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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Finding a Church That Feeds You

This is not a post about whether or not you have to go to church.  There’s plenty to say on that issue, but I’ll save it for another day.  I’m writing about making sure that you are at the right church, and when you have found that church, the common phrase used is that you are being “fed.”  Just like we need to eat food in order to survive, we also have a spiritual hunger that must be sustained.

Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life.  He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty” – John 6:35

Why That Hunger Must Be Fed
When we are hungry, we will eat.  The hungrier we are, the less it matters what we eat.  We’ll load up on junk food if it’s there…and let’s be honest…it’s always there.  Healthier food is more expensive, it takes more time to prepare, and it doesn’t taste as good.  Junk food is cheap, easy, and delicious.  It works the same in our faith.  If our church isn’t feeding us enough, we’ll find that nourishment elsewhere…and let’s be honest…it’s always there.

In the form of sin.

If you are attending the “wrong” church, then you are lacking spiritual nourishment.  You aren’t learning about Jesus.  You aren’t learning about the Bible.  You aren’t learning.  You aren’t growing.

Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good – 1 Peter 2:2-3

To quote the notes in my Bible, “When we are born again, we become spiritual newborn babies.  If we are healthy, we will yearn to grow.  The need for milk is a natural instinct for a baby, and it signals the desire for nourishment that will lead to growth.  Once we see our need for God’s Word and begin to find nourishment in Christ, our spiritual appetite will increase, and we will start to mature.”

I’m going to make a bold statement here, one that some will probably disagree with and highly criticize: You would be better off staying at home than attending a church that isn’t feeding you.

Allow me to explain:  I am a middle school teacher.  Every year, I see one or two kids who are clearly finished with school.  They have zero desire to be in class.  Since it is against the law for them to drop out, there they sit every day.  You know the kind I’m referring to—you might even be one of the students to which I am referring.  For the sake of an example, I’ll call this student “Johnny.”

Since he has no desire to be in class, Johnny bothers everyone around him.  For the last couple of years, I have paid attention to the consequence of that last sentence.  When Johnny is in a class, the average grade of the entire class drops.  Follow that?  Solid students become decent students, decent students become struggling students, and struggling students become failing students when they share a room with Johnny.  His mere presence affects them all.

Negatively.

If you are “Johnny” at church, there’s a problem.  It’s one thing for you not to be fed, but now you are affecting the nourishment of others, and God has little patience for that.

When Steph and I visit her parents, we often go to their church.  Their church believes in speaking in tongues—a practice I did not grow up around and am therefore uncomfortable with.  Instead of letting my own issues go when I initially witnessed it, I became more and more vocal about it.  I began noticing that the same person spoke in tongues every time we went.  I noticed that she did it at the same point in the service every time.  I became skeptical, and made a “game” out of it.  Like a movie director yelling “Action,” when we reached that point in the service, I would say, “Aaaaannnndddd…Go!” and point to the woman.  Immediately, she would begin speaking in tongues.  Steph laughed.  Her family laughed.  Oh, what fun we were having!

Here’s the problem—I was mocking a practice they believed in.  I was mocking their service.  Their church.  My mocking took away from their time with God.  Plus, there were obviously other people sitting around us who no doubt heard me every time I did that.  I was robbing them of proper nourishment as well.

What if the person sitting in front of us was at church for the first time?  What if they were moved by the woman speaking in tongues, but my joke ruined that moment for them?  What if that caused them to be skeptical as well?  What if that skepticism kept them from attending church ever again?  What if that ultimately leads them to never knowing Jesus and winding up in Hell?

I would be partially to blame for that.

I was Johnny.  I wasn’t being fed at church; consequently, I became a distraction to others.  If I couldn’t keep my mouth shut (which is another topic for another time), the least I could have done was stay home.

For if anyone with a weak conscience sees you who have this knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, won’t he be emboldened to eat what has been sacrificed to idols?  So this weak brother, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge.  When you sin against your brothers in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ.  Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall. – 1 Corinthians 8:10-13

Bible’s notes: “Christian freedom does not mean that anything goes.  Christian freedom is inseparably tied to Christian responsibility.  New believers are often very sensitive to what is right or wrong, what they should or shouldn’t do.  Some actions may be perfectly all right for us to do, but may harm a Christian brother or sister who is still young in the faith and learning what the Christian life is all about.  We must be careful not to, by our example, cause these younger Christians to sin.”

If you are attending the “right” church, then you are receiving proper nourishment.  Christians who are being well-fed talk about this great peace and love that fills them when they’re at church.  If they’re attending the right church, that feeling extends beyond those walls.

How Do We Know If We’re Not Being Fed Properly?
Why do people believe that breakfast is the most important meal of the day?  Because your body and mind are trying to wake up, and the nutrients and calories from a good breakfast will help them do that.  Yes, calories are good.  Calories = energy.  You want energy for your day?  A decent breakfast is way more important than coffee.  Plus, breakfast kick-starts your metabolism.  Numerous studies have shown that people who eat a good breakfast have a higher metabolism rate and therefore (on average) weigh less than the people who skip breakfast.  Why?  These studies found that people who typically eat breakfast eat healthier during the day.  In short—they snack less.

My science teachers would be so proud.

Church is your breakfast for the week.  Pay attention to that.  When I say that you need a church that feeds you, I am NOT saying that it should be your only meal.  There’s still praying, reading your Bible, sharing the gospel, and fellowship with other Christians to name a few.  Can you get all of that at church?  Yes, but it shouldn’t stop there.

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’” – Matthew 4:4
“My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work” – John 4:34 (Bible notes: “The ‘food’ about which Jesus was speaking was his spiritual nourishment.  It includes more than Bible study, prayer, and attending church.  Spiritual nourishment also comes from doing God’s will and helping to bring his work of salvation to completion.  We are nourished not only by what we take in, but also by what we give out for God.”)

I do believe, however, that the church is your most important meal of the week, because it kick-starts your spiritual metabolism.  If you aren’t being fed properly at church, you are more likely to “snack” during the week.  You are less likely to eat the other proper meals (praying, reading the Bible, etc).  If you are fired up to go to your church every week, it becomes easier to stay healthy the rest of the week.

So how do you know if you are malnourished?
-         If praying and/or reading the Bible begins to feel like a chore rather than something you’re excited about.
-         If you find excuses not to go to church.
-         If you start questioning basic Christian moral standards (“It’s okay if I sleep with my girlfriend if I really, really love her, right?”)
-         If nearly every sermon bores you.
-         If you find that you are angry more often.  The hungrier you are, the more directions that anger is pointed: inanimate object…your favorite sports team…your co-workers…your friends…your family…your spouse…those in the church…Christians in general…and ultimately—God.
-         If you find yourself sinning more often and that it’s easier to do (as in: you rationalize it, feel less guilt over it, or repent less).  When you are physically starving, it becomes difficult for your immune system to ward off diseases.  When you are spiritually starving, sin spreads like an infection, and you are less equipped to fight it.
-         If you find yourself spending less and less time with Christian friends and more and more time with non-Christians. (*As I stated last week, it’s okay to have non-Christian friends, but they shouldn’t be your only friends.*)
-         If you spend more time on your hobby than you do reading the Bible, praying, and talking about God with others (combined).
-         If you don’t think about God unless you “mess up” real bad.
-         If the fifth episode in a row of Sportscenter actually looks appealing.

A big thanks to my brother Joe for those last three…the Sportscenter one made me laugh, so I had to include it.  As for the rest of you, please feel free to include others if you think of any.

A rather large question usually comes up right about now: Whose fault is it that I’m not being fed properly?  Some people want to blame the church, and sometimes they would be right to do so.  Let’s face it…some churches are just going through the motions.  Some people want to blame the Christian—you—and sometimes they would be right to do so.  Let’s face it…sometimes you’re just going through the motions.  Overall, I think the answer is pretty clear: It’s no one’s fault.

When Steph and I moved to Eureka, one of the first things on our checklist was to find a church that we could call home.  As it turned out, our neighbor was the associate pastor (who later became the head pastor) of a non-denominational church, which was perfect for us.  We started going to services there, and never went anywhere else for four years.

We liked it at Crosspoint.  We joined a small group before we officially decided that Crosspoint was our home church.  Most of the congregation were our age and great people, the music was awesome, it was rapidly growing…we felt home there.  Eventually, we started to see cracks in the foundation—not necessarily in the foundation of the church, but the foundation of our relationship with the church.

One major problem for me came during the weekly sermon.  I was never moved by it.  I went to that church for four years, and even today I can’t remember taking anything from a single sermon.  During the sermon, I would daydream…I would think about that week’s slowpitch softball game…instead of taking notes, I would write possible trades for my fantasy football team.

Eventually, Steph and I realized that Crosspoint wasn’t feeding us as we needed, so we left.  I can’t blame them for us leaving…it’s still a rapidly growing church, so obviously plenty of other people are being fed.  We weren’t.  Crosspoint no longer worked for us, and while that’s okay, it meant that we needed to find a different church that would work for us.

We didn’t for over a year.

And began starving ourselves.

What Happens When Spiritual Hunger Becomes Starvation?
The same thing that happens when physical hunger becomes starvation:

Death.

Let’s Make a Grocery List
Before you do anything, you should take a spiritual inventory of yourself.  Where are you at this point in your spiritual life?  I have been to some churches with a very spiritually young congregation.  This meant that a lot of very basic instruction was going on, most of which I already knew fairly well.  Staying there would have been like me returning to elementary school to relearn addition and subtraction.  I’ve also been to churches with a very spiritually mature congregation.  This meant that a lot of what was being discussed was so in depth that it flew over my head.  Staying there would have been like me returning to college and jumping into the middle of a pre-med program.  If you know where you are in your walk with Christ, it will be a lot easier to find a church that’s at the same place.  You also need to know what you are and are not comfortable with: Large church or small?  Raising of hands during worship?  Speaking in tongues?  Hands-on prayer?

Once you know where you’re at, here are some things to look for when you are shopping for a church home that will feed you properly (in no particular order):
-         Do they uphold the Bible as their authority, being the word of God?
-         Do they teach through the Bible?
-         Do they rely only on the leaders to do the work of the ministry, or do they educate and promote other leaders through small groups, youth ministries, children’s church, missionary work, etc?
-         Are they teaching the essentials of the faith to the new believers?
-         Do they have weekly meetings, small groups, Bible studies, etc. where people can get to know each other and have fellowship with one another?
-         Is there freedom (and encouragement) for people to exercise their spiritual gifts and talents to be used for each other and the community?
-         Who are they affiliated with?
-         Is it a church that will provide spiritual, intellectual, and emotional growth?  Will it challenge you?
-         Can you respect and follow the pastor?  Do you like their preaching style?  I have seen pastors who yell and scream…who preach in soothing, loving tones…who (literally) danced down the aisles…who tell jokes…who barely move…who pace and gesture frantically…who sit down.  What is your preferred style?  What do you need in order to learn from them?
-         What is the music like?
-         What is the congregation like?  Age, enthusiasm, etc.
-         Are they trying to build stronger Christians or simply larger congregations?  By that, I mean are they doing things merely to pull in more people, sacrificing the teaching of God’s word to do so?
-         How do they feel towards women in leadership?  Homosexuals?  Any other hot-button topic that you may feel strongly about?
-         What is the accepted form of attire?

I spent all week putting that list together with the help of various people, websites, etc, but feel free to add any others that you can think of.  This list is merely meant to get you thinking about what you’re looking for—it is by no means a checklist of stuff that the church must have.  Some, like the first two, should be deal-breakers, but most of the others are more your preference.  For example: While I love music, I can live with a mediocre worship period if the pastor is awesome.  I need that pastor to reach me or everything else will fall on deaf ears.  Others feel differently, and that’s fine.  Regardless of what’s important to you on that list and what isn’t, there’s one thing that you must keep in mind:

There’s no such thing as the perfect church.

You will never find a church that perfectly matches all of your requirements, that’s why it’s so important to prioritize and decide what’s a deal-breaker for you and what you can live with.

A few of things that help narrow your search:
1)    See if the church you’re looking at has a website.  You can find a lot of the information listed above there.  Many times, they even have audio (or even video) of past sermons so you can check those out as well.
2)    Be sure to “shop around.”  First impressions are important, but can be misleading (good or bad).  Go back again.
3)    Don’t be afraid to email or even set up a face-to-face meeting with the pastor.  Come with questions.

In the end, don’t be stubborn.  Don’t go to the local Methodist church just because you grew up in the Methodist church.  Go where you will be fed.  If that happens to be the local Methodist church, great.  If the local Methodists can’t give you what you need, however, you need to be willing to look elsewhere.  If that means you wind up in a Catholic church, so be it.  Find the church that will help you grow spiritually.

Bon appetite!!

2 comments:

  1. How exactly do you know where you are in your spiritual life?

    Also, I have a friend who is a teenager, and they go to a church where they are not being spiritually fed, and they recognize this. They would love to go to another, but there family has gone to that church for over a decade and their family refuses to let my friend go anywhere else. My friend hates going to her church. They can almost always find an excusse not to go to church, so ussally they just stay home. Also, they are at a really rocky point in their faith right now, and need spiritual guidance, which they cleary aren't getting at their church. What should they do? Keep going to a church where they aren't being fed, and are being hurt because they feel understood there? Talk to their parents again, which most likely would cause more fighting? Just stay home?

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  2. I'll do my best here, but you sound like one of my former students, so if you'd like to continue this conversation in a more private setting, shoot me a message on Facebook (unless you don't want me to know who you are).

    How do you know where you are in your spiritual life? Great question without an easy answer. I'm trying to find out that answer for myself. That's what the majority of these posts are--my way of figuring out where I am. You have to do a lot of searching. Soul searching. Pray...read...talk to Christians that you respect and trust. That's what I'm doing. You wouldn't believe how much stuff I read and/or research on a weekly basis. How many questions I'm asking my Christian friends/relatives. I realize that that might not be the answer you were hoping for, but it's what I have to offer right now. Like I said--I'd love to continue this in more of a private way. Maybe we can help each other figure out where we're at ;)

    As for your friend...I find it interesting that her parents won't let her go to a different church, but they have no problem with her staying home instead of going to church at all. Maybe that's how she could approach it to them: "Mom, Dad, what would you rather have--me attending a church that I choose or not one at all?" It's not exactly my business, but WHY are they so determined to make her go to this exact church? Just because they do?

    Is she and/or you part of any youth group? Is there someone there that she trusts/respects that she could go to for some guidance? If you ARE one of my former students, we could all sit down for some coffee or something sometime at talk it all out. I can't promise concrete answers, but I can listen and help if/where I can.

    Meanwhile--I believe going to church is a very important part of the Christian life, so staying home isn't the best option. However (and many will disagree with me here), if talking to her parents about her attending a different church just leads to vicious fights--then we have a problem because eventually, she'll associate her faith with fighting (ie--negative emotions), and that's not good. If talking with her parents is getting her nowhere, I would suggest staying home if two things are happening: 1) When she does attend church, she is preventing others from me fed (see my example in the post), or 2) Attending that church is doing nothing more than pushing her away from God. If just BEING there is causing her to lose her faith, then she shouldn't be there.

    I'll stop here for now just because this is long enough already. Like I said, if you'd like to continue this privately, shoot me a PM on Facebook. If you don't want me to know who this is (or you're someone I don't know), I'd be happy to keep chatting here as well.

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