Many of us are able to say, "I grew up in church." I know in my family, anytime the doors opened, we were there.
I'm grateful to my family for giving me that gift. There were lots of fun activities and groups and events, and we stayed really busy with that, and it was good. I actually liked going to church.
But … I can't really say I was a believer.
Certainly, I went to Sunday School; we went to worship every week. I grew up amid the music and prayers and preaching and Bible lessons. But did I really know about Jesus, and understand that he wants ME, not just perfect church attendance or participation in activities? Sadly, no. I first really met Jesus when I was 19 years old, and it didn't happen in church, at all. Interesting, huh?
Church makes our lives fuller and more fun. We make friends here and do good things, and church is often a big part of our lives. But if that's ALL that's going on … we need to take a second look.
John 6:29 says, "The work of God is to believe in Jesus, the one whom God has sent." That's always our starting point. If we want to do more than just grow older –– if we want to grow UP, into mature Christians –– we must believe in Jesus, not just academically or from a distance, but deeply and truly, in our hearts. He wants US, our hearts and lives, our honesty, our attention, our prayers, our faith. It's so much more than just, "Well, sure, I believe in Jesus. What of it?" Nope! It's about a relationship.
Part of our relationship with Jesus is our involvement in his Body on earth –– the church. We serve, find friends and fellowship, attend worship –– and that's all good. But do we GROW in church? Growth is part of following Jesus. We change and grow over the years, as we learn his Word and open ourselves to his Spirit. It's more than just growing older; it's growing UP, into a mature Christian.
In Ephesians 4, Paul tells us what a mature Christian looks like. A mature Christian is humble, gentle, and patient. Mature Christians bear with others and love them; they are peacemakers, not those who like to stir up conflict. They are able to speak the truth and do it lovingly. They're growing up in every way into Christ, and learning to work properly with the church, to build up the Body in love. That means that, sometimes, mature Christians will sacrifice their own desires or opinions for the sake of unity within the church.
This isn't easy! How can we change ourselves into this kind of Christian?
Well, we can't. We can't manage a thing without God's Spirit, and this is also where the church comes in. Church is so much more than a place to fellowship and have fun, although I recommend having as much fun as possible every time you're there! But the church is Christ's Body on earth (think about that!), and that means we have at least a two-fold mission.
We're called, as a church, to do the work of God. We can only manage that if we're unified and putting others first. We're called to be a place where members and strangers can gather to hear the gospel, and be welcomed and loved with no judgment. The work of God is to draw all people to him, through Jesus –– and to keep them there. We're called to help with physical needs and spiritual needs. As the Body of Christ, that's what we're called to do. That's why we exist.
But that's not all. God will use the church in our lives to help us become the mature Christians we want to be. Which means, if we want to grow into mature Christians within the Body of Christ: Come to worship. Never pass up an opportunity for Bible study; we grow through the Word of God, studying it together and sharing our thoughts and experiences with each other.
We need to find our place of service, where we can use the gifts God has given us, and serve faithfully in the work of the ministry. And a big part of our growth toward maturity happens just in the way we treat each other: Put up with each other and continue to love, no matter what.
Seek PEACE, not conflict. Don't judge; we're not perfect, either. Have the courage to be honest about ourselves. Experience humility. And no matter how close we are to our friends, we need to keep those circles open, and always welcome new people who need the very same things we do.
Here's something you might not expect about growing into a mature Christian –– it really does bring joy! We ARE allowed to have fun in church! Jump in with both feet, and experience the joy God has for you.
Rev. Susan Bennett is pastor of Stockbridge Presbyterian Church. She and her husband live in Stockbridge with two giant Rottweilers and a 15-pound rescue dog who is the boss of everybody.