This article originally appeared on December 8, 2014 on 9marks.org
When the time came to finally say goodbye to the church where I and my family had been members, under my father’s pastorate, I suppose I romanticized the thought of finding a new church home. Being a pastor’s kid comes with certain realities, and for twenty years, one of those realities was that I would attend the church at which my Dad preached. Now that reality gave way to a new one: I was free to go to a church without my parent-pastor.
Perhaps the vision I entertained was like that opening scene from Forrest Gump, in which a feather flies aimlessly and beautifully through the air while sentimental piano music softly plays. I felt as free as that feather, and I would take my sweet time floating from steeple to steeple in search of a new church home.
NOT QUICK AND EASY
It turns out that church hunting isn’t as fun as I believed. In fact, after about seven months, I told my fiancé, “This is probably the worst experience I’ve ever had.” True, it felt adventurous and—at times—freeing to finally discover congregations outside of my family’s presence, and there was never a serious question as to whether leaving my old church was the right decision. But my ideas about what leaving my old church would be like turned out to be based more on fantasy than truth.
For one thing, I thought church hunting would be quick and easy, but choosing a church is not like choosing a new shirt or book. There is a grave spiritual significance to church membership that makes the process deeply covenantal. Thankfully, I had had ministers and teachers in my life that emphasized this. Church membership is more than finding a place that’s comfortable.
More significant than this, I went into the season of church-hunting naïve about what life without regular attendance and involvement at one church would be like. I confess I was a bit excited at the prospect of being “unattached” after decades of never missing more than 2 or 3 Sundays in a calendar year. Coming out from under my pastor-dad meant that I was no longer under the weight of expectation when it came to attendance. Finally, I thought, I could find a rhythm of church life that was my own.
On top of that, my older church was struggling to live as a real Christian community. Its programming emphasized childrens’ and seniors’ groups, and, other than my fiancée and sister, there was no other member within five years of me. So I didn’t dread going elsewhere.
Nevertheless, my season of church hunting was a spiritually and emotionally challenging time, one that became harder the longer it lasted. As weeks turned into months, I became more conscious of how frustrated and discouraged I was. I am incredibly thankful that God led me and my fiancée to the right place (Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, if you’re curious) when he did, but for the last few months I have been reflecting on why that season of church hunting was so hard.
A NECESSARY COMITTMENT, A SPIRITUAL REALITY
First, church membership is not merely an earthly reality, but a spiritual one. It’s not like membership in the country club or being a season ticket holder. To be the member of a church that preaches the true gospel is to be, consciously or not, in a cosmic covenant. While things were difficult at my old church, the true gospel was indeed preached and the biblical ordinances were observed. That means it was a true church. By extension, that means I was participating in a spiritual covenant that was real and sensible to my soul. When I left the church, I was voluntarily removing myself from that fellowship. While on paper such a removal seemed minimal, it was actually a significant moment in my life. My soul could sense the separation even if my reason could not.
While biblical church membership is certainly not less than horizontal relationships within the body, it is more than that. It’s a posture of submission, fellowship, and service to Jesus himself. When I removed myself from church membership, even though the reasons were perfectly valid, I could still sense that something was lacking in my own spiritual life. Being “anonymous” at church left me cold, empty, and discouraged, even if I was unable to articulate why.
NOT ABOUT ME
Secondly, my season of church hunting was individualistic and “me”-focused. Even though I wouldn’t say I was living in close community with the members of my old church, simply worshiping with those whom I knew and who knew me had a sensitizing effect on my heart. I was being pulled out from inside myself to let others in. By contrast, the church hunting experience was incredibly isolating. I was an ecclesiastical tourist, in the pew to passively receive rather than to give.
This was a particularly jarring realization since I had never before in my life “tried” a church. My church attendance had been a given my entire life, which brought an opportunity to practice Christian selflessness. Often I had been surrounded by people with whom I had little or nothing in common, and since I couldn’t change that circumstance, I learned to worship and to talk to and to love those very people. Church hunting, for me, frequently became an exercise in “a la carte” church assembly. I sought the congregation that was most suitable for my personality or my values or my temperament or my schedule.
RESTLESS AND WITHOUT SHELTER
Finally, church hunting was difficult because it was always in motion. It was a season of displacement, moving from one place to the next, when all I really wanted was rest. I wanted to put down the anchor of my heart and take shelter with God’s people, rather than constantly be looking for something and somewhere else. While I was a member at my family’s church, I sometimes wondered what it would be like to have the entire evangelical churchosphere open to me, and have unbridled freedom to go where I was maximally liked and maximally comfortable. That fantasy was rudely burst when it became reality.
Social comfort is like a cheap buffet: the thought of it is almost always superior to the reality. I thought about how much happier I would be if I could simply be around more people my age. What I discovered is that being surrounded with people like me was not nearly as precious as being surrounded by people who were like Jesus. Regardless of things like age, race, gender, marital status, or personality, the presence of fellow Jesus-worshippers, tied together through covenant, is a supremely comforting salve. I didn’t rightly value having the roots of your life planted deeply in such rich soil until they were uprooted.
I am glad my church-hunting days are for now, Lord willing, at a merciful end. God is soverignly kind, as he often is, to design a trying season to teach me about the true value of his church.
Samuel James lives in Louisville, Kentucky, where he attends Third Avenue Baptist Church. He writes for Commonwealth Policy Center and blogs regularly on Patheos. You can find him on Twitter at @samueljamesblog