This article is part of the Open Letters series.
Dear disciple of Jesus,
What comes to mind when you think about your family? Did you have a mom and dad that loved and cared for you, even if imperfectly? Did you have brothers and sisters with whom you played and laughed and sometimes argued? Family is not just a scientific necessity; it is also one of God’s most common grace gifts to the world. No human parents are perfect and every set of siblings can have issues or conflicts to work through, but every person was created by (biologically) and designed for (relationally) life in caring and supportive human families. No child would ever say they were happier and healthier without a mom or a dad. No sister or brother ever regrets years of mutual friendship, care, and support. Proof of this is the amount of time we spend talking or hearing about family situations that are far from loving and nurturing, where a parent is absent or siblings have strife. My own experience helps explain this truth.
I was probably the only junior high boy on the basketball team that did not want to go to the end-of-season party. I loved being with my friends, eating pizza together, and playing basketball, but I dreaded being the only boy there without a dad. The party was a father-son event that involved a scrimmage with dads, and I was the only kid without one. At my mother’s prompting, I went to the party, wishing I had been sick that morning. And the worst possible thing happened, at least to this junior high kid: our coach divided the dads into two teams and had their sons join them. I remember that moment as if it happened yesterday. I was the lone boy standing on the sideline without a dad to join on the court. Overwhelmed with shame and embarrassment, I didn't even want to raise my eyes to look at the others. I just stared at my Converse shoes, wishing I could just disappear or go home.
Out of nowhere, I felt a hand on my right shoulder. I still remember the feel of that touch—the gentle but firm grasp of a dad’s hand. It was Mr. Sherman, a man who managed a grocery store in our town and who came with his own two sons that night, a seventh and an eighth-grader. I did not look up at him, I knew his voice well. I had been friends with his son, Tim, since the first grade and had spent many hours playing basketball in his driveway. With his hand still on my shoulder, Mr. Sherman spoke: “Coach, if it’s alright with you, I’d like to play with a third son tonight.” All the while he was speaking those words, he squeezed my shoulder, affirming me in both word and deed. Mr. Sherman was not a man of many words, but that one sentence spoke volumes to me. For the rest of that party I played on Mr. Sherman’s team as his third son. And just as he spoke encouraging words to his biological sons, he also spoke such words to me, his adopted son for the evening. Although I did not want to go to the party before it began, by its conclusion I did not want it to end.
I still think about what Mr. Sherman did for me that night. The way he touched my shoulder to comfort me, the one sentence he spoke that resolved the shame I was feeling, and how he affectionately referred to me as “his son.” Yet the kind and hospitable actions of Mr. Sherman pale in comparison to the way the Father has lovingly adopted his children, the church. My story about Mr. Sherman is only a fraction of the analogy needed to explain how God the Father came to us, reached out to us in the person of Jesus, and by his own choosing adopted us as his children to become honored members of his family—the church. And if God is our Father, then each Christian is our brother and sister, a fellow orphan adopted by God the Father through the reconciling work of Jesus Christ.
Just as the beautiful intentions of God’s common grace is that the birth of every person happens in the loving and nurturing context of a biological family, so also has our Father intended by his special grace that the “new birth” (John 3) of every Christian happens in the loving and nurturing context of a spiritual family, a local church. And more than just birth, but all of life, including death. The Bible teaches us that the local church is the house of God in which every Christian is assigned to live, receive, and serve. There is no biblical warrant for homeless or orphan Christians. In fact, the Bible gives every Christian four “assignments” that require participation in a local church.
A church is where Christians are assigned to be united to the Lord under the new covenant as Christ’s bride.
God communicates his eternal commitment to his people—the church—throughout Scripture, and regularly uses the marriage covenant as a symbol of his deep affection and this relationship (Hos. 2:18–19; 2 Cor. 11:2; Eph. 5:25–27). When the Bible speaks this way about the church, it is speaking collectively about individual Christians. If you are a Christian, you have been wedded to Christ through his crucified, resurrected, and ascended physical body. And if you are wedded to the saving “body of Christ,” you are wedded to the gathered “body of Christ, the church. The two cannot be separated any more than a newborn baby can separate herself from her biological parents. The connection is, quite simply, genetic—it is no less than a new creation!
A church is where Christians are assigned to live with and love one another as Christ’s family.
Humanity was a collection of orphans before God the Father adopted us as his children through the person and work of Jesus Christ. However, when someone becomes a Christian, God by his gracious and hospitable providence has a family for that person to join immediately, his or her local church. Life in a local church family is one of the most tangible blessings of God, a foretaste of the new creation, even if it is weighed down or partially muted by human sin. Although carrying their own baggage, the church is a collection of adopted orphans, who, knowing what it is like to be alone and abandoned, join the family as recipients and participants in the gracious blessing of the family of God.
A church is where Christians are assigned to care for and serve one another as Christ’s ministers.
The ministry of a local church is the ministry of its people—dozens or even hundreds of people, each of whom bring his or her gifts, training, and experiences to serve the church, their brothers and sisters in Christ. The professionalization of the church in contemporary evangelical culture has distorted the Bible's instruction on the ministerial nature of every Christian and the ministry of the church as the job of the saints (Eph. 4:12). According to God’s beautiful design, every Christian is an associate minister, responsible for the ministry of his or her church while also being a recipient of its ministry.
A church is where Christians are assigned to participate in mission in the community and the world as Christ’s missionaries.
It is impossible to have a faithful walk with Christ and Christian life—biblically or practically—without committed participation in a local church.
Too few Christians realize they are missionaries and their local churches are missionary organizations—embassies of the kingdom of God. In a narrow sense, missionaries are those who are specifically sent to faraway lands to deliver the gospel to a gospel-less people group. But the New Testament also defines missionaries in a broad sense, assigning all Christians to be “ambassadors for Christ” who are sent into their own communities because “God [is] making his appeal through us” (2 Cor. 18–20). This means your personal evangelism, your common-grace acts of compassion for your community or elsewhere in the world, your mission trips and work, and even your giving for mission should be connected to your local church. Your local church is contractually under the new covenant, your primary place of employment.
Let me state it plainly: it is impossible to have a faithful walk with Christ and Christian life—biblically or practically—without committed participation in a local church. To talk about Jesus and not his body, the church, is not to talk fully and rightly about Jesus at all! You cannot just have a spiritual relationship with Jesus without a real connection to his physical body. Even talk about a “personal relationship with Jesus” can be misleading if not properly defined. To say that a person has a personal relationship with Jesus is to speak about how a person becomes a Christian, not how a person lives as a Christian.
Do you want to know God’s will for your life, your “calling?” Let me tell you. If you have been “sanctified in Christ Jesus,” then you have been “called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:2). And “every place” includes the place you live, and therefore your local church. Please hear this: if Jesus is at the center of your life, a local church is at the center of your life.
Remember the image of Mr. Sherman putting his hand on a young boy’s shoulder and calling him “my son”? Now picture the Father putting his hand on your shoulder, inviting you—his son or daughter—to come home, that is, to church. Consider this letter as such an invitation.
Your brother in Christ,
Edward W. Klink III
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