A friend recently emailed me asking how he should weigh leaving his church to take a job in another city. I told him that he was “free in Christ” to stay or go but that I loved his factoring his local church into the decision. Well done. Too often, it’s easy to make life’s “big decisions” just like a non-Christian would, giving no regard to how it will impact our membership in our local churches. We consider a job offer in another city with scant regard for whether that city has a healthy church. We consider a possible marriage partner without asking whether the person has a track record of loving and serving Christ’s body.
Let me look at the matter another way. We fail, when confronted with such decisions, to seek counsel from the brothers and sisters in our congregations who know us well — often because we have not sought meaningful relationships in the first place.
We don’t consider the impact our going will have on others — the children we’ve been teaching in Sunday school or the fellow people who depend on our weekly encouragement.
We face many difficult decisions about how to raise our children: Am I disciplining too much? Not enough? Should we home school? Public school? But we do not avail ourselves of older and wiser parents in the congregation.
You get the picture. If you are a Christian, it’s worth asking whether you include your church in your life planning. I mean “include the church” in two ways: do you consider it as a factor in your thinking, and do you actually involve the people in your decision making?
God has given all of us a wonderful gift in other Christians who have weaknesses and strengths, talents and resources, that complement our own. Whatever gift we have, we have it for the common good (1 Cor. 12:7; 1 Peter 4:10). We’re to build one another up to maturity (Eph. 4:13; 1 Thess. 5:11; Jude 20–21). Maturity in Christ is a group project, which is why our discipleship should occur primarily in and through the local church. Christian love and obedience put on flesh there.
For instance, Philippians 2:1–11 says to “consider others better than [ourselves]” and to “look to the interests of others.” Then it tells us to have the same attitude as Christ, who became man, made Himself a servant, and went to die on the cross. Let me see if I can apply these verses by fleshing out one example of a big life decision: which home to buy or apartment to rent.
If you are able, “consider others better than yourselves” and “look to the interests of others” by living geographically close to the church. When a person lives within walking distance of a church or clumps of members, it is easier to invite people to one’s house for dinner, to watch one another’s children while running errands, and to pick up bread or milk at the store for one another. In other words, it is just plain easier to integrate daily life when there is relative — even walkable — geographic proximity.
When choosing a place to live, Christians do well to ask some of the same questions that non-Christians ask: What are the costs? Are there good schools nearby? But a Christian also does well to ask additional questions like these: Will the mortgage or rent payment allow for generosity to others? Will it give other church members quick access to me for discipleship and hospitality?
During my family’s last move, the question of living near the church came down to a choice between two houses, both of which were affordable but very different otherwise. House 1 was newer, better designed, more attractive, did not need repairs, and was less expensive. But it was a thirty-minute drive from the church building and near no other church members. House 2 was older, draftier, in need of several repairs (such as a rotting front porch and an occasionally flooding basement), and it was more expensive. But it was only a fifteen-minute drive from the church building and, more important, within walkable proximity of a dozen (now two dozen) church families. I sought the counsel of several elders, all of whom advised me to prioritize church relationships. This actually meant choosing the older, less attractive, more expensive house.
Thankfully, we did, and it has been enriching for our whole family. My wife interacts with the other mothers almost daily, and our children with their children. I met with one brother every weekday morning to pray and read Scripture for a year and a half. And our church families can work together in serving and evangelizing our neighbors.
Must a Christian move close to other members of his or her church? No, the Bible doesn’t command this. We’re free in Christ to live wherever we want. But this is one concrete way to love your church — to consider others better than yourself and look to their interests.
Did the Son of God submit Himself geographically for the church’s good? He left heaven. Now, let’s put on the same attitude our Savior put on for us.