Church leaders and pastors admonish Christians to find a congregation, join one, become involved. Congregations provide support, a place to learn and grow, accountability – they say.
I agree that belonging to a Christian fellowship and meeting together regularly is valuable, that it does accomplish at least some of the things that are often touted as beneficial and necessary. At the same time, the cynical part of me thinks, “And it’s a way to make sure leaders get their paychecks and validate their calling and their work…”
As someone who does have a regular church family, but also one who frequents other churches, I’ve noticed a dark side to congregations.
Congregations can become a straitjacket for Christians – both individually and their churches.
What do I mean? A congregation can become narrowly focused. It can come to think that it is self-sufficient. It can become suspicious of other churches and Christians. It can come to believe that it is the most “right” or the only “right” church in the community. It can come to think that they have a special calling for God that no one else has, and that if they don’t follow through the community will be lost.
You might look at the above and think how could anyone, least of all you, think that. Maybe not consciously, but the insidious nature of fellowshipping exclusively is that subconsciously Christians and congregations may take on some of all of the above beliefs about themselves.
When it happens Christian witness is weakened. Those on the outside, instead of seeing a single Christian Church, see a bunch of little churches doing their own thing, trying to grow their own little domains. I’m not accusing churches of intentionally doing such a thing, but it’s what people outside the churches see that matter.
I think that if Christians spent a few days each year worshiping with congregations that aren’t their own, it could vastly improve the strength and unity of the Church within a community. Christians would see (not just in theory, but in practice) that God is working through more than just their home congregation. They would see that differences in theology, differences in orthopraxy, and all the other differences aren’t so important to the mission of caring for the hurts of the world. They would see that “right” is often a matter of tradition and perspective. They would see that there can be great good in working together.
Or, maybe I’m just speaking for myself in this whole essay (or some might say, rant).
These past six months or so I’ve spent most of my Sunday mornings at a single church, offering my musical services. I’ve personally felt less connected to other churches as a result. I feel more isolated.
I need to take some occasional Sundays off from serving to reconnect with other congregations.
From what I’ve seen of the earliest churches and their practice, they met in small groups but their association was more fluid. They would meet together as larger groups, and individuals would go from one group to another. I think we need more “moving around”.
I’d like to encourage individual Christians to make intentional effort to visit other congregations, even ones that differ considerably from your usual tradition, and ones that may believe quite differently from you.
I’d like to encourage pastors and church leaders to encourage their church members to take two or three Sundays away from their home churches and spend time worshiping in another church in the community.