I often get asked: “Where should I go to church?” It is the wrong question to ask. Lurking in it are likely inappropriate and unrecognized presuppositions and motives. We need to ask a “who” question, not a what and where question. The correct answer to that question will be found in understanding God-assigned relationships. Relational reality in God-assignments is where you will find your “church,” no other way.
In John 1:35-39 two of John the Baptist’s disciples hear John identify Jesus as the Lamb of God. They leave John, forsaking what they had known and invested in, to follow Jesus. Jesus notices them following Him. He asks them what they are looking for. In very Jewish fashion, they respond to Jesus with another question: “Where are you staying?” Jesus does not answer them, but responds with an invitation to relationship, from which their question and more will be answered.
It can be emotionally, spiritually, and socially costly to make a major life transition. I have taught and written elsewhere about the stages in the psychology of transition. One of the early stages of transition is disembedding: Removal from the previous pursuit or association. This can be a very disorienting time. During this time it is not uncommon to not even really know what it is your are looking for. You often don’t even know the right questions to ask. All you know is that the previous pursuit or association is no longer satisfactory.
The two disciples fit right in to this dynamic. “What do you want?” is not a difficult question! But they can’t answer it! Welcome to transition! If you feel yourself strangely dissatisfied, disoriented, doubting your previous associations, unable to answer others questions, don’t worry. That is all part of the normal processes of moving into an unknown future.
The Three “G’s”
One would think that since the two disciples left John, that they would have at least been able to explain what was motivating them. But they don’t. Instead they respond to Jesus with a very Semitic question of importance about geography: Where are you staying?
In our culture, a person’s social status is typically defined by money, power, education, or fame/status. It was not so in their world. In their culture a person’s social status was defined by what sociologists call the “Three G’s:” gender, geneaology, and geography. As hard as it may be for Westerners to grasp this, and as offensive and bigoted as it might seem to us, ancient Mid-Eastern people sincerely believed that one’s gender, birth, and place of origin or habitation definitively determined your social and spiritual status and these were divinely prescribed by God or the gods. We see this in the disparaging comment made about Jesus later in verse 46: Can anything good come out of Nazareth? (We can also see it in the derogatory attitude throughout the Gospels of the religious establishment toward the disciples as being from “Galilee.”).
If Jesus was as great as John had just proclaimed him to be, it would be logical for the two disciples to think that He would be staying in some great home, with great people, and in a great place. Also, to follow a Rabbi meant to sit at his feet, not just receive teaching. So, for the two disciples, knowing where Jesus would be staying was a culturally significant issue.
Jesus Overturns the Norm
As He so often does in the Gospels when asked a question, Jesus does not respond with an answer, but with another question as He overturns cultural norms. He responded: “Come and you will see.” He responded to a geography question with a relational invitation. The critical matter is not where He is staying, the greatness or not of the house or the family or the city where He might reside. The critical matter is being with Him, wherever He might be. Later, by verse 46, Philip has “got it.” He responds to a prejudiced geographical presupposition from Nathaniel with an invitation to relationship, the same response Jesus used in verse 39: Come and see.
Relationship Over Geography
Nothing has changed. The critical matter for all of us endeavoring to follow Christ is not where we go to church or not, or what form our meetings may take, or the infrastructure of our organization or non-organization. The critical matter is: Are we relationally assignable by the Holy Spirit? That is, are we willing as Christ-followers to engage relationally with God in Christ, each other, and the world, wherever we might be assigned to do so, even if the assignment is circumstantially unpleasant and dissatisfying to ourselves?
Rather than asking, Where should I go to church? I suggest you ask yourself and our Father the following simple three-part question. If you answer each of these successfully, you will know where your “church” is, and find a fruitful and rewarding kingdom expression.
Father, to whom have you assigned me (us), at this season in my (our) life, for their benefit and mine (ours):
1. To whom have you assigned us?
It is always about the people, not geography, not cities, not regions, not localities, not local churches, not meeting structures. God assigns people to people. Jesus preached to multitudes, but when it came time to associate with twelve intimately, He prayed all night for the specific assignment and He gave account for them at the end of His life. We should be no different. Answering this question in the Spirit takes all the issues of “are they doing it the way I like,” “do I agree with their doctrine,” and “do I like the music” off the table. Those are all secondary, if not irrelevant.
The question is: Will you go to the people to whom God may be sending you? PERIOD. This is crucifying for those who are doctrinally fixated because it feels like compromise. You do not have to agree with people in every wrinkle and nuance of doctrine to love and serve them. It all boils down to Spirit-assignment. Daniel and Joseph were assigned to some very ungoldy and unpleasant personal circumstances and they prospered and changed the world.
We simply have to get out of narcissistic motivations of what it means to be a Christian and what it means to “go to church.” The people to whom you may be assigned might be in a structure and a geography with some belief systems and practices you might not like or normally choose. What has that got to do with Father assigning you to whom He will? Is your love not big enough to handle it, if God is assigning you there?
2. At this season
Not every kingdom relationship is forever. We might be very good for each other for a season. The season and circumstance may change and, while maintaining the bonds of love, we are free to move on in our “meeting associations.” Love remains, but our proximity may not. This is fine. Understanding this also takes manipulation and control out of the relationship that come from statements like this: “If you are going to attend this church, you must be 100% committed to the leadership vision and mission,” and “You must bloom where you are planted” (inferring the place to bloom is that particular group and that “commitment” must be forever, unless the “leadership” sanctions a change).
Baloney on both counts.
Only the Lord Jesus is worthy of 100% commitment as Spirit-led sons and daughters try to live and function in the kingdom. Sometimes what I am recommending here can be very threatening to local church pastors who tend to view people as assets and resources for “their ministry.” If they see you “leave” taking with you your time, talents, and treasure (money), it is common to hear all kinds of dire warnings of terrible things that will happen to you if you leave. The kingdom is bigger and broader than any local expression. Being free to function in it, is normal.
That carnal and immature people can abuse this to live a self-indulged and unruly life is not denied. It is just that the benefit is worth the risk of misuse. Inherent in freedom is the possibility of misuse. That is the risk of grace.
3. For their benefit and mine
This establishes a very important quality: mutuality. Answering this question takes authoritarianism in leadership, and hierarchy, and one-way relationship dynamics off the table. It is not about you finding some place to go and passively listen to someone lecture you every week–sanctuary or living room–makes no difference. On the contrary, any healthy relationship in the kingdom is based on the mutuality and exchange of love, service, charismata, talents, treasure and time. We must be good for each other, and that can change over time and it is OK to make the change.
If you are digging a foundation for a home, it is very important to have a backhoe on the site. But if you are trying to hang curtains and the backhoe is still flailing away trying to dig, you have a severe problem. The backhoe needs to move on, because the abilities it brings are no longer suitable for the need. What was once beneficial is now not only inappropriate, but destructive. In our kingdom relationships, it is ok to assess these things. There is relational and kingdom wisdom in doing so.
The “Where should I go to church?” question can be so challenging because we all need deeper deprogramming of our expectations of what community looks and feels like. We have to pull out of a meeting-centric kingdom existence and pull into a life-centric kingdom existence, which includes meetings from time to time.
My community is all around me: In the grocery store, on the job, at the garage, at school. We have been doing it backwards for years. We think going to, and inviting, or being invited to meetings is the substance of the matter. It is not. Living well according to Christ is the substance of the matter. That can be done anywhere, all the time. We erroneously want to begin and end with meetings (sanctuary or living room, it does not matter). Meetings should be the outcome of living and loving well together, the fruit of living the kingdom, not the definition of living the kingdom.
Finally, here are some practical suggestions that I have found to work marvelously–Be relationally intentional, purposeful, and courageous:
1) Invite people to your table–share a meal with them.
Few people, regardless of who they are or what they believe, will turn down an invitation to a meal.
2) Slowly invite them into your heart, establish safety one with another, identify with each other
This is the discovery/vulnerability/transparency process. It is slow. It can be risky. But really, it is a no harm, no foul endeavor. If you invite people to your table and there is no chemistry, no sense of safety and trust, no spiritual connectivity, no interest from others for who you are as a person, and for what you might have to say about being a follower of Jesus, well that is fine! You have made a friend, enjoyed a meal, and who knows what might happen in the future through maintaining a friendship! You have made a relational investment in another human being! You cannot go wrong doing that!
We simply have to get out of the mindset of transactional evangelism. I have invested literally years, sometimes decades, in relationship with people before they came to Christ. We have to quit treating people like commodities for our silly local church “evangelism programs.” We need to learn to dignify people by listening to them–their joys, pains and sorrows–not objectify them as targets for our “evangelism techniques,” to close the “salvation deal.”
3) Have a meeting if #1 and #2 compel a meeting. Make life and love demand a meeting, don’t expect a meeting to produce life and love. Meetings should be compelled by love: We simply cannot stand to be apart from each other. If a meeting is a meeting just because it is the day and time to do a meeting, and there is no love, well, I can do without those kinds of meetings.
I am willing to bet if you do this consistently with courage, you will be happier, busier, more fulfilled, and more kingdom-engaged with people than you have ever been in your life. The trick is to lead with love, not information and debates about what we believe about the Bible. Let your love build a bridge into someone’s heart before you share the spiritual goods you may be carrying. Be a safe person yourself, and treat others the way you would like to be treated.
Yes, this is a costly and slow way to “plant” and “build” a church, and it will probably never produce a “successful mega church,” but I would rather fellowship with eight who actually know and love me, than eight hundred or eight thousand who just come to get a Jesus-buzz in “worship” and to hear somebody preach.
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