jesus-followers. Moreover, when we commit to a local church body, we are granted a church family to bear our burdens in an isolated and unstable world. In this “age of the individual,” faithful church membership is one of the most countercultural offers the church has, and an invaluable resource to every Christian.

By / Oct 1

Pastor Fred Luter, senior minister of the Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, brings a hopeful word for pastors to push through the difficult times and rejoice in the grace of God.

By / Jul 29

The New Testament presents the Christian life as a journey, a pilgrimage—what one Christian author has described as “a long obedience in the same direction.” In Scripture, we see a picture of the Christian life with all of its anquish and simulatenous hopefulness. A spiritual struggle, a battle, continues throughout one’s life. This struggle is quite real as exemplified in the life of the apostle Paul in Romans 7:14-25 and his teaching in Ephesians 6:10-17. And his own difficulties on full display in 2 Corinthians 11 must not be ignored.

The tension between the now and not yet

Yet, for Paul, these challenges are not an excuse for a joyless or slothful life. In fact, his approach is quite the opposite. Deliverance from the struggle is clearly promised, but it is an eschatological hope. We need to recognize that believers live between the fulfillment and consummation of ultimate redemption. We are “in Christ,” but the old age of flesh is still in existence. While our justification has been accomplished by Christ at the cross and affirmed by his resurrection (Rom. 3:24-4:25), we nevertheless are “in Christ” and “in Adam (Rom. 5:12-21). Between Christ’s resurrection and his return, there is an interval, which is the time in which we currently live, a time characterized by tension as believers struggle with sin, weakness, suffering, and death (Rom. 8:17-27; 2 Cor. 4:7-5:5; Phil. 3:10-14).

The entire Christian life is lived in light of the tension between what we already are in Christ and what we hope ultimately to be some day. Conversion is only the beginning; the new has not swallowed up the old. We do not attain sinless perfection in this life, nor are we ever freed from the tension and struggle with indwelling sin. Believers remain in the conflict of which we are ever aware and responsible. Christ followers are called to persevere in the midst of this struggle so as not to be overcome by the world, the flesh, or the devil. We seek to make progress in godliness with the hope of complete transformation into Christlikeness at the time that we receive our resurrected bodies at the consummation of our redemption (Rom. 8:29-39). 

We sometimes read about professing believers who deny the faith they once professed or who experience what seems to be a moral collapse. While there are various factors and life issues that contribute to these events, one of the problems for the church is that the New Testament picture of tension and struggle is not adequately portrayed, causing people along the way to give up or give in. The picture of the Christian life, as presented by Paul and the other apostles, must continually be presented in the church’s teaching and preaching. For a proclamation that promises only peace, pardon, and power will ultimately result in disillusioned followers of Christ who live with a sense of defeat and duplicity. 

The entire Christian life is lived in light of the tension between what we already are in Christ and what we hope ultimately to be some day.

While the understanding of struggle and tension is never an excuse for slothful living, believers need not be depressed nor conclude that grace has lost the struggle. Instead, perseverance is a marker of genuine life for true and persevering believers. We must constantly be judging indwelling sin as an offense toward a holy God. We live with the lifelong struggle while also living with the sense of joy, peace, and thankfulness for the life of grace and for the eschatological hope of ultimate transformation. The conflict seen in Romans 7 and 8 is real and does not represent only a minority of the regenerate community. Instead, it applies to the whole church as we constantly declare our dependence on God, the grace provided for us in Christ, and the spiritual enablement that comes from the Holy Spirit, the giver of life.

Helping one another pursue faithfulness

Are there practical ways that will encourage faithfulness in this life as we await our ultimate redemption? Perhaps Paul’s concluding words in his first letter to the Thessalonians will provide a helpful guide. Participating in a grace-filled church community that shows compassion for those in their struggle will be extremely helpful (1 Thess. 5: 14-15). Encouraging believers to regularly read the Bible devotionally and to develop a prayerful lifestyle is another important step. 

We are told in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 to be joyful, to pray continually, and to give thanks in all circumstances. Joy is not the same as happiness; it does not depend on our circumstances and is the antidote to gloominess. Whether in the midst of conflict, in times of desperation, or on a peaceful day, we are exhorted to always be in an attitude of prayer. We may not be happy about all of our circumstances, but even in them, we are to be thankful, because it is God’s will for Christ followers to be people of gratitude. Ambrose of Milan said, “No duty is more urgent than returning thanks.” When our lives are one constant “thank you, Lord,” we are liberated from selfish ingratitude and lives of debilitating self-interest.

As we participate in this journey with others in the church, we are called to encourage theological and spiritual discernment (1 Thess. 5:19-22). We are not to be gullible on the one hand or overly critical on the other, but we are called to a life of wisdom and discernment that comes from knowing and understanding God’s Word and his will and way for believers. We need to surround ourselves with other believers who have Spirit-enabled insight into the meaning of Scripture and its application for the contemporary world. 

Believers need to prioritize the importance of making progress in this pilgrimage while also finding ways to help others along the journey. We are able to do this as we are sanctified through and through in every aspect of our being (1 Thess. 5:23-28). This journey is not individualistic, but it is to be carried out in fellowship with others, praying with and for others, investing in their lives and asking others to do the same for us. Genuine fellowship and love for others is vital for progress in the Christian life and for the gospel to advance.

May God help us all develop lives of faithfulness carried out in grace-filled communities that will provide encouragement for us and for others—a community in which we can celebrate together and cry together. We must recognize that the Christian life is not some one-time decision but is an ongoing purposeful and intentional commitment for a lifetime. Both the struggle and the deliverance are true and real in the lives of believers. Although Paul speaks autobiographically about these things in Romans 7 and 8, it is apparent that he speaks by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit as well as by implication for all of us who are constantly in need of God’s grace, enablement, and blessing. May God grant us grace to persevere in this life so that those who live and serve with us in community as well as those who come behind us will find that we were faithful to the end.

By / Mar 18

The minute that Todd Wright, pastor of Midway Church in Carrollton, Ga., walks in the door, it’s not hard to forecast that he loves life and loves doing ministry in his rural community of 26,000 people. From his cowboy hat to his cowboy belt to the farming style of his office, Wright loves Jesus and his rural community of Carrollton. He believes that he was created to do ministry in rural America and isn’t ashamed in sharing that God is at work there. He has been the pastor of Midway church for 22 years, and this is the story of the significant changes he’s seen.

Maina Mwaura: How did Midway Church grow into a large church in a city of 26,000 people? 

Todd Wright: To begin with, I felt the church had a great vision when I got here. However, they were inward focused. When I came to Midway, we were running 200, which is not a bad size for a church. After six months of being here, I made the decision that we were going to be outward focused. The first excursion in being mission-based came when I asked our people to pray and knock on every door in our community. In visiting those homes, it opened our people’s hearts to our community. The nearest community at that time was five miles away. It’s been amazing seeing those same people that we prayed for now are a part of our church.

MM: In your tenure at Midway, when did you see the turning point (growth, spiritually)?

TW: There were a couple of turning points. I can still remember constructing our first building. We were planning to build a church that seated 600 because we thought that we would never get bigger than that out here in rural Georgia. When we got part way through the building construction, we went through rapid growth and realized that we needed to raise more money to build—we had outgrown our soon-to-be building. We knew that we were seeing the hand of God. We knew that when we went through that growth period, we were going to have to change.

MM: You had a turning point in your ministry when you decided that you wanted to be the church that unchurched people would come to. What led to that decision? 

TW: It was very surreal moment and one of the most moving experiences in my life. In 2003, I was invited to speak at a church planting conference. During the conference, the state convention passed out demographic information to those in attendance. When I looked at the numbers, I realized that we weren’t reaching the unchurched. Our church at the time was booming, and things were great. I was in the church of my dreams, and it was exciting. When I saw the demographics, something inside of me said, We’re failing, instead of, We’re exceeding. I came to realize that we were growing primarily by church people. The Holy Spirit began to remind me that’s not what church should be all about.

I also knew that our church had to bridge the gap in becoming a church that was multicultural and multigenerational, which is very tough to do in a rural community. I knew we were called to do it, not someday, but now. I can remember driving back from the conference and crying all the way home. When I got back home, one of the steps that I took was sitting down with church leadership and sharing the vision that God had given me with them. We were filling up the building, but we weren’t reaching the unchurched.

MM: How did the church respond to the new vision God had given you?

TW: It was a tough process. When I announced the steps that we would be taking, some in the church saw it as a threat. I had a staff member who sent out negative and false information about me. During this time, we were also in the middle of a building campaign to build a new children’s building. I had pastors in the area who were talking about me. I can remember feeling very isolated sometimes. On top of that, my daughter had a good friend who died in our home due to her having a seizure.

MM: How did you survive it?

TW: It was five years of transition. However, we stuck to the mission and vision that God called us to. I reminded our people that we were on this journey together. I knew it was a turning point when I stopped hearing about the volume of the music and that I wasn’t wearing a tie. The biggest, most important change was when we started baptizing people almost every Sunday. That’s when I knew the shift was happening. I survived the transition by learning to live out hard obedience.

MM: What are some dos and don’ts of rural ministry?

TW: One of the dos is to love people. A sense of genuine love has to be the number one thing. Rural people can sometimes be more bold about their cultural preferences; they tend to wear them on their sleeves. They sometimes tie their cultural preferences to their faith, and that can be difficult for people who don’t understand. At times, those in a rural setting feel threats to their culture, making reaching out to them a challenge. In a rural community, it often helps to ask, “Is this a cultural issue or a biblical issue?” There is no difference in many cases to those in the community. So, my commitment has to be teaching the Bible and asking questions from them about why they think or feel certain ways.

MM: What are some overlooked concerns in a rural community? 

TW: Many rural pastors are bi-vocational, tired, and being pulled in many different directions. Pastors often feel mentally and physically alone because they are in areas where they are physically alone.

MM: What does faithfulness look like for rural church pastors? 

TW: After 22 years in the same church, faithfulness isn’t easier. Faithfulness is me, leading myself in my relationship with God. Faithfulness is making sure that I am walking in humility and making room for people who are different than me. Faithfulness is having the courage to deal with things as they come in order to advance God’s kingdom.

By / Sep 27

In my experience, it usually takes about three to four years to really start to get to know people. Then they leave the church. They move away or have a disenchantment of some kind and are gone. We are still Facebook friends. We may text from time to time, but we are not in each other’s lives anymore. And so they must reset the relationship clock at a new church.

I have pastored one church in a city-center neighborhood of Chicago for 14 years. Yet in reality, I have overseen about seven different churches. Graduation, marriage, a job transfer, cost of living, or just “the itch” causes recurrent waves of people to ebb and flow. I have heard other pastors call it “the churn” or “hugging a parade.” We are in the beginning stages of remodeling our building, and I have wondered if we should install a revolving door at our entrance for an object lesson.

Sometimes a curious thing happens right before people’s departure—a significant new detail in their story comes out. For example, “Pastor, I have to confess, I’m drinking every night to deal with the stress.” We start to address that together. Then, they move. Or, a friend in your church confesses a secret pornography addiction. When you try to go deeper into the heart and provide accountability, their family decides to check out another church because they don’t believe their needs are being adequately met. This is discouraging. And the sad fact is that they have to start the process of being known at that level all over again.

It seems like there’s often a transition just when I start to piece together the deeper interplay of personal sins, past hurts, and personality quirks that can only be achieved after years of walking with each other. They are gone just when the real work of community is beginning.

A simplistic understanding of Christian community

We often mistake Christian community for the fresh excitement of friends with whom we seem to click. The world knows that experience. You do not have to have the Holy Spirit to feel it. But that glow wears off over time and gets overshadowed by the darkness of sin and the weight of real life. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote perceptively about this inevitable phenomenon in relationships when he said, “Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight . . . The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community the better for both.”[1]

As I’ve mentioned, I have found this kind of community happens around the three-or four-year mark with people. And when we enter that phase, the reflex is to withdraw. Yet, if we do not get there and then push through it with others, how can our churches really obey the passages that call us to bear with one another in love (Eph. 4:2, Col. 3:13)?

We often mistake Christian community for the fresh excitement of friends with whom we seem to click.

Sometimes people will point to biblical characters like the Apostle Paul and hold up his example of constant movement as a model of spirituality. However, people like Paul were anomalies with unique callings. Paul’s goal was to establish stable, local churches where the ministry could continue over time. When he wrote to these churches, he assumed there was a baseline of continuity. When Paul and Barnabas returned to their sending church in Antioch, it seems that there were familiar faces who were eager to hear what was happening. Sometimes our church’s missionaries, on the other hand, hardly recognize anyone when they visit on furlough.

What is more, Paul’s general advice to members of the churches he founded was, “Seek to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business, and to work with your own hands” (1Thess. 4:11). This presents a very different picture than that of a rolling stone. U.S. Census data shows that geographical mobility is actually on the decline. And an encouraging LifeWay research study of Protestant churchgoers recently showed that “most are committed to staying at their church over the long haul.”  But the fact remains that each year over 11 percent of the country’s population will move, and over 20 percent of American Christians have only been at their church one to four years.

Will you consider staying put?

If that’s you, would you consider staying put and pushing through the disillusionment barrier in order to grow spiritually? It may mean a smaller house or a less-than-ideal job, but the spiritual benefit (to you and others) would be great. Or, if you have been at your church a while, are you proactively going deeper with fellow members?

There are innumerable good (yet bittersweet) reasons for people to leave a church.  But oftentimes the motivation, whether purposeful or unconscious, is to avoid accountability and escape what the ancients called acedia (that listlessness and loss of energy we all feel over time). A large part of what the Bible means by perseverance involves longevity in church relationships.

Some people say that life is too short to stay in one place too long. But if getting to the point of profound community that leads to deeper sanctification is hindered every time you move, then perhaps life is too short to keep uprooting every few years. Maybe what we really need is to settle down in order to go somewhere.

Notes

  1. ^ Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, trans. by John W. Doberstein (New York: Harper & Row, 1954), 27.
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We live in a world where issues arise in the news and culture daily. Behind every issue, however, is a person—a person made in the image of God. This new ERLC Podcast series, “How to Handle,” will tackle tough issues for today with the hopes of equipping the church on how to handle the topic, care for those struggling with sin and temptation, and care for those who have been hurt. 

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