Like most Malawians, I grew up going to church. As faithful CCAP (Church of Central African Presbyterian) members, my grandparents made sure that attending church was not optional. CCAP is the second largest denomination in Malawi, and as it goes in this country, the rest of my family were/are members of this church. I left the CCAP during my gap year. I became too lazy to go to church because we had moved from our old neighbourhood where the church was just 5 minutes away from our house. At the time, I was also going through my own personal issues concerning God, religion and faith. Church was not something I saw the need for in my life because I had become aware of the fact that I didn’t have a connection with God. After a year of not going to church, my mother wasn’t having it and she told me to either join her church or start going to CCAP again. I joined the church my parents currently go to, simply out of the convenience of having a ride to church and not wanting to go through the politics or process of renewing my CCAP membership.
Sometime after I became a member of this church, the Lord grabbed a hold of my soul and saved me; I heard the gospel and became a Christian. As I grew in my relationship with God, I wanted to serve Him and be an active member of a local church. I volunteered to be a teacher’s assistant for the membership class, and that was when I opened a can of worms. Every time I prepared a lesson, I realized how much I disagreed with the church’s doctrine. It wasn’t that I knew much about theology at the time, but I knew that what I was reading contradicted the basics of Christianity as I read in my bible. This started a journey of going back and forth with my “priests” and elders at this church, trying to reason with them from the scriptures why I disagreed with the doctrine of the church. The conversations didn’t seem very fruitful. It became very clear to me that the church was not only teaching false doctrine, which is very dangerous but that there was no hope of them turning away from it.
I eventually decided to sit down and have a conversation with my parents about me leaving the church. If your Malawian parents are like mine, you probably know how this conversation went. There was no way I was leaving the “family church,” doing so would be a form of disobedience to my parents. Although I couldn’t leave the church, I had emotionally zoned out and it was during this period that I started “church hopping” to a different church.
This church, non-denominational or somewhat Pentecostal in nature, was youthful, hip, had all the cool activities and the people sang all the cool songs. I church hopped for a while and even attended some of the services with my mother in hopes of convincing her to have me join this other church. I constantly prayed that God would do the impossible and let me be a member there, but God’s answer seemed to be no. Eventually, I got frustrated with the whole situation because I knew the importance of church and sincerely desired to be part of a healthy church. Some wise people who I trust recommended that I take a break from church hopping and advised me to obey my parents in staying at their church, and that’s what I did.
For 3 years, I remained at my parents’ church and I got to know the people even as I started to serve there. During this period I rarely church hopped. All I had then were sermons which I could access online and my spiritual growth heavily depended on these sermons, as well as books and blogs. I religiously listened to sermon series and followed my favourite pastors on social media, but this wasn’t enough. It helped me grow tremendously, but there was always something missing.
I became more aware of what was lacking when I got involved in fulltime ministry in December 2015. I knew I desperately needed to be part of a healthy local church. It is worth mentioning as well that during my break from church hopping, I had grown a lot in my walk with Christ (thanks to the sermons, but more importantly because of discipleship). My convictions on various topics were also developed during this time and this affected the next phase of my church journey. After weeks of prayer, I decided to have that dreadful conversation with my parents again. I presented my argument on why I needed to be part of a church where I could grow spiritually. God was gracious enough to answer my prayers and my father allowed me to leave the church that we went to as a family in order for me to attend the one I go to now.
I am currently a member of Antioch Baptist Church in Blantyre. It is a 1689 London Baptist Confessional Church; one others would call “reformed.” Antioch has been instrumental in my faith journey and the two friends that shared the gospel with me are members of this church. We started a bible study in university which allowed me to meet more people from this church. I became friends with some of the men and women at Antioch by attending conferences which the church hosted. Some of these friends gave me books and sermons that God has used to change my life. More importantly, I was able to meet and learn from to someone older in the faith. God used Rachel (my pastor’s wife) to help me grow in maturity as she mentored me in various ways, especially when I wasn’t part of a healthy local church. God used Pastor Mala and Antioch Baptist to impact my life in more ways than I was aware of during that time. When I had to make a choice, I knew without a doubt that Antioch Baptist was the church I wanted to be a part of.
It seemed like a very natural decision, especially because my convictions had grown during the 3 years I spent at my previous church. The other churches just didn’t seem like a good fit for what I was looking for. In April 2016, I got baptized and became a member of Antioch Baptist Church. Although I always knew that church was an important part of the Christian life, it was never a concept that I had personally pondered over. I thought being part of a church would be the same as me listening to sermons, but being part of a church is entirely different. One thing I have learnt since becoming a member of a healthy local church is that the church is not perfect because people are not perfect. The church is God’s establishment; it is His body and His bride and this should mean everything to believers. The fact it is Christ’s bride is what makes all the difference.
For different people, church means different things and brings about different emotions. To some, it is nothing more than a political or religious institution. To others, it is a social gathering that they attend every Sunday. For some people, hurt and abuse is all that comes to mind concerning how they feel about church. It is complicated and I particularly sympathize with those that have experienced church hurt; I pray God heals your heart.
I believe that we only begin to value the church when we look at it beyond being a building or an institution and rightly view it as the body of Christ made up of members who have been redeemed by Him. The church is the only establishment that God is building in the world, the only establishment against which the gates of hell cannot prevail. It is both invisible and visible: the invisible church being the congregation of all who have believed in Christ from all over the world and the visible church is a physical representation of the invisible church. Being part of the visible church of God reflects the fact that we have indeed been redeemed and are part of the invisible church. One cannot claim to be part of the invisible church and not be part of (or at least desire to) His visible church. You cannot be a Christian and not be part of a local church. We see often in the Apostles’ letters that the evidence of the profession of faith that believers make is in their love for other believers. As John rightly puts it, how can we say we love Christ who we do not see if we can’t love a brother or sister whom we see?
Online Christian content, no matter how great it is, cannot replace the physical fellowship and edification we get from being with the saints on the Lord’s day. Being part of a church means you are submitting to and are under the authority of your pastor/elder who is responsible for the preaching of the word, but also the caring for your soul. The physical fellowship allows for a personal relationship which is the context in which soul care happens. John Piper, Steven Furtick or Pastor Chris can never give you the discipleship, accountability and discipline that the Bible calls pastors to. I love how the Apostle John puts it as he ends two of his letters, 2 and 3 John: “I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.”
I think it is really important for the local church leadership to know who you are, but also to allow yourself to be known by them and your fellow church members so that you may minister to one another well. The internet, no matter how great and advanced it is or will be, can never replace the human connection we need as believers. It is also not enough to attend a “fellowship” or “ministry,” especially those that function as a local church, just without the commitment that comes from being part of an actual church. Covenant commitment (church membership) is important because it gives the basis for accountability and church discipline among other things.
Speaking of fellow believers, one of the reasons people often give for not going to church is “The church is full of hypocrites,” to which I am always tempted to respond with “That’s the point!” The church is made up of people who have been redeemed by the blood of Christ, but God is still working in them and transforming them into the image of His son, Jesus, through a process called sanctification. A church is a community of imperfect people with some real issues, but they are not hopeless; the Holy Spirit is at work in the hearts of true believers which means the Holy Spirit is at work in the church. This is what should keep us in our churches when it gets frustrating, or people disappoint and hurt us. Don’t get discouraged because Christ is at work in their hearts. Don’t get discouraged with yourself either, even if you think your sin and imperfections are too shameful to carry with you to church. If you are a believer, the Holy Spirit is at work in you too. In fact, it is when we are struggling with sin and all the different battles we face in life that we need church the most. “Covenants are made for the hard times, not the good times” and God has a way of using community to bring out our flaws as people and have the Holy Spirit work in our hearts to change us. Some of the disappointment we experience from church and church people comes from the fact that we make church all about “me” and what I can get from “church” instead of making it about “us”. The scriptures encourage us to make church about “one another.” I reckon many of us need to change how we approach church in this sense. Instead of waiting to be served, encouraged and loved, why don’t we lead in doing the same towards others? Instead of complaining about the issues you see in your church, how about you focus on serving, particularly to meet those needs and gaps you see (serious note to self here).
Another way I see this show up is our approach in looking for a new church. If you recall anything about my story, you will know I was guilty of looking for a church that was cool, entertaining and one that had a great worship team/leader. However, when searching for a church, our personal preferences should take a back seat in light of what is important for your spiritual growth: sound doctrine, faithful teaching of the word, discipleship and evangelism. The New Testament church model shows us what we should look for in a church and church leaders. Church isn’t supposed to be cool or entertaining, but it is supposed to be edifying.
Lastly, church is not just about us gathering together as believers to sing “Kumbaya,” we ought to be missional as we fellowship. The church sends and equips us for the Great Commission, which is to go out and make disciples. Every church community ought to be missional and actively involved in gospel advancement. The church is God’s instrument of hope, grace and mercy in the world and we ought to be the light on a hill that carries the banner of Christ. We have good news to offer a dying world and we have a great command to obey. The church is the primary context in which the Great Commission is carried out.
There is so much to talk about when it comes to church and in as much as it is something that means different things to everyone, I hope we can remember to value it in the way the Lord Jesus values His Bride. I recently visited Reformation Bible Church in Lilongwe and something that Pastor Newton Chilingulo shared in his sermon has stuck with me. He said, “Healthy churches are made up of healthy members” and the question I have been asking myself is “Am I a healthy member?”
“Covenants are made for the hard times, not the good times. In the good times, we don’t need covenants, because we can get by and stick together on feelings alone. But covenant communities hold us up when we’re faltering and pick us up when we’ve fallen. They encourage us when we’re weary and wake us when we’re slumbering. They draw us out of ourselves and call us to our commitments and responsibilities. They invite us back to the garden of Christian community, where we grow.”
A great resource to check out on this subject is the book 9 Marks of a Healthy Church by Mark Dever.