Thursday, January 12, 2012

Why the Church?

Dear friends,

I know I've posted a lot this year on what can go wrong in churches.  I know that sometimes it's tempting to get down on churches if you've been hurt before, but there is a good reason for them!  Actually, several!  Here goes!  (Note: I originally wrote this article many years ago in the context of the home schooling movement.  If you aren't teaching your kids at home, just ignore those references!)

Why the Church?
            I’ve noticed a lot of discussion (and debate) in home schooling circles about “the church” -- what it is and what it should be like. I know there are many home school families who are as cynical toward the organized church as they are to the public school system. In the past 30 years, due to family moves and other providential circumstances, I’ve had the privilege of membership in over a dozen congregations with slight to moderate variations from one another.  Each one was manna to my soul in some way or another! As an avid student of theology, I care deeply about sound doctrine, but I’d rather be in an imperfect church than none at all.  If I ever find the perfect church, I won’t attend it, because I wouldn’t want to ruin it!  Yet we have also left churches because the problems were serious enough that we needed to find a healthier place to worship and grow together.  I see this as a matter for serious prayer and contemplation.

            I think home school families face some unique challenges with the churches they attend.  On one end of the spectrum, some churches seem apathetic or even antagonistic to the home schooling lifestyle, making you feel "weird" and old-fashioned. Or you might worry about worldliness of other kids or the wishy-washy doctrinal teaching within the youth program. This can certainly be a concern, because you have little control over what resources they choose to use, and the Emerging/Emergent church movement (which is quite often heretical) is making deep inroads in youth ministry programs within evangelical churches.  I really appreciated one of our former churches, which highly encouraged and even expected parental participation in all youth meetings. We knew what our kids were learning and had the chance to follow up with them about it later. It also gave us the valuable opportunity to get to know and observe their friends, which was quite important to me.  

            On the other hand, you might encounter a church where the home schooling lifestyle is firmly entrenched or even mandatory for those who are core members or leaders.  Here the challenge is more of conformity and control.  This sometimes escalates into the abuse of spiritual authority, especially in churches with roots in the shepherding movement of the 1970's.  In a legalistic church, if your family doesn't fit in with what is expected, you may find yourself on the outer fringe, deemed second class citizens. Or, if you do fit in, you might be tempted toward elitist self-righteousness and make other people feel unwelcome.  In some ultra conservative home schooling churches, there are rigid man-made standards for dress, worship style, entertainment, etc.  Are people treated as pariahs if they don't toe the line?  Will they be kicked out of the proverbial holy huddle? How will this rejection affect the children, especially the teens? Will this pull them toward outward conformity (accompanied by depression or anxiety when they can't measure up) or push them into  overt resistance (often labeled rebellion by the overzealous) because they rightly discern that the standards are ridiculous?  Either way, it is not likely to nurture them into a full and vibrant faith.  They will see the lack of warmth and joy and be repelled.  Can we then blame them for latching on to wild and crazy friends who at least accept them for who they are and know how to show them a fun time?  Yes, churches need to have reasonable Biblical standards for behavior, but there also needs to be a whole lot of grace and exuberance for life that makes it all possible and worthwhile.   Ask yourself, "How is my church affecting my level of joy, peace, and compassion?  Am I drawn to worship God from the heart?"

"The Lord says: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught." Isaiah 29:13

            Fortunately, church does not have to be an ordeal.  There are plenty of normal, grace-filled, life-affirming churches to choose from.  Don't give up your search!

            The most important reason for the church is that Christ himself established it. Yes, we automatically become part of the universal Church when we become part of Christ, since the Church is his Body. But there is also a need for faithful fellowship with other believers in your geographical area. Web boards, e-mail lists, and TV broadcasts may enhance our Christian growth, but they are no substitute for the living, breathing local church.   A local church offers a diverse mix of backgrounds to broaden and deepen our spiritual lives. What a joy it is to walk into the auditorium each week and see people so different from me! “Every color, dark or light, they are precious in his sight!” Jesus is Lord, not just of white middle class Americans, but over every nation, every skin tone, every socio-economic status and educational level. This kind of healthy diversity builds respect for others into the lives of our children. There is no sense of us versus them but of being dear brothers and sisters in the Lord. I can learn from those who are further along in the Christian journey, while at the same time helping others along the path.
            A local church offers flesh-and-blood accountability. I know how easy it is to drift in the Christian life, even after decades in the faith. Having people personally looking out for my spiritual life is a vital safeguard for my faith. I’m not talking about an invasion of privacy here, just a valid concern that allows certain people to ask, “What is the Lord teaching you right now? Is there any way I can help you through your struggles?” If there is a disagreement, this is a valuable opportunity to be like iron that sharpens iron to one another. If I get off balance, my brothers and sisters can bring me back to reality again. Most likely, I’ll even be prevented from getting to that place because I am hearing the whole counsel of Scripture wherever I turn in the church!

            A local church offers in-depth teaching and corporate worship. The good pastor invests hours of his time to prepare his message each week.  He wants build his flock through the public preaching of Scripture rather than amuse them and make a name for himself. Likewise, the musicians work hard so we can lift our own hearts in praise to God. Rather than find all the reasons why we didn’t like the sermon or the music, do we take the time to express our sincere appreciation to those who so faithfully serve us? What a responsibility!

            A local church offers a place for adults and children to develop and exercise spiritual gifts and works of service. The preacher can’t do everything by himself!  Each member must do his or her own part, though mommies with little children must certainly be careful not to overdo. It is especially encouraging to see young people being mentored into church life by serving on the worship team, reading the passage at a Bible study, scrubbing floors, collecting the offering, tutoring students, serving meals, or watching out for the wee ones at a church function. This is such a practical part of their training into maturity.

            A local church can choose to offer educational opportunities to round out what we are trying to do at home.  Our former church offers a lot of support for home schooling, through tutoring classes in high school math and science, free enrichment classes for all ages, support meetings and workshops for dads and moms, and used curriculum sales.

            A local church supports missionaries in other lands. Part of a church’s budget is usually set aside to extend the gospel around the world through financially sponsoring missionaries. Many churches send members on short term overseas outreach trips, including whole teams of teens and young adults.

            Yes, your local church can be one of  your most important support networks in home schooling!  What can you do to serve and grow?

~ * ~
            As a part of the body of Christ, you are connected with your Christian sisters and brothers.  As a home school mom, you are connected with others who are investing in their children's education.   We all need a strong network of give-and-take relationships, so take the effort to invest your life in others beyond your home.  Get involved in a local church and a home school support group.  Find a mentor.  Be a mentor!   We all need somebody to lean on!