Staying Engaged in the Imperfect Church

The pastor was teaching about the importance of staying engaged in a strong local church, and he provided three reasons/warnings why people typically disengage. It was the 11:30 a.m. service, and we were sitting along an aisle, second row from the very back, in the less-than-a-year-old worship center. In front of us were two teens, one who was texting throughout much of the service. Behind us were two teens who spent the service talking, giggling, and kicking the back of my seat.

These distractions were helpful reminders that I love my church even when it’s not perfectly meeting my needs. It occurred to me, in fact, that there is at least one reason not listed by the pastor that we disengage from the church – the church tends to let us down in all sorts of ways because the church is filled with imperfect people. Pastors, staff, fellow members … they might say something that offends us, fail to show appreciation or support for things we’re doing or trying to do, act unprofessionally in small ways like not responding to emails … We get our feelings hurt because, of course, the world, including the church, is supposed to meet our needs, right? But, as the pastor aptly put it, only Jesus meets all of our needs. Only Jesus is perfect. The rest of us are prone to error.

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I’ve been guilty of selfish frustration with the imperfect church, so I’m seeking forgiveness. One, I know I contribute greatly to that imperfection. Two, I know how much God blesses me and my family through our church. Heartfelt worship … Biblical teaching … amazing leadership … Godly men and women serving selflessly out of love for Jesus … the list goes on and on. God even uses the imperfections to teach me things like patience, forgiveness, self-awareness, and the importance of loving one another when it’s not easy – like when some is kicking the back of my seat.

Fruits of a Jamaican Church Plant

What happens when followers of Jesus grow like Jesus? The church grows for Jesus.

Allow me to share an example …

Last weekend I went on a business trip to Jamaica. I know, it’s a tough life, but somebody had to do it, right? I got this call from a client who wanted me to shadow a film crew doing a commercial with track star Usain Bolt. I would spend a few days in and around Kingston, including a 15-minute interview with Bolt, and then write a series of stories about it for the product’s US website (Enertor.com).

photo credit: jamaica-march-2013-007 via photopin (license)
photo credit: jamaica-march-2013-007 via photopin (license)

Audrey was able to take a little time off from work to go with me, and she entertained herself while I was working. When we travel over a weekend, we try to visit a local church. One, we believe in the value of regular corporate worship with other followers of Jesus. Two, we enjoy and learn from experiencing worship and teaching in settings that are very different from our home church.

One of the options Audrey found online was Bethel Baptist Church, so we asked the hotel staff about it. When the front desk clerk seemed clueless, a waiter stepped in and confirmed that it was close – a short cab ride – and a very good option.  So off we went.

The worship center seats about 200 people, and the church holds three services each Sunday. In other words, it’s Jamaica’s version of a megachurch. There’s no air conditioning, but the side walls are all open windows so the breeze can flow through and large fans are mounted around the room. We found a seat near one, and settled in for the next two hours (this ain’t America, folks!).

We enjoyed the message – Rev. Burchell Taylor taught on 1 John 5:1-5 and how faith is our victory – but the other thing that jumped out at me was the life of this church.

Charles McCullough, a pastor from America, helped launch the church in 1954 with 20 members, and then moved back to the States three years later. In other words, he planted, many others watered, and the church began to grow, grow, grow.

On the day we visited, Taylor was celebrating 46 years as the pastor, but there were no signs that he or the church had lost their focus on growth. Their timeline – past and present – is full of partnerships with other churches and organizations, church plants and evangelism around the island, and social and spiritual ministries to the people of Kingston.

Bethel clearly has a focus on growing in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man – for each person and as a church body. It’s Luke 2:52 in action.

The visit reminded me that growth never happens unless something is planted and nurtured. We all play a role in that, for ourselves and for those around us. When we grow like Jesus, His church grows in ways that impact our community and the world around us. And who knows what fruit that growth might produce in the decades and decades to come, even long after we’re gone?

Note: Planting seeds is sometimes dangerous work. When we returned home, we read about the deaths of Harold Nichols and Randy Hentzel, two missionaries who had been working in Jamaica since 2002 with TEAMS for Medical Missions. “I don’t ever want anything portrayed that Jamaica is a terrible place,” Nichols’ wife Teri told a CNN affiliate. “I know this is a tragedy, but tragedies happen everywhere. They’ve been really good to us.”


Note: If you haven’t read the Grow Like Jesus, why not check it out now? If you’ve read it, drop me a note and let me know what you thought about it. Also, please go to Amazon.com and rate/review it. Thanks! Stephen

Lessons from a Baptismal God Moment

Did you hate going to church as a kid? Not me. I hung out with friends in Sunday School, played hang man or connect the dots on the bulletin during “big church,” and then my family went home and ate Mom’s awesome pot roast for lunch. What wasn’t to like?

I later spent more than a decade as an agnostic, not because I didn’t like going to church but because I was avoiding God. Thankfully, God is persistent in His pursuit of His lost sheep.

My wife and I are blessed to regularly attend an amazing local church, but it’s very different from when I was a kid. We now have small groups instead of Sunday School, I actually take notes (usually on the “communication card”), and we eat out for lunch. But I love going to church more than ever, and here’s why: I love the God moments.

I’ve experienced these throughout my spiritual journey and at four great local churches. The most recent was on a recent Sunday when a family member waded into the warm hot tub waters next to the stage and a pastor dunked him in front of everyone who was attending the 11:30 service.

The baptism itself was a God moment. Jeremy, my step-son-in-law, is nearly 40 years old, comes from what anyone would describe as a dysfunctional family, and spent much of his life trapped in the addictive pleasures of the world. To watch God work in his life and create transformation that seemed so impossible has been awe-inspiring, to say the least.JeremyBaptism

This was the second family baptism for us in less than a year. One of our granddaughters, at the age of 8, gave her life to Jesus and was baptized in the swimming pool of the Boys and Girls Club that’s converted into a church each Sunday. Clearly God can reach us at any age and under any circumstances!

Jeremy’s baptism wasn’t the only God-moment of that particular service, however. Jeremy had been talking about baptism for several months, but one thing or another seemed to delay it. Was it Satan? Or was it God’s timing? I don’t know, but I know God allowed Jeremy to experience baptism on a day when much of the message was about sanctification.

Jeff Crawford did a magnificent job unpacking Philippians 2:12-18. There’s not room here to share all the lessons, but three things stood out as great messages for a new believer like Jeremy and as wonderful reminders for all of us who want to grow like Jesus.

Salvation is a journey. In Grow Like Jesus, I write that “Faith in Christ is a one-time decision that leads to a lifetime of growth.” Or, as Jeff pointed out, there’s an ongoing aspect of salvation. It happens in the past (the moment when we are saved), present (our sanctification), and future (our eventual glorification when Jesus returns). So when Paul says to “work out your salvation” (verse 12), he’s not talking about “earning” it. He’s talking about living it—growing to be more like Jesus.

Salvation is eternal. One of Jeremy’s battles centered on assurance of salvation. He was confident he would stumble. His “fear and trembling” (verse 12) was of his own abilities, but God showed him he couldn’t lose his salvation. At the same time, we should live it out with paramount respect and awe for the God of the universe.

Salvation is “work-out-able.” How do we work out our salvation? Verses 14-18 offer some tips. Don’t complain (verse 14), let God’s light shine in you and through you (verse 15), study the Bible (verse 16), serve others as an expression of your faith (verse 17), and be glad and joyful in how God works in you and others (verse 18).

I left church that Sunday thankful for the lessons I learned and in awe of a God whose timing is perfect, who, indeed, works all things for His good, and who allows us to regularly experience God moments. Take a moment and thank Him for all the God moments you’ve experienced.