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Why You Don’t Need to ‘Start’ Another Church

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Several years ago, a small group of friends asked me to spend some time with them as they sought counsel about how they might go about “starting” a church. They had met while in college and had become passionate about God’s kingdom because they witnessed so many of their friends throwing their faith away in exchange for the lower-shelf fireballs so abundantly available on college campuses.

They wanted something more, so they began to meet with one another to share life together. They counseled each other, prayed for each other, and taught one another the Scriptures. They told more and more people about Jesus and saw many people join them in their pursuit of Christ. They discipled these new believers and continued to gather with them. Then together, they all began reaching out to even more people who did not yet know the depths of the grace Jesus was offering to them.

It didn’t take long before between forty and sixty of them were meeting together on a regular basis to encourage and equip one another. Some of them were humbly leading and shepherding others in the group, and they were asking me, “What’s next?” They had just graduated, and they wanted to be intentional about making sure the momentum they had experienced during college did not wane as they transitioned into their next season of life. After hearing their story, I said, “It sounds to me like you already are faithfully being the Church. What do you mean you want to ‘start one’?”

Seemingly confused, they replied, “No, we mean we want to know what it would take for us to be ready to meet on Sunday mornings.” Now I understood what they wanted from me. They thought the last step to legitimizing their group as a church required a change in time and place—specifically to gather on Sunday mornings.

It is true that from the beginning, the first disciples gathered together not on Saturday, the traditional Hebrew Sabbath, but rather on Sunday, the first day of the week. This was an early distinctive of the Way (as Christians were often called during the first century). They started their week together on Sunday as a way of saying to themselves and to those around them that everything had changed because of the world-altering event that had happened on another Sunday: Christ’s resurrection.

Sunday was their day to gather and to collectively remind themselves of God’s kindness in giving His Son. They wanted to remember that they didn’t have to work to attain His favor but could rest in the hope of the Messiah who had delivered them from the oppression of sin and self—and the destruction that followed. It is finished, so they celebrated that they could know God intimately and not just as some vague idea because, as John said, “we have beheld His glory.” He walked in their flesh and paid their debt. He was raised from the dead, so they were no longer dead in their transgressions but were alive in Christ. Sin had lost its sting, and death had lost its victory.

You see, reminding ourselves and encouraging one another with these life-changing realities of grace is the real job of the Church “gathered.”

As pastorally as I could, I told these passionate young men, “Don’t you dare tell your people that you’re going to ‘start’ a church.” The look of continuing and increasing perplexity on their faces asked me the inaudible question of their hearts: But why?

So I answered without hearing their question. “Don’t reinforce an idea that is causing the Church of Jesus Christ to be useless in this generation. Don’t say you are ‘starting a church’ just because you are changing when or where you gather. Based off of what you have told me, you already are a church.”

Jesus told the woman at the well that the time is coming and is now here when the true worshippers of God will not base their worship experience on certain locations, rituals, or times of gathering. We weren’t at a well, but my goal was the same. I did my best to explain to them what I will now do my best to explain to you—the real reasons why the Church should gather.

Let’s begin by examining the wrong reasons.

A Deal You Don’t Want to Make

I recently shared a meal with several friends who, like me, happened to be pastors in the Dallas area. One of them proposed a gathering—a solemn assembly, if you will—where we would call other pastors and church leaders from across the nation to join us in challenging people to deepen their spiritual walks by moving forward beyond mere membership and into true discipleship. Now
I know these labels and terms mean many different things to many different people, but from my understanding of Scripture and what the Bible clearly calls all believers to be, I had to speak up because I saw two big problems.

First of all, they were not addressing the fact that too many churches are simply allowing “believers” to attend Sunday services without being attentive to the call of Christ on their lives every hour of their week. This has become commonplace and normal. Secondly, they were implying that many churches—maybe even theirs—had “members” who were not actually disciples. I told them that moving most “churched” people from membership to discipleship was avoiding the bigger problem with the American Church throughout our history: the constant consuming of religious services without responding to Christ’s call on one’s life.

What most people in church really need—and I mean people who think of themselves as believers, not guests or those exploring the faith—is not a move from membership to discipleship, but rather a drastic move from attendance to membership.

From God’s standpoint, membership (connection to His body) is supposed to be synonymous with discipleship (connection to Him).

In both the Old Testament and the New Testament, some of the strongest admonitions and warnings in Scripture are given to those who hold “to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power.” Don’t just take my word for it; listen to what Amos and Isaiah have to say about it.

“I hate, I reject your festivals, nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer up to Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them … Take away from Me the noise of your songs; I will not even listen to the sound of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:21–24)

“‘What are your multiplied sacrifices to Me?’ says the LORD. ‘I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams … When you come to appear before Me, who requires of you this trampling of My courts? Bring your worthless offerings no longer … I cannot endure iniquity and the solemn assembly … They have become a burden to Me; I am weary of bearing them.’” (Isa. 1:11–16)

And if Isaiah and Amos aren’t enough, just listen to Jesus.

“You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote, ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.’ For you ignore God’s law and substitute your own tradition … You skillfully sidestep God’s law in order to hold on to your own tradition.” (Mark 7:6–9)

What kind of worship would Jesus consider to be in vain or even a farce? It begins with what I call “The Deal.” The Deal is the mostly unspoken arrangement that many modern church leaders have made with modern church “members” (and remember, I am using the term “members” loosely).

Basically, The Deal goes like this: members agree to validate pastors and leaders by showing up fairly regularly and agreeing to pay enough offerings to keep the lights on and keep the weekly activity of the church operational. In return, “pastors” agree to preach civil, encouraging, self-help life messages, never asking too much of those attending.

And they both tell each other that they are doing what God wants them to do.

I say all this not to sound judgmental or to indict any church in particular. In fact, if your first inclination is to think of someone else in your life who seemingly lives under The Deal, I challenge you to put them out of your mind, at least for now. In this moment, I want to ask you to examine someone much closer to the subject: yourself.

Whether pastor or attender, are you cutting that deal?

What is the unspoken (or spoken) arrangement you have with church? Do you think the way you view “church” is in alignment with the way God views His bride as described in Scripture? There is no condemnation here—I promise that by God’s grace, these are questions I am always asking myself … and you should absolutely be asking yourself, too, for within the answers lie more than models of various church systems or questions of relevance in style or delivery. The most important reason you should ask these questions about the Church is that you are actually supposed to be the Church.

So what exactly does “being the Church” mean?

Do You Think?

The answer begins with examining the way we presently view the Church, and I don’t mean just philosophically or on the basis of whether or not we are able to use biblical terms when we answer. We may know that the Church is the body and bride of Christ. We may even venture as far as to say that the Church is the light of the world, a city on a hill that cannot be hidden. Some of us may even say with confidence that the Church is so powerful that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

You should say those things … but you should also be living examples of them.

What we “know” about the Church is only helpful if our knowing turns into our doing. People say what they think, but they do what they believe. The problem most of us run into today is we are around or are a part of a church full of thinkers instead of believers.

People may say what they think, but they do what they believe.

Your six-year-old child may know that Lucky Charms and chocolate milk are not staples of a healthy diet, but if you leave her alone in the kitchen, this is exactly what she will eat all day every day. If you have a teenager, they may know Whataburger and Dr Pepper aren’t the best for them, but follow them around when they have a little extra cash and see what they are eating. You want to get personal? This author knows better than to live on Peanut M&M’s, pizza, and Blue Bell ice cream, but don’t ask for my food receipts.

What you do is more important than what you know—whether you know it or not.

One piece of evidence displaying what most people really think (not believe) about the Church is found in two commonly used words: “regular attender.” It is not a good thing that we have accepted—and perhaps also tragically made it acceptable—to think that there is such a biblical thing as a “regular attender” in the Church.

Hear me out here. Or better yet, hear Jesus out here. In the words of these pages and every time I speak, all I desire to be is a servant of Christ and a steward of the mysteries of God. I don’t want to come to you with superiority of speech or of wisdom; I only want to proclaim to you the testimony of God, so that your faith will not rest in the wisdom of man, but in the power of God.

This means that I love you enough to tell you what God says. What if I suggested that “regular attenders”—if they are defined as “believers” who attend church services and events without being attentive to the call of Christ on their lives every other hour of their week—should more accurately be called “irregular believers”?

Pause for a moment here. You may be reading this as someone who doesn’t know what the Church should look like—so maybe you don’t really care what I call these people. Why does it matter? It matters because it affects the beauty and integrity of the bride of Christ whom God wants you to come and see. Trust me—it matters more than you think.

Or maybe my suggestion that you are an “irregular believer” stings a bit? Maybe you fall into this culturally acceptable category and you have no idea what would be different if you were a “regular believer.” You might be asking yourself: Now what am I supposed to do? Is this Wagner guy trying to get me to do a lot more stuff? I’m barely holding it together as it is, and now he’s telling me that it’s not enough?

My goal is neither to make you feel condemned nor to obligate you to a lifestyle of increased busyness and activity. But I would ask this: If you are barely holding it together now as a “regular attender,” do you really think you are experiencing what Jesus has in mind when He calls the Church His beautiful bride, from which He withholds no good thing, who will experience the abundant life, so that she may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called her out of darkness into His marvelous light, and so that the Church can communicate His boundless grace and liberating truth to the entire world, including your family and friends? In other words, church attender or not, does the life you are currently living accurately reflect what God says will bring glory to Him and abundant joy to you?

If you’re not sure how to respond to these questions, then keep reading. I intend to bring you to a place where you can. I hope you are encouraged to know God wants to take you away from a place of personal condemnation, overwhelming tasks, and constant wondering about what you’re missing so He can lead you instead into a life full of purpose, unashamed honesty, transformed community, and personal fulfillment as you live out the life He has already prepared for you.

Trust me when I tell you that being a “regular attender” is not where you will find everything you’ve ever wanted. A distant dating relationship does not bring the same depth of joy, fullness of intimacy, or fulfillment of heart as oneness with a lover brings. It is time to stop dating the idea of following Christ and commit to it.

And be sure of this: God wants you to be more than a regular attender at an average weekly gathering of mostly bored adults.

With regular attenders making up a greater percentage of the Church than passionately engaged followers, it is no wonder church is the one place most people would never look to find the life they’ve always wanted. Regular attenders don’t typically gather with gladness and sincerity of heart. They don’t have favor with all the people. They don’t devote themselves to sound teaching or to pursuing relationships with people from house to house. They don’t contribute to or experience the overwhelming goodness of life found in the many adjectives we explored earlier. In general, they miss out on the sense of awe God intends to exist in them and be made evident through them.

The only explanation for you or me not radically running toward God’s best intention for us is that we have not yet come to understand Him personally and fully—the God in whose presence there is fullness of joy and at whose right hand are pleasures forevermore. When you taste and see His real goodness, you don’t worry that you have to attend to His business, because you tend to want more and more of Him. You will want to drink deeply, my friend, because for the first time in your life, you won’t see yourself as the most interesting man or woman in the world … you will finally know Who really is.

Ask yourself this question: “If ‘fullness of joy’ is what God calls me to, why would I want anything else?” Answer? Because we don’t really believe that this is what God really wants for us. We believe again that age-old lie: God is not really good.

But what if He is actually as good as we “know” He is? If so, then we can really “believe” Him, trusting that the life He calls us to experience will not burden us, but rather bless us beyond measure.

The divine call to come and see invites us to engage wholeheartedly in everything God intends—for when we live as God intends us to live, we will be as alive as God intends us to be. Soon, we will see that Christ is still doing today exactly what He was doing when He physically walked on the earth: creating stories that gather crowds and keep disciples up late at night reveling in the hope and awe that life with a good and loving God provides.

Those young men who were wanting to “start” a church were already living in the midst of great stories. They really didn’t need to “start” anything together; they needed to make sure they didn’t “stop” being on mission together. They were already being the Church.

What we all really need has already been started … and we are being invited to come and see what it really means for us.

© 2017 Todd Wagner. Come and See: Everything You Ever Wanted in the One Place You Would Never Look is published by David C Cook. All rights reserved.

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Todd Wagner is the lead pastor and en elder at Watermark Community Church in Dallas. He blogs at WordsFromWags.com.