By Christy Ro
Christy is a graduate of UCLA and is currently working at the UCLA Stein Eye Institute.
Several months ago, someone asked me, “Why do you love your church?” As I reflected on the road that had brought me to The Exchange Church, I felt so thankful for the long and sometimes painful journey that God, in His unwavering sovereignty, had taken me through as I thoughtlessly sought after the “perfect” church. This article isn’t so much a list of to-dos and not-to-dos as it is a story of the struggles I faced in the process, which God ultimately used to shape my love for the church, and more importantly, for my relationship with Christ. I hope that my experience would be helpful to those of you looking for a church.
My First Breakup
Growing up in a small church, I always had somewhere I belonged. I loved my church, but like many first loves, it was an immature love, a love that took but couldn’t give, a love that didn’t understand commitment, and a love that didn’t take much effort. When our church started to struggle, people left. I lost close friends and teachers, and my young, impressionable heart began to be hardened by a hurt I could barely begin to understand. Rather than concern for our broken community, I started to harbor resentment towards the church. The status of my faith had generally been contingent on the health of my church and upon seeing such brokenness, I simply didn’t have an understanding of how to love something that seemingly had nothing to give me. For the next few years, our church, along with my faith, continued to struggle; eventually, we went through a major split, and my family left. My pursuit of God became entirely replaced by my pursuit of a church that would cater to all my needs, spiritual and otherwise, and thus began my quest for the perfect church.
Dating the Church
I soon began attending a Korean mega-church and was immediately critical. It was too big, the preaching was mediocre, and my personal baggage of experiencing damaged community filled me with unrealistic expectations of the church. My Christian walk was at a standstill because my distorted, idealized perception of church had become such a great idol. I left for college, going to whatever church my friends went to, whatever preacher sounded good, whatever Sunday I wanted. I became an expert church-dater. It came time to choose a church, and not understanding the commitment, I chose the one all my friends went to, started to serve, and began to get plugged in. However, after about a year, I started to feel out of place. The initial excitement of this dating relationship that I had jumped into without much thought had worn off, and I started to feel apathetic. I opened a dialogue with my pastor about what was going on and stepped down from leadership. He told me I should focus less on how I was feeling about this particular church and more on where I was with my faith and the meaning of church in my life. Circumstantially, everything seemed fine. Good preaching, good community, and good worship—everything the perfect church had. So what was wrong?
It’s Not You, It’s (Always Been) Me
As I began to reflect on what was missing, I had to take a good, hard look at my views of church. When I was younger, church had been a place to hang out with my friends and hear a few stories about Jesus along the way. As I grew older, it became a place I could learn how to live like Christ—as long as the church was doing well. My commitment was existent only when I felt good and the church was doing well. During difficult times, was I willing to sacrifice my time, money, and comfort to wrestle through the challenges as a part of the church? For this heart investment to begin, I had to look beyond the worship, preaching, and community. As important as these things are, if they’re the only things we’re concerned about, our fickle hearts will never be satisfied. I realized that I had jumped into something I didn’t really think or pray about, and all I had focused on were my self-seeking desires. For the next year, I continued to talk to my pastor and it became clear that I had never properly taken the time to search my heart for where God wanted me to be when I had first committed to the church. Finally, at the end of my college career, I left and began to look for a church yet again.
Fresh out of college, I realized that for the past six years, I had never really asked God what kind of church He wanted me to commit to and what He wanted me to invest in. At each church I visited, I asked myself three questions. Was the gospel being preached? Did the church’s vision and direction align with what God wanted me to invest in, and did that vision spur me to love Jesus and people more? Lastly, regardless of the circumstances, was this church a place I could encourage, struggle with, bless, and learn how to love as Christ loved the church? Additionally, I committed to these 3 things:
- Speak to at least one pastor and one other leader at the church. Though it may be intimidating, this is one of the best ways to get a sense of the vision and direction of the church. I was blessed to see how God was working in and through different churches, different visions, and different people. I also asked pastors about their views on what I should be looking for in a church.
- Fully commit to each church for 1 month. But just one going on Sundays isn’t enough. I went to as many community groups, retreats, fellowships, and casual hangouts as I could during that month to really get a sense of the church.
- Think less about what this church can do for me and more about what God wants me to invest in and be a part of building up. I stopped looking for things I could check off my list and instead looked at the way God was pointing my heart, to a place where I could encourage and bless my community, struggle through challenges with, and in the most difficult times, be obedient to be used however He wanted me to be used for the sake of His body.
Through the Word, prayer, and honest conversations, God began to open my heart and eyes to what a genuine love for a church should look like. In the end, I was down to 2 churches. Both had the foundations that I felt God was pointing me towards—gospel (this seems non-negotiable), discipleship, and missions, and both churches compelled me to love Christ and people more. One church was already established, bigger, and had more opportunities to serve. The other church was less than a year old, smaller, with not as many opportunities to serve, but it was a place I felt like God gave me a specific heart to love, a place I could grow with my brothers and sisters, a place God wanted me to bless and encourage, and a place I could struggle with our community through the challenges He placed in our path.
It’s now been 3 years since I committed to The Exchange, and we’ve had our share of growing pains. We’re far from perfect, but then again, a group of broken sinners can’t form a perfect church. I’ve learned how to love outside of circumstances because loving my church is a choice. It’s been a long road since my first breakup and I’m still learning about what it means to be in this committed relationship. I’m so thankful for the path that God led me through to find a church I can really invest in, grow with, and care for, and to be at a place that prompts my heart to be more Christ- and other-centered, a place where He continuously challenges me to dig deeper into what community in Christ means.