Editor’s Note: This article comes from a South African church planter within Acts 29. Discover more at Acts 29 Southern Africa.

Our church closed in October 2020. Not wanting to leave anyone stranded, we implored our people to join new churches. We provided counsel on churches to investigate and factors to consider when looking for a new home. We stressed that it could be difficult and disorienting.

It turns out we underestimated how hard it would be. Joining a new church is as tough as closing one. Knowing about displacement and actually experiencing it are two different things. It has been nothing less than traumatic for the sheep and the shepherds.

We’re Called to Be Displaced

Disciples can be displaced for various reasons, like a church split, relocation, or significant doctrinal differences. But, in reality, followers of Jesus are in a constant state of displacement. We feel out of place because we are out of place. Biblical values are at odds with the world’s values, and the gospel threatens the status quo. We’re at home in Zion but currently dwelling in Babylon. This is the norm of the Christian life. But no matter what the circumstances and context are, there is no justification for separation from a local church. Followers of Jesus are in a constant state of displacement. We feel out of place because we are out of place. Click To Tweet

The Danger of Double Displacement

There’s double displacement when Christians aren’t part of a local church body. It’s a dangerous, but sometimes temporarily unavoidable, position. I’ve preached many times that Christians must be part of a local church, have regularly taken potshots at Lone Ranger Christianity, and ranted against the individualistic and consumeristic spirit of our time. Community is essential to following Christ. We must belong, we must worship, we must serve, and we must grow together with others. To fail in this would be sin. We’re called to be holy—radically different, set apart, and counter-revolutionaries in a fallen world.

Battling to Belong

So, what hinders the displaced from plugging into a new home? Here are some of the pitfalls we’ve seen in the battle to belong to a local church.

1. Taking a sabbatical

I’ve heard people argue for a “church sabbatical” because they feel burnt out and hurt. Though this may be a mitigating circumstance we should feel sympathetic about, there’s no justification for this. I can understand someone going to a new church and maintaining a low profile for a season, but no one should be out in the cold.

2. It’s hard work

All the small talk, meeting people, and getting into a small group, are difficult. They take us out of our comfort zone. But there’s no shortcut. Don’t expect the new church to do all the reaching out. It goes both ways. Most people evaluate a church on the welcome they receive, and while first impressions count, it’s necessary to consider a different approach. You have to do the hard graft. Community takes work.

3. Everything is different and new

That’s the essence of change. We miss the familiar faces. The liturgy, preaching, spiritual tone, and music are different. But they’re not significant doctrinal differences, just differences. Knowing that is one thing, but experiencing it is another. Change is difficult. Woe to him who messes with my comfort zone.

4. The added difficulties of COVID-19

Some churches require reserving seats online, masks, social distancing, and tweaked liturgy for live-streaming. People are justifiably cautious. It means that our already individualistic generation has drawn back even further. But “virtual church” is an oxymoron, meant as an emergency measure. These things mitigate against us joining new churches.

5. Church hopping can become a lifestyle

It’s right to allow suitable time to find the “right” church, but there has to be an expiry date for that mission. In reality, there was a culture of church hopping long before lockdowns.

6. Our expectations are too rigid

There are many essentials we must look out for. However, are we saying that our cities don’t have any biblically faithful churches? Are we saying, like Elijah, there are no others around? No! That would be a sign of pride and self-pity. We rant against consumerism, but sometimes our demands are actually indicative of it. Remember, there’s no perfect church.

7. Weary of the “spiritual spin”

As a person with decades of pastoral experience, I listen carefully and observe. I know there’s a whole different world behind what happens on Sundays. The bulletin, announcements, and webpage are viewed with some discernment, hopefully not cynicism. I understand the “spiritual spin” and feel for the leaders. But there’s an inclination to pull back.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably already a local church member, which is unspeakably special. Don’t underestimate the immense privileges and responsibilities you have. Yes, it’s messy, complicated, and people get on your nerves. But you’re part of the most remarkable institution and mission on earth.

Pastors, when you meet new sheep, remember they may be in deep waters and aching for green pastures. They’ll have feelings of loss and disorientation. No doubt, they’ll bring all kinds of baggage. But they need to belong and be pastored.
Community is essential to following Christ. We must belong, we must worship, we must serve, and we must grow together with others. Click To Tweet

For the displaced, while it may be unavoidable, don’t make this situation a vocation. It must be a temporary blip. How can we be without family in Christ? We can go on about the difficulties, but when all is said and done, the verdict of the Bible is very clear: Join. Belong. Love. Serve. Grow. 

John Koning
Written by: John Koning on mars 31, 2022

John Koning has been involved in both local church ministry and theological training since the late 1980s. More recently, he’s completed his PhD in missiology and also planted a church in East London. John is married to Moekie, and together they have two sons. As a family, they love the outdoors, including camping and hiking.

X