How to act in church

Just as new trees bear new fruit, new churches make new disciples. It is glorious to watch folks come into the Kingdom, and new churches offer a lot of opportunity for that.

While justification is a thrill, however, sanctification is hard work. Many who come to Christ through a new work have had either no experience of church or a bad experience of church, in which case they may not know how to act. I’m not talking about how to behave in church; I’m talking about how to be the church. Many have never experienced what it means to live in a healthy community — to be the church, not just go to church.

In Galatians 6:1-10, Paul gives a great recipe for how to act in church. As you gather souls, I recommend some version of this teaching as a way of instilling the DNA of community into your congregation.

By Paul’s definition, what does it mean to be the church?

1. Have one another’s back (Galatians 6:1).
This is about making sure everyone in the room recognizes that community is about cooperation, not competition. For some who have been raised in dysfunctional or conflicted congregations, this may be a new thought. Paul charges us to have the spirit of gentleness, to avoid the temptation of judgment in favor of the grace of bearing with one another.

2. Keep your eyes on your own progress through life (Galatians 6:3-5).
Paul encourages us to spend less time externalizing our discomforts (blaming them on others’ behavior) and more time investing in our own connection with God. Imagine the freedom we’d all find in church if we were all committed to working out our own salvation with fear and trembling.

3. Show up for the sake of others, not just for yourself (Galatians 6:6-8).
The contemporary posture of church-going is pretty self-centered. We go to “get fed,” or to satisfy our own music or worship tastes. Community, however, is built on the principle of other-centeredness. We show up for church not just for ourselves, but for the sake of others. We show up in small groups not just for our own edification, but so we can build others up, because we who are committed to community get it that sometimes we need them and sometimes they need us.

4. Do the things you are capable of doing so others don’t have to (Galatians 6:9).
Those who are called to lead may need to be challenged to step up and take authority, so others who are less ready are not placed in those positions before their time.

5. Recognize that you don’t know everything there is to know about another person’s story (Galatians 6:3-4).
Having acknowledged #4 above, we also must recognize that not every person is called to serve in every season. There are also seasons of sabbath — for healing, for restoration. In those cases, what folks most need is someone who will understand and not make them feel guilty for not meeting all the other needs when they can hardly meet their own.

6. Hang in there with one another (Galatians 6:9).
One of our greatest strengths in my church community is the ability we seem to have to hang onto people. Especially in a community where folks don’t yet know “how to act in church,” patience may be the best gift we can give while sanctification does its work, recognizing that holiness is a process, not an event.

7. Honor differences by allowing for them (Galatians 6:6).
It is okay if we each do things differently. You won’t approach life or Christ the way I do, and I need to be okay with that. In fact, Paul tells us (1 Corinthians 12:12-27) that this is how the community of the King is designed to work.

8. Tend to each other’s practical needs (Galatians 6:10).
Maybe the best way for non-believers and new believers to experience the value of community is when we meet them at the point of their deepest needs. I’m not talking about the kind of co-dependence that tries too hard to be everyone’s everything. But through a healthy small group system, the community as a whole (not the pastor) can respond to needs, including the meals sent after surgery or a funeral, or by being there to pray or just be present when someone is dealing with depression or divorce. In the community of Christ, we don’t consider private lives private so much as personal, so that we become accustomed to responding in personal ways to personal needs.

9. Pray for each other (Galatians 6:2).
This is key. When prayer is at the center of community, then connections are stronger (“a cord of three strands is not easily broken”). This is what it means, at its root, to bear one another’s burdens. Be challenged to teach your folks to go deeper than adding names to a prayer list. Teach them to labor for one another in prayer, to bear one another’s burdens to the One who loved them first and loves them most.

This is how the community of Christ ought to act in church. It isn’t simply about going to church, or getting people to come to church. That is a habit we probably all ought to break. Instead, let’s teach our people to be the church, so that in our life together we are bearing Christ to the world.

(This post first appeared on Seedbed’s Church Planter Collective.)

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Why I stopped doing church (or, how repentance got me off the pew)

This one is about when my family changed churches when I was five years old. We were a family of eight, but my mother and I were the only ones who went to church with any regularity. To be honest, I don’t know what was behind the decision to move. But for whatever reason, we left St. Mark and went to the big church on the hill.

Funny, what memories stick with you. I remember the car ride on that first Sunday we went to the new church. My mother called to me in the back seat and said, “Carolyn, this is a big, fancy church, and we have to be very quiet during the service. You cannot talk during church.” I didn’t remember talking during church before but I can tell you, I was very quiet at the new, fancy church.

We must have liked it there because we stayed but you know, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Just like at the other church, we were still among the last to leave every Sunday because my mother would not go home until she had spoken to everyone.

Maybe that’s why I liked communion Sundays so much. It gave me something to do while I waited for my mom. After church on communion Sundays, while my mother talked, I’d go up to the altar and play with all the little cups that were left there. Now, remember – I was five years old. Five year olds eat dirt at home so church germs were certainly not a threat.

You know how there is always a little bit of grape juice left in the bottom of those little cups? Well, I could take the leavings from two or three little cups and just about fill up another one. And I could usually down three or four shots before my mother caught sight of me. “You can not play with the little cups!” she’d say, as she drug me off by my arm.

Usually when I tell this story, I end by saying that I find it ironic all these years later that I make my living talking during church and playing with those little cups.

But this week, I’m thinking of that story because I’m realizing I’ve never known how to act in church. Since I was five years old, I’ve had a church problem. I’m either talking or playing. I’ve always had a bad habit of saying things you aren’t supposed to say in church. I belong to a denomination that follows the liturgical year but frankly, I am not a fan. I realize some of this is a matter of taste. There are people who like to sit on wooden benches and sing the old songs. It is a comfort to them. It feels like home.

Not me.

Can I be honest and speak from my heart? I can’t believe I ever went to church. I don’t think I could ever go back. My experience at Mosaic has ruined me. The transparency, the concern for the one who doesn’t quite fit, the willingness to move with the Spirit, the desire for real community … that speaks to something deep inside of me. It feels like “home.”

And it has ruined me for anything else.

I don’t claim to know God’s whole vision for the church but I do believe he is looking for more than just somebody to talk on Sundays who occasionally plays with those little cups.

But that’s what I knew when I started all this and I’m beginning to realize something sort of profound. I have what is in my heart and then I have what I grew up with. And even all these years later, those two things can still be in conflict. There are bizarre times I find myself irrationally choosing the old in favor of the new; it creates an inner conflict. A traditional heart covered in bluejeans can be a very uncomfortable thing.

Please don’t hear what I’m not saying. Traditional forms of church are not the point of this blog. The point is the state of my heart. Am I willing to change, to go with God, in whatever direction he calls?

I’m telling you all this because sometimes I find myself dealing with God’s call to do a new thing. Am I really willing to go when God says go? Am I really okay with how he makes all things new? Am I truly open to new moves of the Spirit? Am I willing to try new things, or is that only for when I’m miserable enough to change?

Repentance is a willingness and intention to change in the direction of the Kingdom of God. But I’m not always ready to repent, even when I see my fault. Sometimes I have to ask God to “repent me” because I can’t honestly repent myself. I want to want to change, but I’m not always fully there when I recognize the need for it.

But this morning, I see both my need for change and that change in a Kingdom direction is good for me. So repent me, Father, for all the little ways I rebel against your creative call forward. Repent me for the habits I consciously hang onto, hoping you won’t notice. Repent me for the things I stuff and deny and ignore when change and growth are the better alternative.

Repent me for my religious spirit, for my anxious spirit, for my fears. Repent me for every moment I’ve done “church” in the comfortable ways rather than pressing in and forward toward the Kingdom.

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