I decided I would say something to him. A fellow elder. Transparency is good, as a general rule, with the right person, at the right time.
“I didn’t hear too much from the sermon on Sunday.” I actually meant, “I didn’t hear one thing.” I would have rather confessed anything other than this. Anything. Part of my job is to be a learner, especially from Scripture, and I had failed. To make matters worse, my wife did hear something from the sermon.
He responded, as if in passing, “Oh, I didn’t either.” I was surprised by how casual he answered, as though it had happened before.
“I don’t come to church to hear a great sermon,” he continued. “I come because these are my people, my family.”
Over time, he had grown and changed through the preaching of the Word, and we had also discussed and prayed through sermons together. But his soul wasn’t waiting to be fed once a week on a Sunday. Scripture was lively to him most every day.
That was my introduction to lower expectations for the local church. Since then, I have discovered its wisdom. We have expectations of course—baptism, the Lord’s Supper, theological orthodoxy, preaching Christ crucified, prayer—but these do not include at least one new insight per sermon and arena-quality worship. These do not include my passive presence that waits for an experience like I had watching a recent movie. My minimal expectations on Sunday morning are that I pray for the preacher, I come prepared to be engaged in singing, I take basic notes, I aim to get to know one person so that I know how to pray for that person, and I talk to my wife about the passage.
Why do we go to church? It’s a question worth revisiting more often, especially now. It raises the related question: What are we expecting? What implicit—and wrong—standards do I have for judging a church? I can think of two immediately. The first goes back to those Sunday sermons: the pastor and his sermons become the church. Somehow, we can naturally drift toward thinking of a church as pastor-centric where the inevitable question is: Do I like him? Or: Is he giving me what I want? This standard is more pressing now as we have less contact with our church family, and preaching pastors are more prominent. Even more, all this is contaminated by our opportunities to listen to other “better” preachers online.
A second implicit standard is that church is where like-minded people gather. “Like-minded,” however, needs scrutiny. We know what it should mean—we have been claimed by Jesus, we rest in him and live for him—but we all have our attachments and expectations. The most obvious one now, which came crashing in on us quickly, is that we want a church that is like-minded politically. This layer of detail for our “like-mindedness” has been added to many other distinctives we believe should be shared by everyone in our local body. This new one, of course, is a tragedy and an abomination, but it is happening.
My wife would say after we were married that she could have married most anyone who was a growing believer in Jesus and wanted to contribute to the growth of those around him. I, of course, argued that I and I alone was the one chosen for her from the foundations of the world, but, as you might imagine, I have grown to highly value her minimalist expectations for a spouse. She remains content in her marriage to a husband who can fail to meet many common metrics, and she isn’t inclined to go looking for a new one.
So, trying to follow my wife’s example, I recalibrate my expectations of the local church and summarize them this way. To be in the body of Christ is to be a pastor, not necessarily an ordained pastor but a pastor in that we are all called to care for the souls around us. Passivity is out of the question. I have been made alive in Christ and have much to do as I follow the lead of the early church. “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). In the midst of this activity, I want to devote regular time to assessing myself as a family member.