Tom and Sue were frustrated. All his life, Tom had attended church assemblies -- twice on Sundays plus Wednesday nights. Yet he had never felt more disappointed and let down in "church" than now. Sue had been a convert to the Churches of Christ, although she, too, had grown up thinking of herself as a Christian and, like Tom, had always made regular assemblies at the church building a part of her routine.
Both Tom and Sue wondered if there wasn't more to serving the Lord than this. They were really not grumblers, but so much seemed out of joint. First of all, the entire mood of the assemblies seemed frivolous and irreverent. Why didn't people show more attention to the purpose of the meeting? Songs were often dull and dreary, and few seemed to really focus on God or to express actual worship. The preacher was a good man, and worked hard at his job, but somehow most sermons were more theoretical than helpful. The congregation had always made a big point of having the Lord's Supper every Sunday -- "the scriptural way" --but little effort was given to make it meaningful despite its regularity.
The more Tom and Sue read their New Testaments, the more they were sure something was missing. But they had been taught to believe that this was "the true church" and that their right standing with God depended on faithful membership in it.
Tom and Sue are not real people, in one way of speaking, but in another sense they are. They represent thousands of men and women across our country today. Can they find spiritual fulfillment? Do they need to leave their congregation and look elsewhere? Or even leave the Churches of Christ and scout around among other Christian groups? Many couples like Tom and Sue have taken both alternatives. Some have found a more authentic way of life in the process Others, for a variety of reasons, have stayed just where they were to begin with. And, despite all the problems they realistically faced, many of these have also discovered something better than merely filling a pew. What are some of the means by which these people -- including our fictional Tom and Sue -- have reclaimed the real meaning of living for Jesus and the church?
1. Reclaiming the essence of the gospel. As Tom and Sue read their Bibles, they feel they have struck a long-lost gold mine. John's gospel impresses them with the person of Jesus himself, and assures them that whoever believes in him comes into life that can only be called "eternal" The epistle to the Romans, from which they have often heard isolated verses quoted, packs a new power when they read it in large sections. According to this book, they find, salvation is God's free gift as a matter of grace, based on the meritorious work Jesus has done long ago! Their own good works and efforts to obey God, Tom and Sue find, are certainly appropriate and to be expected, but they are the fruit of salvation and not its root. Colossians reminds them that since they have Jesus, they have all they will ever need. And Hebrews assures them that Jesus will always be there for them, even while he calls them into a future sometimes lonely and always unknown.
As Jesus becomes central to their thinking, other Bible subjects take what seems a natural place. Tom and Sue realize that they have often had the cart before the horse. They find no reason to reject any biblical truth they already know, but they do see the urgency of rearranging their priorities -- and many of their opinions and doctrinal inferences -- in the bright light of the basic gospel itself.
2. Aiming at personal spiritual fitness. Whether the church is hot, cold, or lukewarm, Tom and Sue are learning that they can obtain strength through a closer personal walk with God. Daily Bible reading -- with the attitude that God will speak directly to their present needs through this Word -- becomes a basic plank in this platform. They are also appreciating the necessity of frequent prayer. They like to think of prayer as an ongoing conversation with the heavenly Father. It begins when they wake in the morning and continues intermittently all day long. Sometimes silent. Sometimes aloud. Praise, thanksgiving, worship and adoration become more and more prominent. Requests, too -- often for others, with confidence that God is accessible through Jesus' work and the Holy Spirit's intercession. As Tom and Sue aim at improving their own spiritual fitness, they are happy to find that the shortcomings of others bother them less and less.
3. Viewing their lives more as "being" than "doing." Tom and Sue also find joy by focusing on who they are rather than simply what they can do. To be a child of God is very exciting, they realize! To walk each hour by faith brings its own special delights. They see that, while God has given many good works for his people to do, no person can accomplish them all single-handedly. So they now ask God each day to lead them to opportunities to serve in keeping with the gifts they have received, and to make them sensitive to the needs God wants them to meet. Each day is a new adventure, lived with this fresh perspective.
4. Concentrating on details in the assemblies. Tom and Sue could never control other's thoughts, but they are learning to govern their own. Now they try to make the most of each assembly, regardless of the circumstances. They focus on every song as they sing. When someone leads prayer, they make the meaningful phrases their own, and silently add additional thoughts when necessary. They know that no speaker can always say something special to each person present, so they try to find something good in each sermon and not worry about the rest. At Communion, they look at others around them -- the "body of Christ" the Corinthians ignored -- and meditate on ways they can serve their brothers and sisters. Other times, they reflect on Jesus' suffering for their sins, or imagine what it will be when he comes again in glory to receive his people. The truth is, things aren't that different from before in the assemblies, but Tom and Sue think God just might improve the situation by changing them first.
5. Seeking fellowship in informal home meetings. As their own walk with God becomes more real to them, Tom and Sue want to share it with others, and to encourage others to greater love and good works. They remember the passage they have heard quoted so often from Hebrews 10:24-25, and how it speaks of God's people meeting together. They also remember how Acts pictures the earliest church meeting every day, from house to house. So Tom and Sue believe they will give it a try.
They select a convenient evening and invite several other church friends over for a time of special fellowship. They intentionally include an elder and his wife, both to nip un-found gossip and silly rumors in the bud and also because they respect this particular couple highly and believe they will enrich the group.
When the folks gather, Tom explains the evening's agenda. "We will sing for a while" he says, "and anyone may suggest a hymn as we go along. It would be good if we intentionally select songs which actually express praise and worship to God." When the time seems right, Tom goes on, the group will read a short New Testament book straight through without comment -- taking 10 or 12 verses each in a circle around the room. "Then," he says, "we will have a period of prayer. Each person can speak in turn who wishes, and no one will worry about how long it takes." After prayer, the evening ends with light refreshments and more conversation. Surprisingly, even that conversation seems to turn to spiritual topics and concerns.
As their friends leave, more than one comments that what has happened there seems more the way they imagine New Testament worship assemblies than anything they have ever experienced. Tom and Sue plan to host a similar get-together again soon, and several of the guests say they want to do the same.
In conclusion. As time passes, Tom and Sue find new life permeating and warming their congregation. It happens gradually, seemingly touching one person at a time. They are absolutely sure, however, that God is in charge and that he will guide and empower his people in all the
things that glorify and please him. Meanwhile, Tom and Sue give thanks almost every day for the wonderful discovery that they can be more than pew packers or "members" of an institutional "church." For this couple, "church" has taken on a whole new meaning.