Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Church -- What's in it for me?

     It has often been said that one should not think that "church is all about me," and neither should one approach church with an attitude of "what can I get out of this?" The explanation is that church is about what we can receive from God or give to him, therefore, it is not about getting our needs (however nebulous) met.  But is this really true? In real life, how does the act of going to church impact one's life? In what ways are we changed, challenged or renewed -- and is it ok for that to be about me?
    I believe that even though church has many dimensions that extend far beyond one's solitary existence -- reaching around the world and into eternity itself -- church has to be about me because each Christian is called to an individual relationship with Christ. Jesus made this very clear in a discussion he had with Peter after the resurrection. (John 21) He addressed Peter intimately -- not only by his first name but by his last name as well ("son of John.") The things that he proceeded to talk about lie at the core of what church means to the Christian: love me above all others, display that love by ministering to both the young and the old in the faith, and be the one who will faithfully follow me at all costs. Jesus had already told Peter that he would be instrumental in the establishment of the church (Mt. 16); now he is telling him what will be required of him personally in that task.
     While much has been made about Peter's fault in admitting agape love for Christ, we all bring many types of love into our relationship with Christ and consequentially, to our relationships with others in the church. But, due to our humanity, much of our love for God and others is what C.S. Lewis called "need-love." In our redeemed-yet-sinful state, we long for a love which will bring us ever nearer to God and his perfect love. C.S. Lewis writes, "But man's love for God...must always be very largely, and must often be entirely, a Need-love...our whole being by its very nature is one vast need..." Like Peter, we are growing in our faith, and in our need we reach out for spiritual comfort to satisfy our heart's desire. It is this type of need that the church, by the power of the Holy Spirit, is called upon to meet in so many different ways.
     So it is with this intention, that the church has always found ways to reach out to people by providing "services" designed to meet both spiritual and physical needs. The church provides an opportunity for worship, a forum for learning and an environment for fellowship.This has been the mission of the church from the day it began, for Acts chapter 2 tells us exactly what went on when they met together. They were devoted to teaching, engaged in fellowship and worshiped God through prayer, giving, communion and praise. In all of these things they received spiritual power to meet their needs, and they then gave, by the grace of Christ, charity to others and heartfelt devotion to the Saviour. We must like them, approach church in the same reciprocal spirit. We need, and our brothers and sisters need; God inexhaustibly gives, enabling us to give Him the "sacrifice of praise" along with our acts of giving to those in need.
     As with so many other things in life, we must grow to maturity in the way we think about church. We may begin with many needs and slowly and deliberately come to the place where we regard others as more important than ourselves. We may find it hard to give at first, but as we learn, we will begin to practice a lifestyle that centers on giving and therefore on love. In making this transition, one must find their place in the church that makes the best contribution to the whole. Learning to use one's unique spiritual gifts is an important part of this process, as well as faithful participation and consistent focus. Church is a vital stopping place on our spiritual pilgrimage, where our needs are met and our love is given. In the end, it's not about me in a selfish way, but its very much about me growing into the person God wants me to be. It's not me giving all I can humanly give, but about my humble participation in God's "indescribable gift" that gives "world without end."

Lewis, C.S. The Four Loves. New York: Mariner Books, 2012, c.1960.