I grew up in church. I was there every time the doors were open. I loved every part of it until one night at church camp. I was broken and crying out to the Lord and felt that I needed to speak with a counselor. While I won’t claim that I was pure in any way for most of my teenage life, I will tell you that, at this point, I was still really young and trying to follow the Lord. When I met with the counselor, he asked that we go outside to talk. It was dark, and he began to ask me really uncomfortable questions. As he spoke, my anger raged inside me. Maybe he didn’t intend to make me feel the way he did. Maybe he thought I was naive enough not to notice where his questions were going. Either way, that was the turning point for me walking away from the church.
I spent the next several years going through the motions with spiritual highs and lows and times of nothing spiritual at all. My parents did everything possible to pour God’s Word into me, but when I looked at the church, I didn’t see God’s love. I saw judgment and slander and gossip and anything but the Gospel. For a brief time, I saw God’s love in a youth minister who I knew I could share my heart with. He was special– when I looked at him, I knew that he knew that I was living in sin, yet he welcomed me with open arms and continually pointed me to Christ. And then he was gone. The church changed leadership, and in what seems like an overnight decision, he was ousted. The one who walked with us, the one who met people out on the streets and asked them to join us, the one who didn’t care about the color of our skin or our background, the one who day in and day out week after week shared the Gospel, was gone. And that was strike two for me.
Fast forward a few years, and I had just turned seventeen and was living in my own apartment and going to college. When I finally got the nerve up to attend a church, guess what happened? It was NOT church. It was a Republican rally. The only time Jesus was mentioned was in the opening prayer. The preacher (and I use that term VERY loosely here) literally ended the “sermon” of talking about the death penalty by slamming his hand down on the podium and screaming, “and I say let’s kill em’ and kill em’ faster!”
I. Was. Done.
So how on earth did I end up back here? And why on earth do I encourage people to attend the local church? How did I come to love her so much in my adult life when I found no relevance in her in my younger, more pivotal years?
The answer is simple: Jesus.
I remember the moment when I knew I must go back. I had spent years shoving the Holy Spirit into the recesses of my being and living the way I wanted. I was empty inside and hurting, but I was also stubborn and wanted to live my own way. Then one morning it happened: I was in the shower, and I felt this “leaving” within me. I don’t know how else to describe it. I know the Lord never leaves us, but I believe that He allowed me to feel that so that I would return to Him. I remember hitting my knees and screaming out loud, “WHERE ARE YOU, GOD?!”
I have never been so scared in my entire life. It had been years since I spoke with God, yet in that moment, I knew I would never be the same.
You see, God pursues us. He is the Good Shepherd, and He never loses one of His flock. His children hear His voice. There was no person, no sermon, no pastor, no program, no music, no graphic, no show that brought me back to Him. It was God Himself.
This was my experience as a believer. This was the Lord calling and my willingness to surrender. But God didn’t stop there. He didn’t intend for me to walk alone. After years of being away from church, I had a desire to be with people of God. But how, after my experiences, could I find an authentic church? Did it really exist?
I share my story with you for two reasons. I want you to understand that this is not some generic “5 Ways to Become More Relevant as a Church” list. It is what made me listen after years of turning away. It is also to encourage you, fellow church members, to BE The Church. Our worship times are full of “fans” who are not actually followers of Christ, and it is hard for outsiders to differentiate. We must be active in reaching people instead of sitting comfortably on our pews. We must live what we believe. We must be authentic in the midst of pride, comfort, busyness, and distraction.
So now to the grit of the matter: How can we, as a church, reach the lost or even the believers who have experienced “church hurt”?
- We have to be relevant in the right ways. While it’s important to contextualize, we have to be careful not to simply advertise. Every gimmick, every show, every song, and every graphic is important, but these things are ultimately just vehicles for the message. Millennials have been sold the philosophies of postmodernism and relativism mixed with tremendous undertones of existentialism. They question the meaning of life and whether or not life even has meaning. They are searching for purpose in a world that doesn’t fulfill and doesn’t make sense. They see suffering and hatred that are incomprehensible, and they are searching for peace. When millennials walk into our churches, if we don’t have substance to support the hype, they will not stay. They can get great coffee at Starbucks instead.
- We have to LOVE people, not adopt “projects”. This might be the hardest part. Discipleship is not us sitting at a table and imparting our knowledge on a group of eager listeners as they highlight their Bibles and become the next Timothy. (Okay, so maybe it can be for some, but that’s rarely been my experience.) More often than not, discipleship is MESSY. It is first and foremost a friendship. We are all family in Christ, and we should treat each other as such. This means sharing our burdens, warring together, praying together, and pointing each other to Christ. It means receiving a call at 2 a.m. from a friend who has fallen into sin and telling her how much Jesus loves her and that His mercies are new every morning. It means holding each other accountable in the Word, not condemning each other. After all, we can’t be someone’s Holy Spirit. We are all on a journey, and we are all being sanctified daily. The Lord is the One who works on us. If we could fix each other with our judgments, we wouldn’t need Him.
- We have to get over ourselves. We are obsessed with perfect angles and pithy quotes, but if our lives don’t reflect the Gospel, we are “stale bread” to outsiders. As we disciple each other, let it be that we point each other to what God’s Word says. Anyone can argue with our personal thoughts on a matter, or the latest celebrity preacher’s thoughts on a matter, no matter how eloquent they sound, but they can’t argue with what the Word says. Let us be a people who abide in the Word so that it flows through our hearts and minds and out of our mouths and into our limbs! As my mom would say, “Let your walk talk what your talk talks.”
- We have to love ALL people. Oh friends, if I could scream one sentence from the rooftop, this would be it. Yes, ALL people, because God loves all people. Jesus died and rose again to pay the penalty of sin for ALL people. You know… the ones with different skin tones, the ones with different nationalities, the ones with different backgrounds, the ones with illnesses, the ones with different religions, and even the ones with different sexual preferences! Jesus didn’t say, “Go and share the Gospel with all nations of people who look like you and are already Christian.” He didn’t say, “Go and sit on a pew with your best friends and form a holy hill that digs into my Word but never practices it.” What about the woman who sneaks into the back of the church right when it starts and leaves during the offering? How will you reach her? What about the one who smells like he hasn’t had a bath in a week? What about the one who only speaks broken English? What about the one who just got out of prison? What about the one who has a bad reputation? What about the one who is openly gay but decides to try your church? Friends, oh dear sweet friends, we have to stop. We have to see the unseen. We have to walk into church with eyes for the lost just like we walk into the world with eyes for the lost. We have to do more than wave hello. Anyone in the world (especially in the South) will do that. We have to be willing to get into people’s lives. It can be uncomfortable. But each of us has a circle of people that we encounter each day that are totally unique to us. What if we stopped letting fear stop us? What if we loved ALL people as Christ loves them? What if we shared the Gospel with ALL people, no matter their background? The Gospel has the power to save! It has the power to transform! We should be a vehicle for sharing it, not a barrier preventing it.
- We have to be available. Enough with limiting our hours to Sunday and Wednesday at specified times. That is NOT authentic. Would we do that to our family members? Would we do that to our friends? We don’t throw seed in the ground, water it once, and expect it to continue to grow. We need each other! God is relational, and He has designed us to be relational as well. There is no greater blessing than having a group of people to pray for us, encourage us, and continually point us to Christ. We have many burdens in this world, and when the Body of Christ functions as He desires, the Church becomes a safe haven, a place of refuge and growth that is not limited by time or place.
For me, church is not about a building; it’s about a group of people. I spent years without that support, and while finding it was difficult, it has been one of the greatest blessings of my life. If you don’t have a church, I’m urging you not to give up. Jesus loves the Church and desires for you to be connected. If you do have a church, I urge you to take these things into consideration. We will never win a culture in a fallen world, but through The Church, the Gospel can win a people.
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