How do we not lose our faith when we lose confidence in our church? Or, how do we not lose our faith when we feel neglected or pushed out of a local-church community? This is a really sharp question today from a listener named Sarah in Houston, Texas.
“Pastor John, among my friends I fear I see a form of Christianity that finds its impetus in a person’s ability to settle into the social life of a local church. There’s a pressing toward maturity as a community ideal, doing the things other believers make a habit of — Bible reading, weekly worship, small group gatherings, etc. — but it all lacks a God-focused center in the individual’s life of faith. It is a conformity to community expectations, which is not a bad thing in itself.
“The problem comes when one of these ‘believers’ feels socially slighted or pushed out. Maybe she feels the pastor is more distant than he was in the past, or her overall friendships have grown colder, and her sense of belonging in a particular church waivers at the relational level. Then she finds that her ‘faith’ crumbles to the dust as she turns away from God altogether. How can we guard ourselves (and one another) from mistaking a sense of belonging within a community to genuine faith in God?”
Love for Community
Wow. This is a very astute observation about contemporary Christian experience. Maybe it went by so fast that I wonder if people actually heard what Sarah is saying. Let me add a little bit and say it again.
“Jesus is better than the community of Jesus. Jesus will be there when the community of Jesus lets you down.”
A significant emphasis in our missional life, our evangelism, is offering to people a new community, a new set of relationships. We offer this to an alienated and lonely and estranged people. That’s not wrong. Sarah is observing that it happens, and that it isn’t wrong.
It’s not any more wrong than praying for someone’s cancer to be healed. Lo and behold, God heals the unbeliever, and they’re so amazed that they believe in Jesus. In other words, a miracle can be a pathway into salvation, and community can be a pathway into salvation.
What Sarah is drawing our attention to — which is really helpful, I think — is that authentic pathways into salvation can sometimes replace salvation. Love for being healed can replace love for the Healer. Love for community, love for being accepted, and love by a wonderful group of people can replace love for the Lord of the community.
The evidence that this has happened might be that a person experiences a return of the cancer and then a crisis of faith and a throwing away of Jesus. Or a person, and this is what Sarah is describing, may experience a deterioration of the community relationships that had been so sustaining and then throw away Jesus as they throw away the church. The way Sarah is putting her question to me is “How can we guard ourselves and one another from mistaking a sense of belonging within the community with genuine faith in God?”
I’ll try to answer this in just three simple ways.
1. Jesus Is Better
First, let’s strive to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). In other words, let’s do everything we can to keep Christian community real and authentic and sustaining and satisfying and beautiful both to those inside and those outside the church. Let’s labor to keep it from becoming dysfunctional and hurtful and disappointing.
Right at the heart of how to do that will be the steadfast effort to make Jesus obviously more precious than the community. In other words, what holds the community together is that Jesus is more important than the community.
The new believer needs to feel this and be taught this. They may come into the community so deeply in love with the people and the community that they don’t realize fully what has happened to them — namely, that Jesus has been made their Lord, who is supremely valuable, vastly more valuable than the people in the community.
Just like many other things that have to be taught, because new believers don’t know them and don’t fully experience them, this has to be taught. Jesus is better than the community of Jesus. Jesus will be there when the community of Jesus lets you down. Part of keeping the community real is a focus on Jesus with that supreme value.
2. Broken Community
Second, while we strive to maintain the beauty of unity in the community, we must continually teach from the Bible the whole picture — the realistic biblical picture — that community life in the church will be very imperfect. The Bible is what teaches us to be ready for that and how to deal with it. Let me just list off a half a dozen examples.
“Always keep Christ central, and show that his glory is what satisfies the soul.”
The Bible teaches we’re going to have to forgive each other: “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).
Jesus said to forgive seventy times seven (Matthew 18:21–22). What do you do if somebody comes to you and says, “I’m sorry” seven times? Jesus says, “Do it seventy times seven” — which means in the church we’re going to be hurt. We’re going to be offended. Otherwise, there would be no need for forgiveness or forbearance.
Colossians 3:13 says, “bearing with one another . . . ” — meaning, if forgiveness doesn’t solve the problem and you disagree about what is good and what is helpful and somebody keeps annoying the socks off of you, the Bible teaches you what to do with that. Gut it out — forbear, endure. Read Colossians 3:13.
The whole teaching of church discipline says you might have to excommunicate somebody. Well, people don’t get excommunicated because they’ve made it nice in the community. They get excommunicated because they’ve made it miserable in the community. Matthew 18:15–20 calls us to teach young believers that there’s such a thing as church discipline — to sober them to that reality.
Lots of sin in the community has to be dealt with, because Galatians 6:1 says, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” Usually those transgressions involve hurting other people.
First Thessalonians 5:14 says, “Admonish the idle, encourage fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.”
According to 1 Peter 3:9, you’re going to be treated badly sometimes. It says — and this is talking to Christians about Christians, not the outside world (you can read the context) — “Do not repay evil for evil [you get evil in the church] or reviling for reviling [you can get reviled], but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called.” That’s what happens; people lose it. We’re called upon to return good for evil.
And then Acts 20:29–30 warns us about wolves coming into the church. Yikes. They’re going to be in the eldership of all things. And Demas in 2 Timothy 4:10 left the faith and went away from Paul.
And good grief, the most admirable leaders of all, Paul and Barnabas, had such a falling out in Acts 15:39 they couldn’t even work together anymore. That must have crushed some new believers. I mean, if you were led to Christ by Paul and Barnabas, and you saw those two guys not able to work it out, you’d say, “What have I signed up for?”
I say teach the word — teach these new believers who have been drawn into the new community. Make the word so pervasive, so powerful, that they know these things. Teach them the whole counsel of God. Nothing makes a new believer more stable over time than being soaked in a full exposure to the word of God.
3. Keep Christ Central
The last thing I would say is, always keep Christ central, and show him and his glory as what satisfies the soul. Show the new believer who came in because of the sweetness of the community that the community is precious, not as a god or a savior, but as something that helps us know and enjoy our God and our Savior.
“Nothing makes a new believer more stable over time than being soaked in a full exposure to the word of God.”
Don’t neglect the radical teachings of Jesus in this new community, who says, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37). Surely, we should add, “Whoever loves community in the church more than me is not worthy of me.”
Make sure they see the radical experience of Paul in Philippians 3:8: “I count everything as loss” — including the community of heaven, if I have to — “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”
At least those three things would be my answer to Sarah’s question about how we can guard ourselves from mistaking a sense of belonging with genuine faith in God.