The aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln operates in all weather. Supersonic jet planes land on heaving decks at night and in the rain. A successful landing requires the coordinated efforts of many people. The highly trained pilots must rely on the skills and training of dozens of specialists in order to complete the mission and return safely. In all, the big carrier hosts a crew of nearly 6,000 people, each of whom performs a vital function in the operation of the floating airfield.
It’s a massive effort. But when American interests and citizens need protection thousands of miles away from the homeland, these seagoing behemoths can play a unique role. The mere presence of a carrier task force within striking distance may be enough to cause hostile powers to reconsider violence that might otherwise be perpetrated against American citizens or property.
Serving on a carrier demands major sacrifices from everyone on board. The crew members must be away from home for months at a time. On any given day, of course, most individual crew members would rather be doing something else. If they have a choice, pilots prefer to fly when and where they want, without deadlines, objectives, and restrictions. In the middle of a storm, pitching violently about on the high seas, nearly everyone would prefer to be somewhere else. In the end, though, each crew member volunteers to sacrifice some personal freedoms in the interest of performing a crucial mission.
Most of us prefer to “paddle our own canoes” rather than be part of a large group of any kind. In your own canoe, you make your own decisions about where and how long to journey, when to go ashore, and when to return to routine life. But that canoe could not even attempt the mission given the aircraft carrier. Imagine trying to find a way to land, fuel, and service an aircraft, any aircraft, on any number of canoes—even 6,000!
The church—a mission
Christ gave His church a mission to complete: making disciples of all nations. That’s a daunting chore, even more difficult than that of an aircraft carrier. It’s a mission that requires the concerted efforts, the teamwork, of every committed Christian. That mission requires all who believe in the mission, like the crew of the Abraham Lincoln, to make certain sacrifices, to give up certain privileges, in order to devote their energies to the larger purpose.
It’s become common of late for Christians to practice a kind of entrepreneurial, go-it-alone religion. We all want to “paddle our own canoes” in spiritual matters rather than be confined by a large organization. As Moses’ experience with the children of Israel demonstrates, getting a large group of people—even the “chosen people”—to move in the same direction abounds with challenges. We find people frustrating to work with, and it can seem that much of our energy goes into committee meetings instead of into serving the Lord.
And unlike members of the military, who must follow orders or face discipline, the church’s members are volunteers. They must convince other church members, or be convinced by them, to follow a given course of action—and that can be frustrating. It is easy to yield to the temptation to just go off by ourselves and do our own thing. After all, salvation comes to each individual, doesn’t it? So why get tangled up with a bunch of difficult people?
I have to admit that I haven’t always had a rosy relationship with the church. There was a time in my life when I decided to “paddle my own canoe,” in a spiritual sense. The congregation I had been attending had grown abusive and dysfunctional, and I came to the conclusion that conditions there actually threatened my spiritual well-being. So, after a lifetime of regular church attendance, for a period of approximately 14 months, I stayed away from church altogether. During those months away, I learned that I needed to be part of a congregation for several reasons. These four reasons explain why I’m willing to put up with the nuisance of being a part of that sometimes exasperating institution called the church.
Reason 1: I need help
Perhaps you remember the tragic loss of John Kennedy Jr. Becoming disoriented in bad weather and fading light, he flew his plane into the sea, killing himself and two passengers. In the spiritual realm, Satan keeps whispering his lies, hoping that we will become disoriented and wreck our faith. We all need other Christians to help keep us on course. King Solomon agreed: “Without good direction, people lose their way; the more wise counsel you follow, the better your chances” (Proverbs 11:14, The Message).*
Although I ceased to attend my local congregation, I did not let go of the church. For the church of God, the “body of Christ,” extends far beyond any single congregation. I stayed in contact with trusted Christian friends whose counsel I valued.
When it comes to living the Christian life, we need help from each other to stay afloat. Finding problems within the church tempts us to believe we have superior spiritual perception. But it’s precisely because I perceived my local congregation to be in desperate condition that I needed the counsel of other experienced Christians to help keep me safe.
If I was mistaken, I needed someone I trusted who could show me my error. On the other hand, if I was correct, that made having healthy Christian friends all the more important, since no one locally could provide the support I needed.
Reason 2: I need encouragement
Someone once said that Satan’s greatest single tool is discouragement. Life offers plenty of occasions to despair. Yes, we can get encouragement from prayer and the study of the Bible, but we also need human friends. Don’t forget that in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus took Peter, James, and John to watch with Him. Even God’s own Son needed human encouragement in His time of trial!
Reason 3: I need to belong
Psychologists tell us that the need to belong forms one of our deepest human needs. God, who placed that need within us, also designed the church to help fill it. Becoming part of a healthy congregation enhances my personal emotional health by giving me a sense of belonging to something greater than myself.
Reason 4: I need to fully express myself
I might be a poor navigator, even of a canoe, but skilled at communications or flight control in a larger vessel. In my own canoe, I’d always feel a little out of place, since I would not be able either to fulfill my personal mission or have the opportunity to fully express my individual gifts. As long as I’m trying to do it all alone, I’ll always be frustrated. My greatest opportunity for personal fulfillment comes in playing my divinely designed role within the church. The church’s great mission provides every member with the opportunity to express his or her gifts and talents.
The church will always present us with frustrations and challenges, because it’s filled with broken and hurting people just like you and me. In placing us together in the church, God has given us the opportunity to grow together, to become what none of us could become alone, and to be part of the greatest task ever entrusted to human beings. So in spite of its problems, that’s the place I need to be.
See you in church!