It was preacher and bishop of Liverpool, J.C. Ryle (1816-1900), who challenged the lackadaisical, half-hearted, lukewarm churchgoers of his time against slouching into hell from the pews of their church buildings. In his book Holiness Ryle wrote the following:
Let me warn all careless members of churches to beware lest they trifle their souls into hell. You live on year after year as if there was no battle to be fought with sin, the world, and the devil. You pass through life a smiling, laughing, gentlemanlike or ladylike person, and behave as if there was no devil, no heaven and no hell. Oh, careless churchman, or careless dissenter, careless Episcopalian, careless Presbyterian, careless Independent, careless Baptist, awake to see eternal realities in their true light! Awake and put on the armor of God! Awake and fight hard for life! Tremble, tremble and repent.
As you read this essay, another anniversary of Santa Barbara Community Church is upon us, and how tragic it would be if we ever find ourselves trifling our souls into hell after thirty-one years of being a church. What calamity would come on the spiritual life of our church if we put things on ecclesiastical cruise-control, convinced ourselves that we have pretty much figured things out, and ceased to cry out to God for his power and his blessing? How long would it be before Jesus spit us out of his mouth (Revelation 3:16)? How soon after we refrained from pleading for his presence would God remove his blessing from our congregation?
September is a good month for our church to take inventory, to be a bit introspective, to reaffirm what we believe about God’s church and his call on our lives. For as many years as I can remember, we’ve devoted three Sundays in September to reteach passages from the Bible that speak of the glory of Christ in the church. We remind ourselves that when we are called to Christ, we are not called alone. Instead, we are called into a community of believers who are bound to one another even as we are bound to God. We usually meditate upon Ephesians 3:10 and Paul’s over-the-top claim that God delights so much in his church that he shows his trophy-bride to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms. That is, to the angels! Furthermore, it is through the church that God puts his wisdom on display. Stunning!
So, in the anniversary month of our thirty-first year, I offer three truths for us to ponder lest we trifle away our souls on the way to our thirty-second anniversary.
First is the truth that you can’t go to church. The church is no more a place that you can go to than a bicycle is a meal that you can taste. The church is not a location, much less a building. Instead, the church is a people called out from the world and called to God. This group of people becomes a band of brothers and sisters in Christ. Brothers and sisters is a metaphor, but it is a strong one. The church is a people glued together by the work of Christ on the cross. To put it starkly, when we come to Jesus, we are stuck with one another. John Ortberg, a pastor in central California, wrote a book with a title that is probably worth the price of admission: Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them. He’s right. And in the church we get to know one another. We get to know one another’s quirkiness. We see one another in our moments of fussiness. We tolerate each other’s rancorous moods and misplaced comments. We extend grace after being wronged. We are, to say it again, brothers and sisters to one another. Are we serious about wanting to avoid trifling our souls to hell as we begin another year of church life? One way to determine how we are doing is to look at how we are treating one another. Jesus put it strongly: the world will judge our faith by the manner of our love for one another (John 13:35).
Second, remember the truth that Christ never calls you to himself without calling you to the church. Again, the church is at the center of God’s plan for salvation. According to Paul, the very mystery of the gospel is the creation of a people comprised of natural-born enemies, the Jews and the Gentiles (Ephesians 2:11-22). As the Westminster Confession puts it, the visible church . . . is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. Put more simply—and I’m borrowing from John Stott—a churchless believer is a gross anomaly. When we come to Christ, we are not invited to do so with a few like-minded friends. We are called into a loving relationship with a community of believers, some whom we might not even like much!
C.S. Lewis was one of the most famous Christians of the twentieth century. He came to faith when he was in his thirties and already a professor at Oxford University. He already had a tight circle of scholarly friends, some of whom were Christians and who would encourage him in his newfound faith. In the early days of his Christian life, Lewis avoided the church down the street from his house, claiming he hated the hymns (he considered them to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music) and didn’t care much for the people. But then Lewis realized that he needed the church: I realized that the hymns were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit.
The third truth worth reviewing at this time is that we must join our church. It is all too possible to hang around the margins of church life—to come for corporate worship when it is convenient, to join a homegroup when the time is right, and to let someone else do the serving. This tendency is especially evident in a growing church where it is possible to hide. You may think I’m not really needed, but, in fact, you are essential to the life of your church. So choose a local church, any church, and know that if you join that body of believers, you will be needed. But we also need to make a commitment to a church for our own sake. After all, marginal church involvement is often the path to trifling our soul away from Christ. When we convince ourselves that we aren’t necessary for the life and health of the body of Christ, we will soon be right. We will have so marginalized ourselves from the give-and-take reciprocity of body-life that eventually we won’t even be missed. In time, we will begin to speak of the church with telling pronouns that lack ownership and buy-in, pronouns such as they and their as opposed to we and our. When the people of a church begin to speak of their community as something that doesn’t belong to them, a red flag should go up signaling trouble.
Santa Barbara Community Church, these are good days for our community. God is blessing us, corporately and individually. We should be thankful and joy-filled. But as we go into Year 32, let us never drop our guard, cling to the past, or be overly confident that last year’s experience should be this year’s expectation. To quote Ryle once again, Let me warn all careless members of churches to beware lest they trifle their souls into hell. . . . Tremble, tremble and repent.
May God make his face smile on us as we begin another year together!