Like the vast majority of southern kids during the 1970′s and 80′s, I went to church from time to time. My parents took us to an Episcopal church for several years and then sporadically attended Baptist churches after that. For the most part, I was bored. The one outlier was a Sunday school class in middle school with a teacher who talked almost exclusively about the coming Armageddon. He had little difficulty keeping the attention of his group of boys.
Like most people, even those who think they are Christians, I was not one. But when I went to college, I came to understand the Lord. It happened at Florida State University.
Without giving you my testimony, I can just say that it began with the meetings of Intervarsity Christian Fellowship on campus. I experienced worship and teaching, but it wasn’t like church. We didn’t dress up. We met in a room in the student union.
Music varied in quality with students playing any instruments they could, especially during my first year. We sang words from an old overhead projector and shook keys and made noise. Once I learned not to be self-conscious, it was fun.
The teaching wasn’t like the sermons I remembered (or didn’t remember) from church as a kid. Speakers connected with us, reached out to us, talked about very practical things. The persistent theme was the ways being a Christian should affect your life.
But what made it all work was probably less the programming and more the community. I learned to love the students in our chapter. They became like a new family to me. I was so happy to see them. We met as a group and became part of each others lives the rest of the time, too. They were my social group, my worship group, my homework group, my neighbors, my community. We practically colonized one of the apartment complexes near campus. On top of it all, they were the people who supported Ruth and I by attending our wedding, wishing us well, desecrating my car as a honeymoon-mobile, and giving us gifts.
When I left that group, it was hard for me to find a church. Ruth and I tried a number of places, but I was never satisfied. I couldn’t find anything to match what we’d had before at FSU. I looked for the worship experience that would make it worthwhile to attend, but was rarely happy with that. I tried to find a superstar preacher to amaze me with talent and wisdom. But that wasn’t enough. I sampled churches, found them wanting, and discarded them.
In other words, I was spiritually immature. You may hear of individuals who are so disenchanted with the church that they practice Christianity on their own as if they are advanced Christians. I think that’s the wrong interpretation. A failure to find a church and invest yourself in it is a sign of spiritual immaturity.
Here’s what I found. If you go to a church — preferably a Bible-believing one close to where you live so you will be worshipping with your neighbors — and become part of the community, you will discover that church will become delightful to you.
Don’t go with a consumer mindset. Don’t go thinking that you have to be entertained or amazingly taught or lifted into a higher plane by an ultra-talented worship team. Don’t sit back and judge the person teaching Sunday school as though you are Simon Cowell and the teacher is a performer. Pay attention. Look for opportunities to contribute. I am teaching now and have no illusions that I am a great authority on the gospel of John. I am grateful every time the other members of the class help me out.
Just go, week in and week out, and get to know the people in your church. It may take a while, but eventually you will form relationships and the people in your church will become to you what the people in Intervarsity were to me. Then, when you go to church you will be going to a reunion that happens once or twice a week. It will be an occasion for joy.
The secret of the church is not that it is some business to be run or a show designed to catch curious onlookers. The secret of the church is that is a community. It is a place where you belong and where people know you. In other words, it is a lot like the old bar on the television show Cheers. And it helps you to live the Christian life. In the church, you will become aware of what is going on in other people’s lives and they will learn about your life. You will pray with each other and minister to needs. Christianity is not meant to be practiced in isolation.
So, stop shopping for a church. Stop sampling. Don’t fall for all the hype of a Disneyworld experience with a Christian aura around it. Don’t chase after a superstar preacher. You can hear that on your iPod. Feel free to contribute to that ministry. But find a church where you can be part of a community of people who know each other and will help one another live the Christian life, sometimes as helpers and sometimes by being in need and providing an opportunity for others to help.