I just discovered an old copy of Antioch: The Magazine while cleaning my office! The magazine morphed and changed over the years but it’s goal was to provide a behind the scenes, detailed glimpse at the life of Antioch. The article below is one of the very first things I wrote for Antioch and appeared in the first edition of the magazine.
Church, for me, was always a lot like kissing your sister… you could do it, but who’d want to?
Coming to a deep understanding and love for the church has been one of the hardest things in my life.
I still remember when my thinking on church began to crystallize. My boss, Luke Hendrix, said to me soon after I started leading a college ministry that “the church is God’s Plan A for reaching out to and healing a broken world and there is no Plan B.”
That thought has always brought me back when I start to get down on church. Churches throughout history have communicated the truths of God, started orphanages, reached out to the sick and needy, made advancements in science and medicine, looked after the elderly, started schools, provided community and so much more. The little local church of committed believers seeking to love God and love others, whatever its faults, has continued through the centuries to be at the forefront of culture, learning and humanitarian aid.
There are many worthwhile projects and endeavors in which we can participate, but long after we have gone and projects have changed, the local church will endure, multiply and continue the missio Dei (the mission of God).
Understanding the Church
That the church is God’s Plan A brings with it two values that I hold at the core of my being.
First, Christians were designed to be a part of a spiritual family just like they were designed to be a part of a natural family. God doesn’t want spiritual orphans any more than he wants children to be without parents or siblings. We were created for community and for relationship.
What this means is that we will never be more ourselves than when we are knit into the fabric of a local spiritual community (church). Paul expresses this clearly in speaking of the church community as a body of interdependent parts. We need the other parts and, likewise, are needed by the other parts.
If church is important to us then it is important that we value her. And if we are important to the church then it is important that we commit to her.
Secondly, the church is better seen as an organic movement carrying on the redemptive purposes of God than as a static business or institution. We were put here to make a difference and to invest ourselves with everything we have in serving God and loving others.
What this means is that church doesn’t exist purely for me. The church should be centered on the missional purposes of God rather than the ego-centric purposes we would often have for her. In other words, the church exists to help me serve God rather than merely serve me.
This is nothing short of revolutionary! If church is about impacting the world and not just about me, then the needs of the world take precedence over my own personal needs and wishes for my spiritual community or family. Church isn’t a country club; it’s a highly effective tool.
Letting Go of Me
What results from the two values (commitment to church and commitment to mission) are the two seemingly contradictory disciplines of committing to a specific church and letting go of church.
The first is a commitment to be more than a bystander or consumer and become an active and integrated part of a local church body. It is the difference between a glove that merely goes where the body goes and a hand that is organically attached to the body.
The second commitment is to realize that there is something bigger than our own local church family. The kingdom of God and the needs of the world should keep us from trying to build little empires or to care only for the welfare of our church body.
In this vein, I love what David Penman writes, “No local church can afford to go without the encouragement and nourishment that will come to it by sending away its best people.”
The thought echoes the heart of the second commitment and the mantra attached to the name of Antioch… that we would be willing to take the best of what God gives us and give it away.
We developed the saying above from the example of the original church at Antioch (written about in Acts 13) who took the best of what God had given them—Paul and Barnabas, and gave them away—sending them on mission to help others.
The first commitment calls us to do the difficult thing and love the local church enough to be married to her. The second commitment calls us to do the even more difficult thing and love God more than our marriage. The first says be passionately concerned for your local church…the second says be more passionately concerned for a needy world. One says grab, cling, struggle and build while the other says let go, release, submit and give away.
The first without the second puts us in the awkward spot of thinking we can protect our sand castles.
Don’t Go to Antioch
The reflections that I’ve had on the church over the last decade have led me to hope that my generation will give their lives to the local church. I care so deeply that people are committed to a church that it doesn’t matter to me where they go… so long as they go somewhere and get deeply involved in that community. There have been plenty of funny moments when I’ve told people, “Don’t go to Antioch!” No one church family will fit everyone—the goal should simply be that everyone has a family.
I also want to care more about what God is up to in Central Oregon and the world than just what he is up to in Antioch. I want to hold things loosely and be willing to send people and resources away—even if it hurts, even if they are friends, even if it doesn’t serve me.
Ultimately, if we embrace the disciplines of committing to a church and also letting go of church, we should be able to build sand castles as well as let them go.
We should be able to love Antioch and also be able to say, “Don’t go to Antioch!”