Sunday, October 2, 2011

Too Much Church

     Some people say that you can never have too much of a good thing, but I disagree.  I grew up in a church culture that taught us that "the more you're in church, the more spiritual you are."  So on Sundays my family attended Sunday School early in the morning, followed by the regular Sunday service and finally, an evening service later that night.  Sundays were proclaimed to be the "day of rest", but they absolutely exhausted me!  No wonder we took Sunday afternoon naps religiously, as they were the only saving grace that kept us from total physical exhaustion!  LOL!!  In addition to Sundays we also had a midweek service on Wednesday nights.  Like clockwork, we maintained this tight, rigid schedule of spiritual exercises.  If that wasn't enough, there were also special prayer meetings, youth meetings, vacation Bible Schools and revival meetings that lasted weeks on end!  Church was like a second home for me as a kid!                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  
     The condemnation was always there:  if you didn't get to church every time the doors were open, that was proof that you didn't love God, you didn't measure up, and you weren't good enough.  In fact, looking back at it now, I think that church attendance, along with financial giving and volunteer service within the church, were promoted more than character transformation and community service outside the church!  It seemed like we were serving "the church" more than we were serving God.  Simply put, trying to please man is always a tireless, dead end street.    
     The light came on a number of years ago:  the classic verse used to convince people to attend more church services was actually pulled out of context.  Check out Hebrews 10:24,25 for yourself:  "let us consider one another to provoke to love and to good works:  not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as you see the day approaching."  We were told that the closer we were to the end of time, the more church services we should attend to encourage one another to "hold on to the end."  But notice that this passage didn't necessarily paint the picture of a structured church service as we have come to know it.  It does however clearly portray the dynamics of personal relationships where the love of God motivates us to encourage one another on a consistent basis.  Verbs such as "consider, provoke, don't forsake and exhort" speak of committed relationships, not structured church services.
     If the truth were told, the early church didn't hold 3-4 regular church services per week like some churches today.  The New Testament and other documentation from the first century tells us that they commonly came together in local gatherings once per week (traditionally on Sundays).  In addition to this, they met "from house to house".  This speaks of the personal relationship aspect of church life.  It seems that fellowship, discipleship and relational evangelism played just as much of a role in the life of the early church as corporate church gatherings where leadership ministered to the church at-large.
     Think about it for just a minute.  Jesus didn't pull his disciples aside before ascending to heaven and give them a schedule of church services for the next month.  Nor did he give them a church bulletin detailing each part of the upcoming services.  Nor did he make Peter- the pastor of the church or John- the praise & worship leader or James- the head usher or Mary- the children's ministry leader, etc.  The point is that the focus of Jesus' conversation with his disciples prior to ascending to heaven was to prepare them for the ministry of the Holy Spirit to them and through them.  Jesus knew that if his disciples would receive the Holy Spirit then He would continue to direct the affairs of His church, including its gatherings and what would take place in their meeting together.  After all, it was Jesus who said, "I will build My church."
     Honestly, I think too many people are trying to fulfill Jesus' job description.  Too many people have taken it upon themselves to structure and control church gatherings that were meant to be led by the Holy Spirit.  Don't take me the wrong way:  I'm not against organization, planning and schedules.  And I'm not against church leadership or the ministry of the Word.  I'm just against our unwillingness to not allow the Holy Spirit to lead us in our relationships, whether in the form of church gatherings or in our personal life.  When we press the issue and go through the ritual of church service after church service without cultivating godly relationships outside those services, we miss the point of  "assembling ourselves together".  The passage in Hebrews clearly says that we should gather together because of our consideration for other people and their need for encouragement, not to put another notch in our Christian belt.
     Let me put it to you this way:  every plant needs the right amount of light, water, heat and soil to flourish.  Having an abundance of light will not guarantee a healthy plant life.  Nor will the best soil on the planet or the perfect amount of water.  But when these elements work together in the right proportions, plants grow and produce easily!  Also, in order for our bodies to be healthy, we need the proper balance of food/water, rest and exercise.  Having a perfect diet alone will not guarantee long life.  Nor will 8 solid hours of rest per night or a rigorous workout schedule.  But once again, it's the combination of these components that gives way to good health.
     The Christian life is no different.  God has designed the church to be the environment in which people connect with God and each other, which provides the necessary elements for spiritual growth.  Notice that I didn't say church services.  The church involves our public gatherings, but that is just one necessary component to successful Christian living.  I strongly believe that every person on planet earth needs 3 things to be consistent in their lives in order to live up to their potential in Christ:  a personal relationship with the Lord, personal relationships with other believers and personal involvement in church gatherings where spiritual leadership ministers the Word of God.  One of these things in large quantities will NOT make up for the lack of the other two areas.  They are all necessary components that need to have their place in our lives if we are to be healthy believers.
     Let's cut to the chase.  Is it possible to attend too many church services?  If the Holy Spirit is not leading you, then yes!  I'm going to go out on a limb and echo what the apostle Paul said in I Corinthians 11:17- "In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good."  You've got to be kidding me?  Is that in the Bible?  It sure is.  Our church culture often contradicts Scriptural precedents and it would do us some good to compare what we believe and practice to the Word of God.  And it would really do us some good to adjust our lifestyles to the godly wisdom of the Word as opposed to blindly following the traditions of our particular denomination or church we attend.  (food for thought)  Of course, the context of this verse has to do with people gathering together with selfish motives, not considering how they can be a blessing to others.  But the point is that merely gathering believers into the same room and holding a church service doesn't necessarily mean that true fellowship or ministry takes place, let alone spiritual growth enhanced.  Going to church (a place) and participating in a church service (a program) is NOT the same thing as being the church God has called us to be, which is a network of spiritual relationships that cultivate godly character and the development of spiritual gifts.
     My ministry experience of 20+ years and personal relationships with 100's of pastors over the years has led me to conclude that the vast majority of believers that regularly participate in church services either don't have a consistent personal relationship with God or personal relationships with those they attend church with outside of their respective gatherings, or quite possibly both.  This is the recipe for spiritual stagnation.  Many believers today have grown content with their spiritual development because their focus is altogether too much on their Christian accomplishment of attending church services, as opposed to putting in the effort to develop godly relationships outside of public gatherings, which by the way, is a great way to develop godly character.  The fact that many believers don't pursue relationships outside of church services reveals a selfish motivation for coming to church in the first place:  to get something out of it.  Hear what I'm saying:  we should expect to receive ministry from the Lord when we attend church gatherings, but our priority should be to consider others as Hebrews 10 tells us to.          
     There are only so many hours in a day, 24 to be exact, in case you didn't know.  Our time is valuable.  And with so many responsiblities in life, it's important to mange our time well.  If we love our spouses and children, we will spend the necessary time to express that love and care for them appropriately.  If we want to be able to provide for our needs and those of our family we will invest the necessary time into managing our financial worlds in order to do so.  Frankly, if we love God and people our time will reflect that love.  Attending church services can be a viable way to express that love, but let us be honest.  Does coming to a building we call "church" and participating in a service we call "church" really exempt us from developing personal relationships with believers and most importantly, our personal relationship with God?  If we spent too much time in church services, not to mention volunteering in church ministries and giving too much of our financial resources to church endeavors, our family whom we love will suffer.
     Is God pleased that we neglect our spouses and children for the sake of more church services?  Where's the love in that?  Is God pleased with believers who can't pay their bills because they gave too much money to the church?  What kind of witness is that?  Is God pleased with our hours upon hours of church ministry involvement when we neglect to reach out to the neighbor next door because our schedule is too full?  When we push the issue of living half of our life within the four walls of a church building, we will undoubtedly fail to fulfill the various responsibilties we have in life and will be unable to express the love of God to others like we should.  When it comes down to it, we've been trained by our religious culture to be selfish in our pursuit of spiritual achievement to the detriment of our families, finances and the real needs of people around us.  Just ask those who grew up in families of full-time pastors.  Once again, it's been my experience that the majority of pk's (pastors' kids) grow up resenting God and have a bad taste for church because family relationships tend to be pushed aside for "more important matters."  This is what I'm talking about.  Too much church and not enough life!
     In addition to pk's being infected with an anti-God and anti-church disease, pastors contract a disease of their own.  In case you don't know, pastors have the 3rd highest rate of suicide among all professions!  This is largely due to not allowing the Holy Spirit to direct their affairs.  When we bear responsibility that was never meant to be ours, we carry undue stress that affects every part of our lives.  This is not God's intention for His people!  His yoke is easy and His burden light.  If we allow the Holy Spirit to open our eyes to the web of religious control that has influenced our perspective of church life, we will experience a freedom we never knew was possible! Serving God should in no way or form subtract from our relationships, our finances or our health.  The blessing of God should enhance us in every way!  But if we insist on doing things our way and not allowing Him to lead us, we will continue to struggle in life and miss opportunites to bring others to Him.  As sad as this sounds, this is the position many believers find themselves in today.
     Too much of a good thing is not good because other things are neglected.  No amount of church services, no matter how awesome the ministry is within them, can take the place of  your personal relationship with God.  It's not worth losing your marriage for the sake of  unrealistic expectations placed on you by our religious culture.  It's not worth repelling your kids from God and the church because of selfish ambitions to achieve spiritual goals.  Public church gatherings just cannot replace private relationships.  If you don't have time to invest in people's lives outside of your ministry involvement in your local church, something has got to give.  When people spend too much time and give too much money to their local church, it resembles more of a club (and possibly even a cult) than the church of the living God.  This can be dangerous on so many levels. 
     Let me encourage you to ask the Holy Spirit to lead you in your church involvement, your private devotional life and your personal relationships with others.  All three are vital to your spiritual health.  And by the way, if there can be too much church, there can also be too little church as Hebrews 10 says so well:  "not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is..."  We'll visit this concept in the next blog.  Let me also encourage you to interact with me in this blog and share with others.  That's why I transitioned from "newsletter" to blog, to allow for collaberation.  Join in the conversation and share your experience with me.

bo salisbury
the river at new philadelphia