What Does It Mean To Be “Called” To A Church?

March 6, 2009 in Sovereign Grace Ministries

Today I started writing a comment in response to something said by one of our newer participants, “Shunned Sheep,” but my comment turned into something longer and more involved that I think might make for some interesting discussion.  So jump in and share what you think of this…

Among many other good things, “Shunned Sheep” wrote:

We are still praying for a church home and feel so lost in this area. We have tried many and do not feel called to any.

Which prompted me to respond with this:

I really do understand where you’re coming from here! I personally despise the (for lack of a better term) “church shopping” process.

Something that just occurred to me is that I think maybe SGM has over the years inadvertently capitalized on the truth that MOST people don’t really enjoy hunting for a church. Most people are longing deep in their hearts for their “instant dream church,” where they will immediately feel a sense of connection, of belonging…of CALLING.

I can’t help but think that this is at least somewhat deliberately built into SGM’s culture. The instant sense of connectedness was the thing that held us in our church long after we’d grown uncomfortable with the cultural things we were seeing – we absolutely LOVED the outpouring of friendliness we’d experienced. We loved feeling so quickly accepted by and connected to people.

I believe that SGM churches are some of the friendliest places you’ll ever visit. In fact, I remember one of the very few places online where SGM was discussed in anything but an affectionate way (before this site) was in a blog post that someone had written describing his visit to an SGM church. He’d described this very thing – the amazing friendliness of the church, to where he was invited out to lunch on his very first visit!

Now, is this how churches SHOULD be? I’d say, absolutely. In an ideal world, all churches would be so open and reach out to visitors like that.

But…two things are interesting about the kind of super-friendly openness fostered and encouraged in SGM. The first interesting thing is that it is at least as much the product of SGM’s culture – and the members’ enthusiasm about SGM – as it is about the members’ desire to show the love of Christ to newcomers.

SGM’s ultra-friendliness has, at its roots, the members’ desire to “sell” people on SGM.

Remove SGM from the equation – make it clear that there is no way in the world that you’re interested in becoming part of the SGM church – and I bet those lunch invitations would dry up. It feels so warm and so personal, but there’s nothing really PERSONAL about it. Visitors don’t get invited to lunch because SGMers are interested in THEM as people, as individuals. SGMers reach out in friendliness to visitors because they’re interested in them as potential fellow SGMers.

So OK, I believe that SGM’s friendliness is unusual compared to the rest of Christianity because it’s not the product of Christianity, per se. It’s not “agape” Christian love flowing from a heart filled with Christ – it’s based instead upon enthusiasm for SGM as “the dearest place on earth.” It’s the product of SGM’s unique mindset.

The other interesting thing about SGM’s openness is that I think a case could be made that being so friendly to newcomers is connected to SGM’s culture of confrontation, of the culture of false humility. SGMers have been conditioned to lose their normal sense of self. In the “ordinary” Christian world, non-SGM Christians do not feel so free to willy-nilly point out one another’s sins and shortcomings. But SGMers are “submitted” and have to keep demonstrating their complete willingness to accept whatever criticism comes their way.

I think one of the side effects of this “culture of confrontation” is a breaking down of natural social defenses and the natural sense of caution that a person feels around folks he doesn’t know very well.

Remove that natural sense of caution, and what do you get? People with no boundaries, who will be just as warm and open with a total stranger (a visitor) as they are with their best friends and family.

(In the world of cultic studies, this outpouring of friendship, this openness to newcomers, is called “love bombing,” by the way.)

Now, the comment about “feeling called” to a particular church suddenly struck a chord with me because I think it can be so easy to mistake the instant (and some would say too-quick) friendships and connections that one experiences in SGM with being called to SGM. And SGM makes a big deal out of one’s “calling” to SGM.

SGM teaches that one’s commitment to a particular “local church” (which, interestingly enough, always comes down to the “local” SGM church) is based upon sensing God’s call to that church. Once a person feels such a calling, they then pursue membership – and we know that SGM believes that such membership in the “local” church is meant to be as binding as marriage. That’s why people are taught to “stop dating the church”…and why people feel so inextricably BOUND to their Sovereign Grace churches, even when they’ve had many negative experiences that are telling them to run in the other direction and leave.

So I guess what I’m wondering is, does the BIBLE ever teach that we will feel such a “calling” to a particular church body?

Can someone point me to a Scripture passage that would teach such a concept?

I know the Bible pretty well, and I can’t recall any instruction in the New Testament that would lead us to expect that we’ll feel “called” to one certain congregation.

What, precisely, does it MEAN, anyway, to feel “called”? How can we KNOW that we’re “called” to a particular church?

I think this sense of “calling” can often have a lot more to do with our emotions and other human factors than it has to do with any sort of leading by the Holy Spirit. I know that for us, finding such a friendly, open, loving church where we quickly had a lot of people who knew our names and were willing to go to lunch with us SEEMED, for a time, like a sign from God that we might be “called” to SGM.

On the flip side, this unrealistic (and maybe extra-biblical) expectation of “calling” that SGM teaches can lead people to a lot of confusion if they decide to leave SGM.

A natural pitfall when leaving SGM is to visit other churches and confuse their NORMAL Christian culture – with its NORMAL social reservations and NORMAL lack of instant friendliness – with the gut reaction that one is simply not “called” to that particular church.

But the truth is that REAL friendships and true connectedness take TIME. Sometimes they can take many months, or even YEARS.

All churches will have elements that aren’t ideal, and no church will be everything that a person is looking for. But if the “basics” are covered (for me personally, these basics are a high view of Scripture and a church government structure that gives the members in the pews at least SOME voice in what happens in the church), it’s important to visit at least 3 or 4 times to get a good sense of what the church is really like.

And if it seems even REMOTELY like it could work for you and your family, I even think that a longer period of time – 6 months, maybe – of involvement is necessary before one can REALLY know if the church is going to work out.

I even have this theory that almost ANY church where the basics are covered can BECOME the “right” church if one stays long enough and participates enough.

Dare I say it? – I’m not so sure that a believer is necessarily “called” to a SPECIFIC congregation.

So…in summary…I believe that maybe, just maybe, teaching people that they are “called” to a particular church is an extrabiblical concept that becomes more about their level of human comfort than it really is about any supernatural direction from God. Moreover, such a teaching can make it a lot harder to leave a church where one believes one experienced such a “calling,” and it can make it even more difficult to move on to finding a NEW church home, because in “normal” Christianity, friendships don’t form so quickly or intensely.

What do YOU think?  Does the Bible ever make a clear statement that we should expect to be “called” to a particular church body?  A particular congregation?  If so, what would the Bible say are signs of this sort of “calling”? 

And does anyone agree with me that it’s extremely easy to slip into mistaking the comfort zone of social acceptance for such a “calling,” even to the point where it’s almost impossible to imagine feeling “called” to a church where there is NOT such an instant comfort zone?

© 2009, Kris. All rights reserved.