This is a guest post from Mrs.Lee Abbott. To see more of her writing, check out Souls Under Construction
My entire body adapted to my leg pain. I adjusted my desk chair, sat on a pillow in the car, changed my sleep position. My left hip and knee ached with the burden of my limp. For weeks, nearly every activity required some concession to the suffering element.
My bum leg brought to mind Paul’s statement regarding our membership in a single body.
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. [1 Corinthians 12:12 (ESV)]
I always saw this passage as individual Christians laboring together. As I gimped through weeks of leg pain, I reconsidered. What if we all viewed our own congregations as parts of one inseparable, undivided body? What if each congregation was willing to suffer so that all congregations could be healthy and whole?
My husband pastors a small congregation in a struggling community. We are like hundreds of churches across the country. And we are like my bum leg. We limp forward with painful steps. Our progress is slow and uneven.
Churches in our denomination and in our neighborhood wish us well. Like my initial response to my leg pain, sympathy and good wishes do little to relieve our troubles.
There is much discussion in Christian circles about church-hopping and sheep-stealing. The focus is on individuals—individual church members and families, individual pastors. Common reasons include better programs for the children, a personality clash, and the infamous “we feel more comfortable there.”
As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. [1 Corinthians 12:20-25]
Let’s use Paul’s imagery to reframe the reasons for changing churches:
“Our footprint is growing, so we moved to a church with a bigger mouth.”
“I’m a pointer finger. She’s a pointer finger. I switched so that I don’t have to see her finger pointing back at mine.”
“My old church kept my hands busy all the time. I’m tired of it. My new church lets me fold my hands in my lap. In fact, I decided to be a lap. I am more comfortable.”
When people leave our church to go to another, I feel the tearing apart of the body of Christ. It hurts. It is the opposite of comfortable. It hurts me, it hurts our congregation, it hurts our Lord and Savior.
For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. [1 Corinthians 12:13-17]
For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell?
If we truly thought of all congregations as parts of a single body, our approach would be different. People might change congregations, but the process would be uplifting instead of destructive.
Our small congregation is blessed with a wonderful organ and a grand piano. At one time, we had no one to play these fine instruments. A talented high-school student from a larger church approached us. There were many excellent musicians in that congregation, and he played only intermittently. He wanted more opportunities to use his gift. He taught himself to play the organ and blessed us with his talent and his cheerful spirit until he left for college.
What if the leaders of a church with more musicians, teachers or youth leaders than they routinely need sought out congregations lacking that same talent and said, “How can we share what we have with you?” What if they said to their under-used members, “Would you be willing to serve God by exercising your gifts in another congregation?” What if the less endowed churches joyously welcomed the help?
In our church’s early history, a group of members were set apart to start a new congregation closer to their homes. They left with the congregation’s blessings.
Church planting should be about starting a congregation in a place that has no church. Suppose church leaders approached a family in their congregation: “We understand that there’s a group launching a church in right your neighborhood. Join them, with our blessing.”
In more recent memory, another church’s internal battles led to sudden growth in our congregation. At first, the expanded attendance was applauded. Eventually, animosity developed between the old-timers and the new-comers. Picture it this way: the other church lost an entire arm, and our congregation found it difficult to get things done with three arms.
What if Christian leaders committed themselves to active reconciliation instead of passive conflict avoidance? Instead of welcoming all comers without question, a church-hopper could be guided towards an honest assessment of the problem and a prayerful resolution. “It isn’t good for the whole body of Christ if you leave a ragged tear in your former congregation. How can we help you work though this issue to bring healing to you and to that congregation?”
But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? [1 Corinthians 12:18-19]
Is it God who arranges the members of our congregations? What if a pastor said to a struggling congregant, “Your childhood abuse is a subject outside my experience. I know a pastor and church who have helped others like you. Let’s all meet and prayerfully consider if that congregation would be a better fit for you.”
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. [1 Corinthians 12:4-7]
Each summer our small congregation offers a week of vacation Bible school to the children of our community. Twice, the week we selected overlapped with the VBS of another church in town, resulting in lower attendance at both events. What if churches coordinated their plans? Imagine the leaders of all the churches in a community meeting together to plan continuous Christian activities throughout the summer.
Take it a step further. What if individual congregations making plans—for ongoing programs, construction and special events—factored in the impact on other churches. Suppose that one church had the people to launch a high-energy youth program but lacked the space. Before adding new construction to their plan, a survey of other churches in the area might turn up under-utilized space in another church’s building. The resources and energy that would have been devoted to construction could be funneled into other ministry.
What if a church considering a new ministry or building contacted other congregations and asked, “will this cause you any harm?”
If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. [1 Corinthians 12:26]
In our region, there are three large congregations with meeting houses on spacious rural property. They have big parking lots and highway access. Most other churches are in town—a town, but not necessarily the town of its congregants. Many people no longer choose a church by its location, but rather by its people and programs. Bigger churches offer a wider selection of programs. Those congregations rejoice when attendance grows. But that growth often comes at a cost to smaller churches.
Many in-town churches are left with a disproportionate number of people without transportation. These people tend to be less affluent, older and less energetic. The smaller congregations suffer from a shortage of money, talent and energy.
Recently, a nearby historic church closed its doors. The for sale sign in the church yard saddens me. What does this say about the body of Christ? “This church could have been saved,” my husband commented as we drove by, “if each of the big churches sent one family to be part of it.”
I walk well again, because my whole body rallied together to restore my injured leg. If all congregations rallied together for the well-being of all, we would fulfill Christ’s prayer for us:
Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. [John 17:11]