It’s often difficult to find a healthy church—much less become a healthy part of one. Here’s why you should make the effort.
Nearly 10 years ago, while taking care of my aunt’s bed and breakfast in Alaska, I met an unforgettable woman named Lynne. As we chatted over freshly baked scones and coffee, I asked her what she did in her free time.
She was a shepherdess.
Intrigued by her response, I began peppering her with all kinds of questions about her flock and quickly began drawing rich spiritual parallels between her descriptions and biblical teachings regarding sheep. I promised myself that one day I’d study this scriptural theme more in-depth.
Last spring, I decided to track Lynne down. Thanks to some help from Google, I located her, reintroduced myself, and garnered an invitation to spend a few days with her and her flock. Our time together became the foundation of Scouting the Divine: My Search for God in Wine, Wool, and Wild Honey.
I went on to spend time with a beekeeper in Colorado, a farmer in Nebraska and a vintner in California. Along the way, I opened the Scriptures, asking each person how he read various passages, not as a theologian, but in light of what he did every day.
Their answers illuminated passages of the Bible in a whole new way and deepened my relationship with God. I learned so much! One of the most treasured lessons I took away from my time with the shepherdess was just how much I need to be part of a community of believers.
People grow in their relationships with God in a myriad of ways. For me, reading the Bible, praying and connecting to God through spiritual disciplines reignites my faith and renews my hope in the one who was, is, and forever will be. Though church* definitely played a role in my spiritual formation—especially during my early years—my desire to attend a local church waned over time.
My reticence was exacerbated by the transient nature of my life, which included five major moves during the last 10 years. With each new city, finding a church became increasingly difficult. Like dating, searching for a place to worship can be awkward and uncomfortable—especially if you lose your sense of humor.
Even after settling into a home church, I often struggled with the gap between what the church is and what it could be. I wondered why some churches are more concerned with style than substance and marketing than making disciples. I firmly believe that small groups are good, but more often than not I’ve found myself in gatherings that lack depth, real connection or a willingness to put faith into action.
As a result, my own desire to attend church decreased until I began to wonder, Why do I go at all? I tried to console myself with the fact that even Jesus went to church. Technically it was the temple, and He didn’t always like what He saw when He got there, but nevertheless, He went.
The Gathering of Believers
Standing in a muddy Oregon field with her flock, Lynne unknowingly reminded me of some of the most basic reasons why the gathering together of believers is essential. As I watched the woolly creatures graze, she explained that sheep are defenseless. They don’t have sharp teeth or pointed hooves. Without protective features, their only defense is to flock together. That’s why whenever a predator is nearby, a flock will gather closely.
“What happens to a sheep that wanders off on its own?” I asked.
Lynne explained that those that leave the flock are the ones that get picked off by predators, become infected by parasites or overindulge in grass until they become ill. It’s only within a flock—under the watchful eye of a good shepherd—that the sheep are protected and enjoy a healthy life.
I couldn’t help but see the parallels between a flock and the church. From its foundation, Christianity has never been about isolation. In Genesis, we read the simple but profound observation that it is “not good” for man to be alone. This is the first time in Scripture that something is labeled “not good,” and it has to do with the relationship between a man and a woman. Yet I wonder if the statement reflects a basic life principle: We need one another.
Throughout the Old Testament, spiritual leaders are consistently given encouragement in the form of friends, followers and wingmen. Moses and Aaron, David and Jonathan, Elijah and Elisha, Naomi and Ruth—just to name a few. Jesus’ first act in ministry is to call 12 followers who will form a band of spiritual brothers. When the church is birthed in Acts, the Spirit descends on people who are gathered together.
What do these people do after the tongues of fire (see Acts 2:3) fade? They keep gathering together. They teach the story of God. They sing. They share meals. They pray. They spend time together. Because of their common love for God, who is described as the Good Shepherd, they can’t help but form a close-knit community (see Acts 2:42).
Reflecting on these passages, I’m always intrigued by how little Scripture tells us about what the believers actually do when they’re together. Sure, there’s music, encouraging, teaching and eating, but what about the format? The length? The location? The order? The time of day? The specific elements of the gathering seem far less important than actually gathering.