What does it mean to be part of the church? I’d like to answer that question experientially.
Church means that, as a child, I knew that I belonged and was valued and wanted. I felt that because the adults who sat in pews near where we sat shook my hand and called my by name and passed me peppermints during the worship service and smiled at me a lot, all of which made me feel loved. Intuitively I was learning what God was like by the actions of his people.
It means that people saw gifts and potential in me long before I saw these in myself. The church prayed me into ministry before I knew God was calling me into it, and then showed genuine enthusiasm when I responded to God’s call. By their belief in me they helped me believe in myself.
It meant, and still means, having a group of people with whom I could share my greatest joys and deepest valleys. They laugh with me and cry with me. We celebrate successes together, and we grieve losses together. We dream dreams together, and we mourn deaths together. It means I do not walk this journey of life alone. Not only does God walk with me, so do his people.
It means we at times hurt each other. We say things wrong, or they’re heard wrong or understood wrong. We do things that have unexpected and unintended consequences. We make what we think are deep friendships only to have people leave for another church without saying goodbye. Promises get broken, and sometimes hearts get broken. And grace and forgiveness do not always win out. Churches can be cruel places where people get hurt, because churches are made up of people like me—still in process, not yet fully sanctified.
Church means having to fight against guilt and shame, sometimes at the same time, and to battle with self-righteousness. Church can make us feel less-then, and it can make us feel more-than. Being part of a church can allow me to stagnate in my faith, or it can encourage me to grow healthy in my faith. Usually this depends not on what I get from my church, but on what I bring to my church.
Being lead pastor of a church for most of my adult life led me to fall even deeper in love with the church. It wasn’t always easy or pleasant or good. But never once did I want to leave the church. The church is where God works and through whom God works. It is made up of sinful, broken people who are slowly being transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit. Now that I am retired from the professional ministry, I am still deeply involved, worshiping, learning, teaching, serving, giving, praying, growing. The church is my home, my family, the body of which I am a part by God’s grace, the place where he has planted me to bear fruit.
I said I wanted to answer the question experientially. There’s a reason for that: It simply backs up what I read about the church, the people of God, throughout Scripture. To God be the glory!