Shouldn’t church be easy? Shouldn’t I just click with the people in my church? Shouldn’t it be the most natural thing in the world for me to spend time with my brothers and sisters in Christ?
…but what if it isn’t?
Is something wrong with my church? Is something wrong with me?
We look at our neighborhoods and see houses where cars gather every Saturday to drink and watch football. Every Saturday. And they seem to really enjoy being together. Why can’t it feel that natural when I get together with my small group? My church must be sub-Christian or something, right?
Or what about blood relatives? I feel more warmth and love at family birthday parties and Christmas gatherings than I’ve ever felt with my church. When that turkey’s being sliced and pumpkin pie is on the counter–that’s real family. My church is never going to even come close.
How Did We Become Family, Anyway?
First off, if we are expecting our churches to feel like a family without any effort, we have misunderstood the Gospel. In order to become our brother, Jesus Christ had to be made “perfect through suffering” (Hebrews 2:10). When John reaches for an explanation of true family, he doesn’t say, “Real brothers sit down and have a beer” or “Real family pulls for the same basketball team” or “Real love comes from shared background and skin color.” No, he speaks of pain: “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” (1 John 3:16).
We are too quick to interpret this verse metaphorically–as in, “how do I metaphorically lay down my life for my brothers and sisters?” But Jesus actually laid down his real life–as in whipped, beaten, insulted, nailed through, suffocated, and killed to make us family. If we think love in the family won’t require work and pain, we aren’t listening to John.
Jesus went through tortuous death to reconcile us to God (Romans 5:10). And we expect to just be able to feel “all the feels” for our brothers and sisters because our names are on the same church roll? No. We become family through the fight.
We fight ourselves. Paul describes this as putting to death the old man (Col. 3:5). We are the biggest obstacle to intimacy in the body of Christ. Our sin. Our selfishness. Our desires: “But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices” (Col. 3:8-9).
Paul tells the Philippians that the body of Christ is meant to give us opportunities to kill the flesh. Church isn’t all comforts and laughs. Brothers and sisters are going to rub us the wrong way. And when they do, the problem isn’t them, it’s us: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4).
The way to grow is to endure conflict and hardship–especially in the church. However, God brings conflict in order to forge unity through sacrifice. Did you hear that? Unity through sacrifice. This is the name of the Gospel game, guys. Rule of thumb: once you’ve humbled yourself lower than Jesus did, you can stop deferring to your brothers’ and sisters’ needs over your own (Philippians 2:5-11).
Fight Club 2.0
We kill the old man within, but we also fight for our brothers and sisters. The thing about being born again is that it’s like being born the first time: we don’t get to choose what family we are born into. I didn’t get to pick my two brothers and sister. And I don’t get to pick who God saves and draws into my church either.
We know that God is intentionally confounding man’s wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:27-29). The wisdom of man says to make a church out of a bunch of people who already have everything in common: same color skin, same interests and hobbies, same sports teams, same income, same education level, etc. The wisdom of God saves people like Peter and Cornelius–who wouldn’t be caught dead in each other’s neighborhoods–and makes them brothers.
When Peter went back to Jerusalem, the whole church had to sit down to figure out if it was okay that he ate dinner with Cornelius (Acts 11:1-ff)! A church business meeting over one meal! Christ’s church is a place where the tallest walls in society are torn down (Ephesians 2:13-16), and that doesn’t happen without intentionality and struggle.
Paul talks of Jesus’s work for the family in violent terms: on the cross he was “killing the hostility” (Eph. 2:16). The brothers and sisters who are reconciled to God were “alienated, hostile in mind, doing evil deeds” (Col. 1:21). If that’s how they acted toward God, imagine how they treated one another before Christ entered the picture! It’s going to take a fight to keep the family of God together.
Love Is Worth the Fight
In the church, we don’t have the superficialities to fall back on: we aren’t blood relatives, we don’t have the same color skin, we don’t make the same money or come from the same schools or go to the same clubs. We have Jesus. That’s it. And he’s enough.
Jesus draws together people who wouldn’t naturally hang together. This is why church feels unnatural. It feels forced at times. And so it should. Love is not just a feeling. Love takes work.
Young people don’t naturally love old people. Whites don’t naturally love blacks. Rich don’t naturally love poor. But when we begin to experience glimmers of this kind of impossible love in our church families, we shouldn’t complain about how imperfect it is or how small it is or how fragile it is. We should treasure it as evidence of the Spirit’s work–and desperately pray and plead with the Father for more.
(photo credit: Tamara Alvarez)