“I’m looking for a church that’s just like me.” Few people would say it quite so crassly, but the sentiment is common.
This article originally appeared at 9Marks.org.
I often hear people say they’re looking for a church that has “the right fit.” By which people mean, “I’m looking for a church that provides the ministries I am looking for, full of people I can identify with, and where the style reflects my personal preferences.”
There are good reasons for joining and leaving a church, and not so good reasons. There are sensible reasons and sinful reasons. But among the most common is what I often call a spiritualized version of natural selection.
I’ve given up trying to recall all the times someone has said to me, “Murray, there aren’t enough young families at your church.” Or, “There are too many children.” Or, “The youth group is too small.” Or, “Where are all the elderly people?” Or, “The church is too large.” Or, “The church is too small.” “The music is too new.” “The music is too traditional.” No doubt, you’ve also heard all these reasons, and perhaps used them yourself. But here’s the problem: these categories don’t come from the Scriptures.
Why do we place so much value on finding people our own age or people who share our social preferences? On one level, such predispositions are natural. College students are naturally drawn toward other college students. Families with children find it easy to mix with other families who have children. None of this is wrong, but the gospel brings people together not on the basis of natural and intuitive networks but on the basis of the supernatural work of God’s Spirit.
WHAT PAUL SAYS ABOUT THIS The church in Ephesus faced a great cultural divide between Jews and Gentiles. Paul reminded them of who brought them together:
Remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. (Eph. 2:12–20) To the Galatians, he said something similar: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:18) God didn’t choose us according to the rules of natural selection, but according to supernatural grace. When we judge our church according to the whims of natural selection, we’re cutting against the means by which a church is formed and grows.
New Testament churches consisted of an array of people from different cultures and classes. Rich and poor, men and women, Jew and Gentile—they were all members together, called to serve one another in love. This made the church attractive to surrounding people. Here was a place where status didn’t divide, and where otherwise dissimilar people found the deepest and most stable bond.
WHAT CRITERIA MATTER? There are of course some criteria that matter when it comes to joining a church. Theology, for example, is quite important. There needs to be sufficient theological alignment; otherwise, you’ve already set the trajectory for an unhappy ending. Language is another important factor. It’s difficult to talk and listen and build relationships when you don’t share the same tongue. And we mustn’t neglect location. If you’re traveling 40 minutes each way on a Sunday, how involved can you be in the life and health of that church? Are your neighbors and friends (who presumably live near your home and whom you’re inviting to church) also prepared to travel that distance?
When we allow the Bible’s vision of church to inform and transform our expectations, the gains are immeasurable. We begin building a church on grace. We prove to the world that Christ is true, and that he is enough for lasting unity. We demonstrate the breadth and beauty of gospel reconciliation, and we undermine the rampant individualism that diminishes the beauty of the church, denies the power of the gospel, and hamstrings gospel-centered grace and growth.
When Susan and I were living in London, we joined a small group made up of members from our church. I was only 23-years-old, the youngest in the group. The oldest was well over 80. Each week, twelve people from very different walks of life gathered in someone’s living room. There were students, workers, retirees, singles, married couples, those with children, and those without children. The fact that we had little in common didn’t detract from the group. In fact, the opposite was true. Together we had Christ—and our unity in Christ was enough. We learned to love and encourage one another. After all, that’s what the gospel does. It brings people together who otherwise would never connect—let alone build deep, lasting friendship. It may sound counter-intuitive, but joining a church as one of the few young people—or the only family with young kids—might be used by God to bring more young adults or more families into a church. Instead of try and walk out, why not trust and commit?
Simply put, finding a church filled with people “like us” can be a bad idea. Sometimes, the “right fit” isn’t what’s best. Instead of focusing on these details, let’s join and serve churches that look like Jesus and push us to become more like him as we sacrificially love those who aren’t like us.