by Catherine McNiel
Does your church have chairs or pews? The old pews I grew up sitting on really wore on the tailbone and backbone; today’s chairs are so much more comfortable. But then again, comfortable is not what we’re supposed to feel at church. Church is where we sit for a bit, drinking in nourishment and fellowship in order to stand back up and get to work.
Maybe pews, those ergonomic nightmares, had something going for them: We didn’t want to keep sitting.
In addition to comfy seating, a few American assumptions make it challenging for us to get up and follow, to actively join Jesus’ disciples. First up are the twin American loves of consumerism and individualism. We think of church as a benefit or service to consume, not a community to invest in or a team to join. We sit down and receive. Enticed by marketing and programming, entertained by performers on a stage as we watch from auditorium seating—well, it sure looks like a consumer product. But unlike most institutions, the church does not exist primarily to meet the needs of its members. The church exists to empower its members to come together and meet the needs of the full community. We are servants, not shoppers. All that we receive at church—teaching, sacraments, worship, community, spiritual formation—are the fuel that keeps us going and binds us together. In actively joining the mission of loving God and loving our neighbors, together in imperfect but committed community, we discover that our needs are met.
This brings us to individualism. We Westerners are committed to a radical new idea: that a person’s primary identity is not found in their family, community, or group but within themselves; that a person’s primary duty is not to the family, community, or group but to achieving personal fulfillment. Everything goes through the filter of “I” and “me.” We think of sin as something an individual does, salvation as a gift God gives that individual, faith a relationship between God and one person, redemption happening in an individual life story.
On the one hand, there is important truth here. God does meet us as individuals, loving us, healing us, calling us. We cannot overstate this truth: God is here, loving you, empowering you, inviting you.
Then, as we respond to that love, that wooing, our individual relationship becomes a community affair. Like a good shepherd, God drives us together, toward each other, into a family, a flock. God takes a dangerous detour to save the one lost lamb, but he brings that one lamb back to the ninety-nine.
The question God puts to us is not only if we want a relationship with the Creator but with the Creator’s people, as well. We may encounter God individually but become disciples by joining the community. We are free to love God—and enjoy God’s love—from the privacy of our own individual hearts; we can even benefit from consuming the teaching, worship, and ministries on tap at our local church. But individual consumption does not create disciples. Disciples are active members of Team Jesus. Christianity is something we practice.
Here’s another way to look at it. The truth, the glorious, miraculous, joyful truth is that each of us were saved by grace. There is nothing, nothing we could do to earn the love and delightful relationship God offers us. Life is all gift, all grace.
And now, having been born into the family of God, we have work to do, together. My children did not earn the right to be born or a place in my home or the money to pay for the roof over their heads; yet they cannot sit around playing video games all day. If I pass out the chore lists and hear “But mom, you welcomed me into the family through grace! Your love is unconditional!” I would laugh, hug them tight, then start counting down from three. Yes, my love and their place in the family are unshakable. We belong together. And also, there is work to be done which I cannot do without them: food to cook and dishes to wash and bathrooms to clean. The tasks do not take away their place in the family; their delightful position in the family is where the duties come from in the first place!
Friend, hear me say this, once and for all: God does not ask you to earn his love or a seat at the table. God loves you with an everlasting love—you, individual you. God delights in you with singing, shelters you like a mother eagle nurturing her eaglets, gathering them under her wings. Praise God in the highest heavens for this endless grace!
And, now that we are in the family, one of the gifts God provides is work for us to do together. And there is so much work to do.