Do you know those times where you have a word or phrase bouncing around your mind for days or weeks at a time? I’ve had one of those recently and I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about it. The phrase is this: “Give your best to your local church.” It is easy, I know, to offer our best to believers other than those in our local churches. There is often affirmation and excitement in ministering elsewhere. Sometimes the local church can seem so drab, so normal in comparison.
A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of preaching at Grace Fellowship Church (a.k.a. my church) as part of a series we’re doing on the book of Acts. It is a series that is a refresher course, of sorts, reminding us what the early church was all about. When we understand that Acts is meant to be more than mere history, we see that there is much we can and should learn from the example of the first Christians. I spoke on group evangelism in the early church and discussed the local church in Antioch and their example of sending men on foreign missions. I showed how these men were called by the Spirit, commissioned by the church, and then sent by the church and the Spirit. I focused on the fact that these men were not renegade missionaries, sending themselves to the mission field, but that they were men who were called through and on behalf of a local church.
I began my sermon by reflecting on something that had been of interest to me. The three days prior to preaching I had been in Orlando, Florida for the Ligonier Ministries National Conference. It was, by any measure, a fantastic conference. We were able to hear some exceptional messages by some great preachers. We heard from Sinclair Ferguson, Steve Lawson, C.J. Mahaney, John MacArthur, R.C. Sproul. They brought us the Word and brought it with power. I truly enjoyed the conference and benefited from it. Yet even while I sat there with 5,000 other believers, I couldn’t help but note a tiny little voice in my brain (or was it in my heart?) saying, “I’d rather be at Grace.” It is not that there was anything wrong with the conference. Far from it! It’s just that God has built into me and into all believers a heart for the local church. God has done something amazing in building the local church and in grouping us together in these bodies. The longer I stay at Grace and the more I commit myself to her, the more it feels like home. I took just a moment to thank the people in that church for being that local church to me and to my family.
You know, the more I travel and the more I see of the church at large, the more I come to love her—but even stronger, the more I come to love my local church. These local churches, which can be found from one end of the world to the other, truly are the hope for the world. It is to these bodies, more than any other, that God has entrusted His message. And it is through these local bodies that He seems to do His greatest work. These bodies are the most natural context for all manner of Christian ministry.
Like you, I’ve seen pastors who have sacrificed their families and their churches to the altar of ministry. They travel the world speaking at ministry events, all the while missing the opportunities to minister in their community of faith. They become disconnected from the local church, opting instead to minister everywhere else. But I’m convinced that God calls us first to our local congregations and only then to wider ministry. As I’ve traveled and as I’ve seen churches all across North America, I’ve seen like never before the importance of a commitment to a local church. I enjoyed talking to Steve Lawson some time ago and hearing from him that travel and ministry has only caused him to miss preaching at his own church one Sunday in the past year or so. He speaks at many conferences, but always attempts to be home on Saturday so he can minister to his own congregation on Sunday morning. There are many like him—many men who love to minister elsewhere but who mostly love to minister closest to home.
In my younger days I used to go to many Christian concerts and I would often have opportunities to talk with band members. I often noted how many of these men would continually speak of their families. I took this as a good sign! These men had families they loved and it was clear that, though music was what they did for a living, their hearts were with their wives and children at home. They spoke this way deliberately, I’m sure, and did it to guard their hearts. They took every opportunity to share with others about the people they loved. Likewise, many ministers are thrilled by what God is doing in their local congregations. It is always exciting to hear a pastor share the things God has done and to share in his excitement.
“Give your best to your local church.” I am still working out the details of all of this in my own life. I am still working on ensuring that my first commitment to Christians is to those within the community where God has placed me. I’ve begun to reevaluate how and when I travel; I’ve begun to reevaluate the things I write about; I’ve begun to ask how I can give my best to the community of faith closest to me. It’s an ongoing process and one I’ve really only just begun.
In a couple of weeks I’ll have the opportunity to preach once more at Grace. This time I will speak about the importance of prayer in the early church and I hope to take as my text the closing verses Acts 4:23-31—that passage that allows us a glimpse into an impromptu prayer meeting in the early days of the church. Peter and John have just been released after interrogation by a religious council and the very moment they are freed they “went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them.” They went straight from the council to a gathering of the local church and there they prayed for boldness and for success in ministry. Something here caught my eye. Even with my rudimentary Greek I was able to see that the word “friends” was missing from the original text. This is a translation that takes just a little bit of liberty (which, of course, translations often have to do). Almost every translation offers something different here but what the text really seems to say is simply that upon their release “they went to their own.” And what a great phrase that is! No sooner had they been released than they went to their local church, the most natural context for them to minister and to be ministered to, and together they joined their voices in prayer to God. This passage shows the local church in action; the local church doing what they do best; the local church doing what God decreed that they should do.
It’s this kind of commitment I want to have for the local church—a commitment that considers that church my own. And it’s a commitment I’m sure we can learn from the book of Acts.