As the baseball season is winding down, this year in particular I find myself a little melancholy. For the past twenty years, at least one of my two boys have been involved in some kind of organized baseball, which means that Kristen and I have too. We have spent many cold, damp nights, and hot, sun-filled afternoons on a baseball diamond. After logging thousands of hours, I have learned a thing or two. I learned that there is an 11th Commandment, which says, “Thou shall not make the 3rd out at 3rd base.” And if you’re a pitcher, a sure way to make your coach blow a gasket, is to throw a meat pitch right down the middle for a home run when you’re ahead in the count 0-2.
I also learned that every time a hitter comes up to bat he has to come with a plan. If he knows the pitcher is mainly a fastball pitcher, he should be looking for the fastball…but be ready to adjust to the curve. He should watch for patterns. Does the pitcher throw the same pitch when he’s ahead or behind a batter? Don’t just go up there and swing wildly, hoping something good happens. Coaches call this having “a good approach.” (Full disclosure: I watched a lot of baseball, and I coached my fair share. But my playing days ended when I was in 6th grade—and I wasn’t very good at that. So, before I went ahead and wrote about this, I first checked with my boys who actually know what they are talking about in practice, not just in theory.)
Anyway, to admittedly stretch this analogy, the way people approach church is often similar to the way a hitter approaches an at bat. Sadly, many are just swinging wildly, hoping something good will happen. There are many reasons why people become a part of a church. Maybe they like the preaching, or the children’s ministry, or the worship. Maybe the people are really nice and friendly. Maybe the church is active in the community. Some go because of less spiritual reasons, like it’s a good way to make business connections, or it’s a safe place to find a spouse. These various reasons determine the type of commitment that someone is willing to give, the ways they are willing to be involved, the approach that they take.
I’m not going to try to address here the question of why someone should be committed to a local church. Maybe I’ll pick that up in a future blog post. For now, I will refer you to Jonathan Leeman’s excellent book from the 9Marks series, simply entitled, Church Membership. It’s less than 150 pages, and makes some important points about the way we should think about church and why we should join one.
For now, I’m going to assume that a person has committed to a local church body, and for the right reasons. The question I’d like to ask is, “Do we have a good approach to church?” In other words, what is our mindset, what are our expectations, what is our attitude, when we gather with the local body of Christ?
As I read the New Testament, I see three main purposes for when believers would meet together as the church: worship, discipleship, and service.
The first purpose is worship. This assumes that church is for believers. We come together as a body for corporate worship, chiefly through the preaching of the word, prayer, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, and observing the ordinances of baptism and communion. We see this pattern from the earliest days of the church in the book of Acts (see Acts 2:42-47).
The second purpose is discipleship. The church’s main task until Christ returns is to make more followers of Jesus, more disciples, who are growing in likeness to their Master. Jesus gave his Great Commission in Matthew 28, and then as his apostles went out preaching the good news after receiving the Holy Spirit, first in Jerusalem, then Judea and Samaria, then the ends of the earth, they planted churches. The church understood that where disciples are made, churches are formed, and where churches are formed disciples are made.
Finally, the third purpose is service. I’m going to spend a little more time here because I think most Christians understand the first two purposes, but there is some confusion about the third. This purpose of service, we primarily see in the working out of the multiple “one another” exhortations of Scripture (e.g., Galatians 5:13-15; Ephesians 4:1-2; Hebrews 10:24-25; 1 John 4:7-12). As believers in Christ, we have been justified and united with Christ (Galatians 2:20). Every Christian is indwelt with the Holy Spirit, who begins the sanctifying process of making us more like Jesus, producing his fruit in our lives, and empowering us to resist sin and to serve the church.
Unfortunately, many Christians see service as limited to some kind of formal program, where they take a spiritual gifts test and then the church leadership directs them to ministries (or creates ministries) in which they can exercise those supposed gifts. Certainly, formal, directed ministry of service is needed. However, I believe that the most practical, and probably most fruitful kind of service is when we simply, purposefully, bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2).
In the early days of the New Testament church, there was a godly man named Joseph, a former Levite from the island of Cyprus. As the church in Jerusalem was growing at an enormous rate, and people had real practical needs of food, shelter, and clothing, Joseph saw a need and he did what could to meet that need. He didn’t have to take a test, and he didn’t wait until the Apostles created a program for him to get plugged into. What did Joseph do? Well, he had some property, he sold it, and he brought the proceeds to the Apostles to use as they saw fit. And, by the way, he didn’t care to get the credit. What was the result? Needs were met, the church was encouraged, and this man went on to be a great church planter and ministry companion to the Apostle Paul. Most of us know Joseph by the nickname the church in Jerusalem gave to him, “Son of encouragement,” or “Barnabas.”
Service requires humility. We have to practice Philippians 2, and consider others as more important than ourselves, which sometimes simply means, getting to know people, asking them questions, and not being upset when they don’t do the same. As we get involved in the lives of others, we begin to see needs, and there’s our opportunity to serve. Sometimes we discover a need that we don’t have the resources or expertise to meet, but we may know someone else in the church who can. And as we all begin to do this, focusing on blessing others, rather than waiting to be blessed by others, we find that all kinds of good works are done (see Ephesians 2:10), and we actually begin to look like one of the metaphors used in the New Testament to describe the church—a family, with brothers and sisters loving one another, not just in word or tongue, but in action and in truth (1 John 3:17-18).
This humility, this other-centered approach to service is only possible when our security is found in our identity in and union with Christ. We cannot serve in order to feel good about ourselves.
We cannot evaluate our self-worth based upon the thanks we receive from those we serve. Often, when we serve people who are hurting, they are so consumed by their grief, or crisis, or problem, that they do not thank us. We may not receive the strokes. Do we stop serving until there is some kind of recognition, some gratitude? No. If that was Christ’s approach to us, where would we be? We are to love as Christ loved us, without expecting a return (1 John 4:19).
In John chapter 13, there is the beautiful account of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. After the Lord Jesus does this upside down act of service, he then makes the point of this act clear when he says, “For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.” Jesus was talking about more than simply washing feet, he was talking about other-centered service. In just a short while, Jesus would do the ultimate act of service, the ultimate act of considering the other more important than self, he would go to the cross. “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
So, the next time we’re getting ready to come to a Sunday morning worship service, or an Adult Sunday School class, or small group, or any other gathering of believers from SGCC, let’s not swing wildly. Instead, let’s have a good approach.