There are people, in every church, who seem like they have always been there.
These people are the first thing I notice, in fact, when I attend a new church. They know everyone. They have “their seat”: a particular pew or chair or section that belongs to them, and from which they often hold merry court. Their interactions with others are a slew of talks and hugs and “oh hi how are you” and “how is that beautiful baby” and “did Jane see you about that lesson?” They are always in the middle of thirty-two different things.
You can tell that these people form the core of the church. And it is easy to assume, as I often do, that they are at the very least strong believers, if not longtime ones. They seem to belong in the natural sort of way and with the natural sort of ease that leads me to assume that they have probably been Christians since before I was born.
Sometimes that’s true. Sometimes it isn’t.
I have an unfortunate tendency – and I don’t think I am alone in this – to conflate “church involvement” with “relationship with God.” It’s a habit. When I meet those believers I mentioned above – the ones who are involved in everything and who do everything and generally fill their lives with ministry work – I generally assume that they’re committed, fervent Christians.
I make these assumptions because, in many cases in the past, it’s proven to be true. My mother is a church-activity dervish, with a living and active relationship with God. So are many of the other believers I know now or have known over the years. These believers fulfill James’ dictate: “Show me your faith without deeds; I will show you my faith by my deeds” (2:18). In this case, their works within the church are a natural manifestation of an active relationship with and belief in God. That’s good!
But I have also known those who all but live in the church and have no relationship with God to speak of. Those who believe that being really good is what will get you in heaven’s door; those who have a sort of “inherited” Christianity from their parents and grandparents but who have never pursued a relationship with God themselves; those who consider themselves in good spiritual shape because of an altar moment fourteen years ago but who have not pursued an iota of a relationship with God since then; those who go to church because it’s “right” but have no interest in a spiritual life beyond that.
A pastor I knew once, in his invitations, would encourage his congregation to “come to Jesus, even if you’ve been here for a long time without knowing Him.” I thought that was silly – who would attend church so long and do so much without knowing Him? But then, after some long and heavy conversations with people I had pegged as longtime believers, I realized that those in need of Christ aren’t just waiting outside in the secular world.
They’re sitting in our pews. And they have been there for ages.
It’s easy to think of “ministry” as something we leave the church to do. As something that we must do in the wilderness of the larger world where all the non-believers seem to hang out. A lot of the time, we’re inured to the condition of the people in our own congregations and communities because we think we know them, when we really don’t. We see them coming to Bible studies and attending sermons and volunteering for events, and we assume that means they know who Jesus is and that they have a functional relationship with Him.
Often they do. But sometimes a few conversations will lead you to see otherwise. And when we conflate Christian works with godly relationship, we’re in danger of missing that – in danger of overlooking those in our midst who are starving at a feast.
Keep your eyes open to the people around you. Don’t let assumptions rule your interactions. And don’t be afraid to talk to people, to hear out their feelings on God and prayer and their spiritual walk and faith. The answers will tell you a lot. And they just might surprise you, too.