“When the doors are open, I feel like we should be there.” This was the line my dad gave me when I was a kid and I asked why we went to our local church on Sunday morning, Sunday night, and on Wednesday night. We were Gregorys and that was what the Gregorys did. Over time, I wrestled with whether or not that was a good enough reason. I came to believe you could be a part of a local church in an integral way and still not really know Jesus. At the same time you could be loosely connected to some church and live your life in a way that reflected the heart of Jesus.
This leaves you and I with a question, “does being a part of a local church matter?” “How often do I need to be with the people who are a part of this local church?” If I want to write a really honest question, “How many Sundays (or whatever day) can I skip gathering together with my church family and still be a disciple of Jesus?” I am sure if I took more time to rewrite those questions I would rewrite them several different ways.
As I think about the church in the 21st century there are things that excite me and things that concern me. I am excited that in many ways we have left the legalistic and fundamentalist reasons we attend church. We are better understanding it is not our attendance that transforms us, but it is the transformation of our hearts. I am excited that (in the Church of the Nazarene specifically) we are embracing a more full gospel story. A story that is not just belief or action, but is both belief and action. We are moving to a healthier place and embracing the words of John Wesley, “there is no holiness, but social holiness.” We are embracing a more robust discipleship that includes deep care for our local communities and the world.
I could go on and on about the great things I see. I am encouraged that we are embracing a model of discipleship that I believe that Jesus modeled and in that model we are allowing for people to “belong” before they believe. In other words, we are not trying to tell people you must think “this” before you can be a part of us, and we are trusting the Holy Spirit to lead more in the transforming of belief. Our church was reminded by my friend, Jason Robertson, that we most often change by new behaviors not new thoughts. The church is getting better at inviting people into new behaviors and often these behaviors eventually change the way we believe.
This brings me to the point of writing this. I do not believe going back to a day in which we are so insulated as a church that we are disconnected from the broader world is a good thing. Nor do I believe that attending church weekly is necessarily a behavior that leads to life transformation. That being said, my question is, “what shapes us?”
In the beginning of this I wrote that my family went to a local church in borderline legalistic ways, but I can say we were also shaped through that as we watched the way my parents modeled service to Jesus, His Church, and our community. There was a pattern of living that led to a life of belief. I am not saying that is the only pattern that works, but it was the pattern I grew up with. I was shaped by parents and a local church that loved and invested in me. That local church was the place that people would bring me newspaper clippings about the game I had the week before, they were the people who sent notes to me when I was in college, they were the people that even still ask my parents about me, they invested in my life. One of the major ways they came to know, love, and care for me was through our faithful attendance together. They helped shape me.
I want to preface this next section by acknowledging some of us have had bad experiences in churches. Sometimes the local church is not the reflection of God’s Kingdom in the world that it is called to be. However, I do believe more often than not, that is not the case. I do believe the local church is the hope of the world, it is the embodiment of Jesus in the world. It is the incarnation of God, here and now.
What shapes us? One of the things that I am increasingly concerned about (Barna research has done much in this area and you can read more about that from them) the way in which we attend church less frequently. I am not trying to say you should never miss (time away is good for all of us), but I wonder if in our recognition that church attendance does not make us a follower of Jesus, it leads us to a place where we are less shaped by Jesus and more shaped by other things?
Being shaped by anything takes a long time, it happens over months and years not minutes and days. We live in a world that promises you can look like a fitness model in 10 minutes a day for 90 days, but in reality it takes much more than 10 minutes and more than 90 days. Are we being intentional in the way we are shaped? Are we willing to live and be committed to a community of people trying to follow Jesus? Are we willing to be a part of the local church and all its glory and all its mess?
In our freedom, are we modeling for our kids and grandkids (and if we don’t have kids, are we modeling for others) a model they should follow? If it is not the local church that helps us disciple one another most weekends then what is the thing shaping us? What are the practices, the patterns, and behaviors that shape our life? Are they centered around the Kingdom of God and its practices, or are they more centered around an alternative value system? (This is in no way a call to reject or leave the world, but is a question of: What is the guiding narrative of our lives?). The question we are left with is this: “If it is not Jesus and His Church that is helping to shape our lives, what is shaping us?”