For most of us, our relationship with the church is fairly … complicated.
Most of the time we love it: Church is our place of worship, our place of remembrance, our place of fellowship. It is a source of support in time of need, encouragement when we are weary and direction when we have gone astray. It’s our family!
But, like any family, sometimes it gets tough: there’s conflict, there’s disappointment, there’s division and there’s sin. There are seasons when we are out of sync with one another and we just can’t seem to get on the same page.
And when we also take into account the recent stories about high-profile leaders choosing to disavow their relationship with Jesus, or the many stories of church cover-ups and scandals, or even the increasing pressure lawmakers and the general public are putting on the beliefs of the church like gender, marriage and the right to life, it makes our relationship with the church more complicated still.
So, the increasingly relevant question these days is simple: why participate in the church?
Back in the days of the late first-century, the earliest churches were asking the same question. Those churches were only about 50 years old at the time. They were small groups of people spread out all over the Roman world. They met in homes, they encouraged one another, they shared with each other as any of them had need. They were family.
But things also got complicated. They faced oppression by both the Roman government and the local Jewish population for their beliefs. They had disagreements and divisions with each other. People were teaching some crazy things, too. Following Jesus and participating in the church was becoming harder and harder to do.
It is into this climate, this situation, this question that Jesus speaks to the seven churches that are in Asia (Revelation 1:11). Why should we participate in the church? Why should we persevere through difficulty and disappointment? Why should we be faithful even if it is costly? Jesus says, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (Revelation 1:17-18, ESV).
Jesus reveals Himself to the churches as the one who has conquered sin, death and the grave. He is the exalted, almighty and victorious God. He stands among the church because they belong to Him; He is still their shepherd. And even though things are complicated, He wants the church to know three things: He knows them, He cares about what they do and that His victory means their victory.
It’s an amazing answer to the question — not just in the first-century, but also today.
Why participate in church? Because the one who not only created life itself, but who became human Himself, died, and rose again from the grave is the same one who also knows and cares about how complicated our lives are. He has paved the way to victory for us through the jungle of persecution, conflict, disappointment, confusion and sin.
Churches aren’t perfect; they’re complicated — just like family and just like life. But in spite of and together with all the complications, Jesus stands amidst the church calling us to follow Him to victory.
And you won’t be able to find that anywhere else but the church.