Years ago, I delivered a full-length sermon (one of only 4-5 for me); it was titled “The Universal Church.” Within that message, I stepped on the toes of several more conservative siblings by suggesting that there was sectarian thinking within our local church and within our (“non-denominational”) denomination as a whole. We needed to think more universally.
Every few years, I pull out the old cassette (I know, I know … what’s a cassette? at least it wasn’t on 8-track), figuring I’ll be embarrassed at what I said back then. Actually, not. While I would like to retract a couple of sentences and re-word them, I still believe what I said to the Cedars Church in 199x. Although we have our closest relationships in local churches, our “membership”–if indeed such a thing is a valid concept at all–should be conceived of more globally and, well … scripturally.
We experience church primarily on the local level, but my parents taught me that traveling was an opportunity to visit other churches outside our geography, and this practice helped me see things more broadly. Vacations were never an opportunity for slacking and backsliding, and visiting in new places expanded our thinking, both spiritually and practically.
I thought this journey-and-visit practice was mostly out of fashion, but only this summer, as we were visiting the church of a friend, his mother mentioned the same idea. During one phase of my life, the dedication shown in visiting other churches grew passive, but these days, it’s being revived a bit: now, more frequently and with more purpose, I am again taking the opportunity to visit other churches. The summer provided some beneficial times with four churches in NY, one in OH, and one in NJ. Of course, there can be some “duds,” but none this summer!
Only last Sunday, as we visited with Sojourner’s Mennonite Fellowship (we are guests with this group a few times each year), we were not only made to feel welcome again, but actually felt we were a part of the group, participating actively in what went on congregationally. Shared “Kingdom matters,” prayed concerns, intoned spiritual truths (read: energized singing!), and other aspects added up to an inspirational time for our family. Once, I sensed that Karly had stopped singing, and I wasn’t sure why. As the song was winding down, I looked over at her, and could see that she was emotionally moved. Something about lustily singing “Brethren, We Have Met To Worship” with this group was especially meaningful.
Almost paradoxically, I have found that in thinking more universally, local experiences may have a deeper spiritual impact.
So, I’m certainly not suggesting here that local, congregational connections should go away. In fact, my heart is very much inclined toward local–especially smaller–groups. But for sake of discussion: if believers were not official, card-carrying members of a single, local church, what would be the negative results?
- Less $ in the local church collection coffers, which leads to
- Less money for salaries and building mortgages and upkeep (by far the largest items in most traditional churches’ budgets), which leads to
- Fewer church staff positions, and fewer owned buildings, which leads to
- More monetary resources for other missions, the poor, etc.
Ahem. That ended up being a positive outcome. Sorry. Let’s try again. If believers were not official members of a single, local church, what would be the negative results?
- People who are less committed to perpetuated, legacy-based church programs (could we say “people who are less ‘churchy'”?), which leads to
- Fewer such questionable church programs to take time and resources, which leads to
- More time and energy for connecting with family and neighbors.
Shoot. Ended up being a positive thing again. I can really do this. One more try. If believers were not official members of a local church, what would be the negative results?
- People who are not involved in a church “community” or “family,” which leads to
- People who withdraw more and more into self-centered lives, which leads to
- Materialism, and other evidences of selfish decision-making, which leads to
- Marital strife and breakups, neighbor squabbles, consumerism, and other societal/moral ills
It is important to be connected to a congregation of some sort. It draws us out of ourselves, helps us “belong,” gives us purpose outside of our own, little worlds, and calls us continually to something higher. The size of the group isn’t necessarily important. The connection is. And that is why God intended a communal aspect of church. While faith is personal and not inherited, Christianity is not solely an individual enterprise!
I would further suggest that having connections on multiple levels is important for fully actualized discipleship. Local small groups and churches are significant, and so is a more universal sense of tie-in to the Kingdom “at-large.”