By Daniel Darling
“There are things in this church I don’t like,” I would frequently say of my church in Illinois. Sometimes this came in the form of, “and this is how it should be.”
I wasn’t talking about genuine concerns and areas of biblical fidelity that had to be addressed. There are things in a church a leader cannot ignore.
But there are far more areas of body life that, while annoying, might not be critical issue but preferences that might rub us the wrong way but make brothers and sisters feel at home.
This is the essence of church life. I came to this realization early in my ministry when I realized if I lead the church in such a way that it was shaped around my preferences and my ideas, it would be awesome for me—but would be uncomfortable for everyone else.
If every worship set was matched exactly to my musical tastes, the décor perfectly matched my liking, and the programming fit my schedule preferences, this would be a church just be a weird funhouse mirror—a pet project geared toward my self-interest.
Finding a church that exactly fits our fallen preferences and subjective desires isn’t a reflection of New Testament Christianity.
And whether we’re pastors, church staff, lay leaders, or regular attendees, we shouldn’t seek out churches that hit all of our spiritual love languages and we shouldn’t complain when our congregations don’t meet our superficial expectations in every area.
Biblical church life is about mutual giving. We gather with a local body, not because each of our brothers and sisters are exactly like us, but because in our differences God is calling out a new people.
While we should be united and fixated on the things that matter—the truth of God’s word and the beauty of orthodoxy—we should hold loosely those other aspects of church life that might be important but secondary.
This requires a healthy dose of humility and a love for our brothers and sisters who might be different from us. I think there are at least three ways in which we can allow this to happen:
1. Community is meant to be a discipline, not something that “just happens.”
In his book Uncomfortable, Brett McCracken writes this about the commitment to regular, sustained church life:
On most Sundays, it’s far easier to stay home than it is to come spend a few hours singing and mingling over donuts with people you would never otherwise hang out with. Whether you’re an extrovert or introvert, millennial or octogenarian, Republican or Democrat, you probably find it tough at times to relate to some of the people at your church.
This is exactly right. You’ll have to fight for community. This means you’ll have to have a lot of awkward conversations with people you don’t know, from backgrounds you don’t recognize, who have life experiences with which you can’t relate.
So be it. Dig in and get to know your body of believers. Be willing to love and come alongside people who are different than you. It’s worth it.
When you invest in biblical community, you’ll find the friendships you sow with brothers and sisters in the Lord can be sweet and life-giving and soul-shaping.
2. The awkwardness and discomfort of church life is good for your sanctification.
You heard that right. The things in your church that others might prefer—music types, schedule structures, or preaching styles—might be the very things God has put in your life for your own growth and sanctification.
Walking alongside other redeemed sinners allows us opportunities to give and take, to forgive and be forgiven, to love and be loved. In your quest to find a church that reflects you, you’ll end up without community.
But in community with people who have different preferences, varying stages of spiritual maturity, and differing gifts, God shapes your heart.
He uses the things that annoy us about other Christians to make us more patient. He uses the sin struggles of other Christians to make us more compassionate. And he uses the opinions of others to sand off the rough edges on our own faulty ideas.
In other words, don’t look for a church that looks like you. Find a church where others’ preferences rub up against yours in such a way that it helps you grow more like Jesus.
3. Our ideas and preferences aren’t central to everything.
God has given each of us unique gifts, interests, and ideas. This is good.
I’m glad, for instance, that some Christians specialize in apologetics, helping us all become sharper at engaging skeptics and seekers.
I’m glad that some are especially adept biblical scholars and can comfortably explain the original Greek and Hebrew.
I’m grateful for Christians who are alert to movements in the culture and politicians and can lead us in thinking well about the world.
These are just a few of many ways in which God specifically gifts and calls people to serve the church, but we should be willing to use these, not to advance ourselves, but for the edifying of the body of Christ.
We shouldn’t insist that our thing—project or preference or pet issue—is at the center of all programming and church life. And we should be willing to learn from the gifts and callings of others. McCracken says, again:
Submitting to the authority of community means we are humble and teachable rather than arrogant and “I’ve got this” overconfident. And that goes for the old as well as the young, the seasoned in faith as well as the green. It means submitting to accountability beyond ourselves.
I’m not saying that there aren’t times when some things are worth fighting for. Paul urged Timothy and Titus to stand up for the gospel and be unyielding on orthodoxy. But he also says to “fight the good fight (1 Timothy 6:12).”
Too often our fights aren’t good fights. They’re over preferences and an unwillingness to die to our preferences in order to give, serve, and love our brothers and sisters in the Lord.
Not only should you have things in your church you don’t like, you should embrace the privilege of the opportunity to grow in a community that will be used by God to sanctify you.
DANIEL DARLING (@dandarling) is vice president of communications for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and teaching and discipleship pastor at Green Hill Church in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee. He is the author of several books, including The Dignity Revolution.