So this street evangelist comes up to me in Exeter city centre:
“Which church do you belong to?” I ask.
“I don’t belong to any particular church.”
“You have to belong to a church to be a Christian.”
“Then you obviously read a different version of the Bible to mine.”
Street evangelist walks off at this point. (Memo to any passing evangelist – please don’t try to convert me. You might regret it.)
We live in an age which doesn’t value belonging. Membership of most established organisations is in decline (although interestingly the most recent data from the Church of England suggests our downward trend is being addressed). And for too long many people have believed it is possible to be a Christian without belonging to a church.
Even a basic reading of the New Testament shows this is not the case. When Peter preached the gospel at Pentecost, it wasn’t simply that folk repented, believed and were filled with the Holy Spirit. They were baptised and added to the fellowship of believers (Acts 2:37-47). Indeed nowhere in the New Testament will you find a believer who isn’t also a member of a church. Paul makes it clear that everyone who believes has been baptised by the Spirit into the one body of the church ( 1 Cor 12:13).
The message of the Bible is that we are saved by faith in order to become part of the people of God. It is a logical impossibility to say, “I am a Christian but I don’t go to church.”If we are in Christ, then we are part of His family, and to deny this basic fact is to misunderstand the very essence of our faith.
But the more I think about this, I see an effective sense of belonging involves responsibilities both on the part of the church and the individual believer. For a start, the church needs to a place of welcome and acceptance, particularly to the outcast and the stranger. Then there needs to be effective and ongoing pastoral care. There needs to be a safe environment in which to grow in the faith and to deepen relationships with other church members. Sadly too often the church has failed in one or more of these areas. Newcomers have been cold-shouldered. No-one has noticed when Mrs Bloggs stopped attending. Gossip has poisoned the atmosphere and secrets are openly shared. I hope St Barnacles has not fallen short in any way like this, but I recognise there is always more that we can do to become the church Christ intends us to be.
At the same time, it is not enough for Mrs Bloggs to come to faith and then attend church once in a blue moon. Again, the New Testament makes it clear that the same Spirit which makes us part of Christ’s body, the church, also gives each one of us gifts and ministries. They may be public, up front gifts. They may be quiet background gifts. The type of gift doesn’t matter. The point is, by not being there, Mrs Bloggs doesn’t simply miss out on the teaching and the fellowship. It means the whole church is affected, because Mrs Bloggs isn’t there using the gifts that the Lord Jesus has given her.
And maybe here we are touching the reason why this whole issue of belonging is so difficult. It is the culture of the day that before committing to anything we ask, “What’s in it for me?” The reason why we belong to church, however, is not necessarily to get something out of it for ourselves (although I do believe the Lord wants to bless us!). There will be occasions when the service leaves us cold. We will find there are difficult people sitting next to us. We may find we do not agree on certain key issues. Yet the church is never about any one of us. It is the place where the Lord Jesus calls imperfect sinful people together with all their faults and failings to love, serve and obey Him.
When you understand that, you realise that belonging to a church is not an optional extra, but a privilege. We have been called into the service of the King who has laid down His life for us. Shouldn’t that make us all the more eager to come together and learn what this King wants of our lives? After all, there are many, many believers across the world who are denied this privilege and would do anything to belong to a church.
How would it be if the Holy Spirit so moved us that none of us wanted to miss out, if at all possible, on the possibility of meeting together in Jesus’ name? At least folk on the streets of Exeter and Plymouth would end up with a rather better understanding of what the Christian faith is really all about.