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How Can I Love the Church that Hurt Me?

Written By Ruth Lawrence, UK

Seven days after I came into the world, my dad became the pastor of the church that I would grow up in. Unlike my siblings, I never knew a time when my Dad wasn’t a pastor. I quickly learned that people either hold pastor’s kids to an unreasonably high standard, or wait to see when they rebel and fall off the rails.

I didn’t like either.

If I could get away with not having to tell people what my dad’s job was, I would. I did not like being scrutinized. All I wanted was to figure out what I thought about God and church without an audience. By the time I was 20, I had reached my conclusion.

I knew the Bible was true, and I had no problem with God. But I didn’t like Christians, which was slightly problematic seeing as I was one myself.

I could understand non-Christians hurting people. I could even get my head round Christians lashing out in the heat of the moment. But Christians deliberately hurting other Christians?

There had been times as a kid in church when I was the only one who got told off for something a group of us had done. As I got older, I listened to people gossip about my family; their caring tones and concerned faces were merely a cover to finding out what they could from me. Eventually, I narrowed my world to just me and God. I let people in so far and no further. I kept hidden the things that were really important to me as much as I could.

When this kind of hurt led my dad to leave the church we were at, I decided that I had had enough of Christians. God might love me, but His people definitely didn’t.

As I found out about other things that had happened in our church over time—things that were unjust and that hurt my family—my hurt turned to anger. The more angry I felt, the less I felt I could go to God, and the more my relationship with Him deteriorated.

I was stuck in limbo. I did not want to walk away from God because I loved Him and because I knew that the Bible was true. But I did not want to associate with His church, since that was a painful place to be. It became so painful that I finally realized that I needed to do something about my attitude and how I was thinking and feeling.

Passages like Hebrews 10:25 and John 15 convicted me. They told me that the church is God’s plan. Jesus told His followers to “abide in my love” (John 15:9), which sounds great, until He explained that to abide in His love means we have to obey His commandment—to love other Christians (15:12). That part I’m not so thrilled about, because it means opening myself up to potential hurt again.

Because I’m still very much working through this, it’s not been something that I’ve talked about much with my family. But here are a couple of things I’m finding as I address my flawed thinking:

 

1. Christians hurt each other

It may seem obvious, but none of us are perfect, Christian or otherwise. So we will hurt each other; I hurt people. I can feel as defensive and hurt about my injuries as I want, but at the end of the day, I have hurt other people too. I need to be forgiven just as much as I need to forgive.

In Matthew 18, Jesus answers Peter’s question of how many times we should forgive people by telling the parable of the unmerciful servant. The story goes like this. There’s a servant who owed a massive amount of money to the King which he couldn’t pay back. The King rightly wanted to throw the man in jail, but the servant pleaded for mercy. The King, in an amazing act of grace, cancels the servant’s whole debt. The debt-free servant now bumps into a man who owes him a small amount of money and demands that the money be repaid then and there. The man can’t pay, so the debt-free servant throws the man in jail, ignoring his cries for mercy. Word gets back to the King, who is royally furious, and he metes out justice and throws the unmerciful servant in jail.

This story has in some ways haunted me since I was a kid, because I really wanted grace for myself, but I have a hard time giving it out. I was thinking about all this recently and I came to the conclusion that if I met the people who had hurt me and my family back then, I would want them to know that I didn’t hold it against them.

It’s unlikely that I will ever see them again—life has taken me a long way from them—but that doesn’t mean that I can’t forgive them. Forgiving them means not wanting bad for them but praying for their good. And for the relationships I have with Christians now, it means being quick to apologize when I get things wrong.

 

 2. There is no higher standard

Other people may have been holding me to a higher standard of behaviour because of who my dad was, but God wasn’t. God holds us all to the same high standard that none of us can meet. And just as none of us can meet that standard, all of us are offered grace because of what Jesus has done for us. Jesus’ blood paid for all of the times we mess up and hurt each other.

Every time we don’t meet that standard, there is grace to make us right with God again. So when I feel like that higher standards are being applied to me, which still happens sometimes, I can put my mind at rest by reminding myself that Jesus has paid for my sin. I don’t have to try and earn my way back in. It’s comforting to know that God isn’t waiting to catch me out, but is waiting with grace and forgiveness.

  

3. We can choose how we respond

I may not like it, but living in this world means that at some point we will get hurt. What we do with that hurt is what counts. Rather than burying how I feel and holding on to resentment, I’m trying to remember what Paul tells us in Ephesians 4:32, that I have been shown grace for the times I’ve failed.

Because of the mercy shown to me, I am slowly changing how I respond to people who have hurt me. I’m working on not being quick to judge but being quick to forgive. It’s hard because that’s not my nature, and maybe it’s not yours either. It all feels a bit backwards. But God has shown forgiveness and mercy to me, and in turn I’m trying to do the same.

 Like I said, I’m still working on this, and most of the time I don’t respond in the way I know I should. But I’m learning to take it back to God and let Him continue to work on my heart.

 

I’m a long way from those churches I grew up in, and if I could, I would still keep my Dad’s job a secret. I’m still afraid of being hurt, but I’m trying not to let that fear get in the way. Mostly I fail, but I’ve not given up and I don’t want to. The church is full of broken people who will hurt one another. But they are also God’s people, loved and forgiven by Him.

The church is God’s family, that you are welcome to be a part of. It’s a place that is meant to help us grow in our walk with Jesus, because it’s easier to keep fighting sin with others than when we try to go it alone. It’s not a perfect place, but it’s a place that is worth sticking with. No matter how bad things got or how painful they were, I didn’t want to give up entirely on the church. And I still don’t.

Should I Stay If My Church Doesn’t Satisfy Me?

Written By Dorothy Norberg, USA

I belong to a small church which used to meet all of my preferences.

But now, five years and many unforeseeable changes later, our numbers are dwindling. I am the only person of my age at the church, and I do not feel satisfied by my experiences there.

What would you do if you were me? Would you hop from church to church for better music, sermons, and social events, combining different encounters for the “optimal experience”?

Some would argue that this is akin to going to different grocery stores to find the necessary ingredients for a good meal, and that my satisfaction and sense of God’s presence should be the governing criteria for church involvement.

But what I’ve realized is that when we combine different surface-level experiences and move between churches, we rob ourselves of the joy and depth of belonging. Growth happens when we put down roots and commit.

Through Bible study, I’ve become more and more convinced that church membership is a significant spiritual foundation that we cannot do without.

This summer, my best friend and I talked about visiting churches together in the fall. She was preparing to move into college and needed a congregation closer to her campus. She encouraged me to move on and find a church with peer community. But I felt I wasn’t ready to make that decision. Besides valuing church membership, I didn’t want to make a switch just to follow a friend. I told her that I would pursue ministry opportunities within the church, and pray about God’s will for my future.

This process forced me to examine my true motivations for attending church. Was my primary criterion that church meet my social and emotional needs, or was I attending for a greater purpose? No doubt I often feel unmotivated to attend my church and wish that I had gone elsewhere, but I care about the other members around me, and I know that I am needed all the more as our numbers decrease. Even though I feel like my role is limited and unsatisfying, I know that this is where God wants me to be for this stage of my life.

My current circumstances are not ideal or gratifying, but I know what really matters. I am hearing the word of God faithfully preached, praising the Lord with believers, taking communion, and sharing life with people whom I have promised to care for, love, and protect.

Church membership provides a context to live out the “one another” commands of Scripture—loving, forgiving, encouraging, and bearing one another’s burdens. As I choose to invest in others, they invest in me, and we have the opportunity to be known and loved by a community, chosen and cared for not because of common interests or shared activities, but because of Christ.

Without commitment to a church, one can still listen to sermons, sing songs of praise, and grow in faith through personal devotions. But God did not design us to live out our faith in isolation. The New Testament brims with instructions for church life, and it describes the church as the bride of Christ, His body on earth, and the nexus through which spiritual growth and community occur. Going to church is not an experience but being with a family, and is a fundamental spiritual habit which gives order to our lives, independent of momentary whims.

I do not trust myself enough to attempt Christian life on my own. I need the input of other believers to challenge my interpretations, push me towards ministry, point out sin in my life, and support me. I know that if I ever stopped attending church, people would pursue me; and that if I were to be in conflict over a decision, unsure of God’s will for me, other members who know and love me could speak into my life. I am in the position to do the same for them, and I do not want to discard these relationships based on temporary dissatisfaction.

Being in a church is not about my comfort level, sense of fulfillment, or ease of connection with others. Rather, it is a covenantal relationship, and no matter how I feel, I know that the other members and I are keeping watch over one another; there is accountability. Although this type of obligation might seem burdensome, I know that it is worth it.

Even when I feel unconnected, I know that I am seen, loved, and appreciated, and that God has me at my church for a reason. I stay not out of apathy or obstinacy, but in faith, knowing that God works through small and everyday things, working out His purposes through those who are committed and willing.

Why I Stayed On In My Church

Written By Lim Chien Chong

Chien Chong joined Singapore Youth For Christ (SYFC) full-time in 1998 after a six year teaching career in a local junior college. In 2005, he became SYFC’s National Director. He currently serves in the pulpit and bible class ministry in church as well as preaches, trains and teaches in different churches and youth groups locally. He has been married for 14 years and has two young lovely boys, Joshua (10 years old) and Elijah (7 years old).

“You mean you are still attending your church after so many years?” This was a question someone asked me about two years ago.

He shared that he was very disappointed with his own church and was trying to find reasons why he should stay. The question set me thinking about why I’m still attending the church that I have been going to since I was a teenager, some 35 years ago.

To give you a rough picture of my church, it has had an average attendance of about a hundred people through the years. Along the way, new people have joined us and others have left, some to start new churches.

Like many others, I face the same struggles and issues that many do in their churches, such as differences in opinions and priorities, disappointments with leaders and fellow members and disagreements about how the word of God should be taught.

Friends have invited me on several occasions to join them at their churches, but I have always declined their invitations. It’s not that I don’t have my fair share of frustrations—I do feel that the church can be better organized and members should be more interested and involved in the work of God. But despite the moments of frustration I sometimes face in my church, I have decided to remain where I am.

It has made me wonder sometimes: What is my motivation to stay? Am I staying on just because of inertia to change? Shouldn’t I have an expectation of what a church should be like? If my church is not meeting the mark, why shouldn’t I move?

Paul’s depiction of a church in Ephesians 2:19-22 has helped me understand what a church is and what it does. Although the passage refers to the universal community of all believers in Christ, it has also shaped my view of my own church.

1. The church is a kingdom and a family

“[you are] fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household” (v.19)

While we are fellow subjects of God our King, we are also fellow brothers and sisters with God as our Father. I can choose who I want to be friends with, but I can’t choose who I want as my family members. As such, I am committed to accommodate, relate to, and work through issues with people at church as I would with my family members.

It is not easy most of the time, but I know that I need to put in the effort to understand and communicate with people—and in some instances to mediate between them—because we are part of the same family. Not everyone may share the same values, but that does not mean that any of us is any less of a family member.

 

2. The church is founded on the word of God

“. . . built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (v.20a)

The word of God is central to a community of God’s people. It is no wonder that in some churches, the pulpit is placed at the center to remind us of this important truth. Many people have left their church because they felt they were not being fed properly with the Word of God.

I understand the struggle. I may not be spiritually refreshed every Sunday at church, but I need to be refreshed by His Word in my daily walk with Him. The weekly sermon cannot replace my daily meditation on His Word. Even if I may not receive as much spiritual input as I would love to (that’s not to say that I am not learning at church), I can still think of ways to share constructively with others what I have learned from God’s word in informal or formal settings.

 

3. The church is also founded on Jesus Christ Himself

“. . . with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone” (v.20b)

As Christians, we are followers of Jesus Christ. Our lives, whether communally or individually, must be grounded not only in God’s Word but also in the work of Christ as well as our relationship with Him.

It will be ironical if I claim to follow Jesus but my life does not portray His character in the way I live and in the way I relate to and resolve differences with others. Besides, Jesus, by His death on the cross, has granted me peace with God and with men; I have every reason to be harmonious and peaceable.

 

4. The church is joined, grown, and built by the Lord Himself

“In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” (v.21-22)

As much as I would love to see my church grow in strength and number, I constantly remind myself that it is the Lord who grows His church. This does not mean that we can simply ignore factors that are causing people to move out of church. We should take a good and honest look at how our church life is affecting everyone. There may be many areas that we need to work on so that we are truly living as God’s people.

Nonetheless, I know that I need to be patient because people do not change overnight. Besides, any change in people’s hearts is a result of God’s work. It means that I should learn to pray more for my church.

And so my answer to the question, “You mean you are still attending your church after so many years?” is: Yes, and why not? There are still many things that I need to work through in my own life as well as among fellow members at church. My church is not perfect, but neither am I. In fact, this is why we come together as a community of God’s people.

What if There was No Church?

What-if-there-was-no-church

Written By Leslie Koh

After spending a number of years in the media, Leslie finally decided to move from working with bad news to good news. He believes in the power of words (especially when they’re funny). He works as an editor in Our Daily Bread Ministries.

 

It’s probably hard to imagine not having a church around, at least in some form.
It could be a building—a grand old cathedral, a modern theatre, a space in an office block, or someone’s house, generously opened up for use on Sundays. Or it could be some sort of system—an official or unofficial organization with a pastor or group of elders leading a body of believers—that organizes regular services or meetings. (Or any entity that comes to mind when we say things like, “I go to church on Sundays”, or “My church teaches that . . . ”, or “I’ll ask my church to help me”.)

But what if the building we called church were to be torn down by the authorities or destroyed by nature? What if there were no more “church” organizations, because they were banned or no one wanted to form and lead them? What if there were no more leaders to organized regular services or no preachers who wanted to teach? What would you do?

You could consider two options:
1. Stay at home and practise your faith on your own. Yes, you could still study the Bible on your own and pray with your family.
2. Find ways to meet up with fellow Christians somewhere, somehow, because you feel that you still need to . . .

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…To pray and worship together

Long before the New Testament church came into existence, God’s people were gathering to worship Him. When the Israelites offered their sacrifices and offerings, they did it as a corporate body at the Tent of Meeting. They gathered to listen to God’s Word, spoken through Moses. And they gathered to praise God as one body.

In his article, “Why We Shouldn’t Neglect to Meet Together”, co-founder of Desiring God and author Jon Bloom takes us even further back and notes how the nature of God himself—not just one, but Three in One—reflects the importance of corporate worship. The Trinity also created a companion for Adam. Why, Bloom points out, would Adam need a companion when God’s companionship would have been more than adequate for any man? “Adam’s being alone wasn’t good for God,” he writes. “The ultimate point was not that all of God wasn’t enough for all of Adam. It was that all of Adam wasn’t enough for all of God. One human would not enjoy God as much as many humans together.”

That is why Hebrews 10:25 reminds God’s followers not to forsake “our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near”. God wants us to worship Him both as individuals and as a community. Why? Because “we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (Romans 12:5). This description of Christ’s followers would be meaningless if we were to worship God as individuals.

Just think of what it’s like to watch a big football game. You could watch it alone on TV, in the privacy and comfort of your own home. But nothing beats gathering in a stadium with 20,000 other fans and celebrating each goal with big cheers, high-fives and fist bumps, right? Because nothing unites us more than a shared love, joy, and victory. What more when we want to celebrate God’s greatness and Jesus’ victory over death?

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…To study the Word together

Imagine trying to study the Bible on your own. You could read as many commentaries and Bible study guides as you can, but you’ll soon find yourself asking for help to understand God’s Word better, and for guidance on how to apply it in your life. Why? Because the Bible is not a textbook or Wikipedia site that you can simply read and expect to understand fully just by doing so. Neither is it a story book that you can enjoy and appreciate by yourself. It is the living Word of God, and needs to be interpreted wisely so that you can apply God’s wisdom in your daily life.

This means we need to learn from others who are more knowledgeable and mature in the faith, as well as discuss with fellow believers, so that we can share our experiences and discoveries with each other. In Jesus’ time, God’s people met in the synagogues to hear His Word and learn from teachers. In schools, we attend lectures where teachers and other experts explain new concepts to us, and have group discussions in tutorials, which help us understand and apply what we learn. Why should we do any different with the Word of God?

The apostle Paul, a learned Pharisee himself, stressed the importance of teaching and learning from one another: “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts” (Colossians 3:16).

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…To support, encourage, and build up one another

The Christian journey includes trials, tribulations, and challenges, which makes it a hard one to walk alone. Yes, Jesus Himself walks alongside us and carries us, but God also gives us human companions so that we can encourage, inspire, comfort, and strengthen one another. There are times when we need that fellow human voice, comforting hug, or listening ear, to help us through the hardest times and remind us that we are not alone. And there are also times when we need someone to chasten or remind us to push past our complacency and persevere in our journey of faith.

Romans 12:5 tells us we are one body in Christ. One part of a body cannot strengthen the whole by itself; you can’t get a fit body by just doing pull-ups. All the different parts of the body need to work together and support each other so that “from [Christ] the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Ephesians 4:16). While we are all to grow a personal relationship with God, it is not an individual task.

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…To gather for fellowship

Unless you’re a hermit or rabidly anti-social, you will need the companionship of friends. Not just for the bad times, but for the good times too. What beats a good laugh with friends, an enjoyable outing, or a hearty dinner with a few good buddies? Most of us have gone out with our colleagues for a nice meal after a long day at work, or a movie with classmates after school. We do it because we are brought together by a common experience in office or class; what more when we share a common belief, values, and mission?

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…To welcome new believers into the body of Christ

Acts 2:47 describes how God was giving the early church new converts as they met daily, “adding to their number day by day those who were being saved”.

If fellow Christians stopped gathering together, where would a new believer go? Whom would he seek for advice and guidance, and who would teach him and help him grow in this new relationship with Jesus? A gathering of some kind would welcome this new believer, introducing him to the rest of the body of Christ and showing him that he was really joining a corporate body of members who believed in the same God and who would give him encouragement and strength for the days ahead. Such a gathering would remind him that his new relationship with God was both personal and corporate, while also giving him the assurance that he would not walk alone in his new spiritual journey.

What if there were to be no more “church” in the sense that there were to be no more buildings, system or organization known as a church? The short answer is, fellow Christians would still be meeting.

We might do it in small or large groups. We might meet regularly or occasionally. We might meet at someone’s home, in a public place, or somewhere convenient. We might do different things, but chances are, it will include worshipping God, studying the Bible, and praying together; sharing our experiences and discoveries; encouraging and strengthening one another; and having some fun. Just like what we do now . . . because that’s what a “church” is really about.

Church: In Greek, ekkelsia; an assembly of Christians gathered for worship.