If you go to St. Louis, you can see a historical marker commemorating the spot where the wagon trains gathered to begin their trip toward the golden promise of California. Thousands of people would meet in Missouri, form a train of wagons and point their oxen and mules westward. Five months later, if things went well, they would arrive in California.
The wagon trains would average about two miles an hour, and on good days, they would cover about twenty miles a day. If the weather was good and the wagon train could avoid viral infections, bandits, starvation, wild animals and other unforeseen dangers, they would finally arrive in California 5 or 6 months later.
Sorry, but I would have lost my mind going that slow. I probably would have started out promising to be a good team member, but after a few days of waiting for someone to catch up, fix a broken wagon wheel or hear another argument over the best way to go, I would have given up on all of them and gone on by myself.
Which means I wouldn’t have made it at all. There was a word for those who tried this dangerous and long journey by themselves — dead. People who traveled west on their own usually didn’t get very far. Disease, accidents, hungry predators and other moments with bad outcomes were waiting for the unsuspecting traveler. The challenge wasn’t in making the best time, but in making it at all — alive.
Early in the evolution of the human species, we learned that we don’t do very well alone. We gathered in tribes and villages and developed a one for all and all for one covenant and managed to fight off dinosaurs and saber tooth tigers. We were able to fend off starvation, disease, and whatever else was on the other side of the wall that might want to eat us. As long as we could stick together, we, more or less, all got there in one piece.
I think about this often as the pastor of a local church. A local church is a lot like a wagon train. We’re slow and bumbling on the trip. Someone is always getting lost and something is always breaking. We’re constantly having to stop so someone can rest or get over an injury or illness. And as always, we’ll stop for days to have a long discussion to make sure everyone agrees we still want to go where we’re going and we’re taking the best route there.
It’s so frustrating. So infuriating. You almost want to walk off and just follow Jesus all by yourself.
You want to, but you don’t.
You don’t, because you tell yourself the others need you. It would just be wrong, even cowardly, to leave these inexperienced and naïve travelers on their own. So, you promise to stick with them. After all, they need you.
But the truth is we need each other. Life is too hard to live solo. Sooner or later, life will ambush all of us. The economy will turn south, and businesses you thought would never close do (in fact, close because of an unforeseen pandemic). You’re homeschooling the kids and trying to work from home. Just when you think you’ll lose your mind, someone calls and says they’ve baked fresh cookies for you and the kids. Really, fresh cookies. With good cookies, you can hang on another 24 hours. Life will confuse and confound you, and before you know it, you’re the one who gets lost. The person you least expect to know anything sees the one thing everyone else is missing and finds a way forward. For all their follies, these people will be angels sent from God to you.
If you lose something, someone will have an extra one. If something breaks, one of those in the group will know how to fix it. Through it all, someone will finally figure out the path to get you to where you want to go. And when the bad guys come over the horizon, they’ll all be there to circle up around.
I’ve been part of local churches for all my life. You’re not going to tell me anything about them I don’t know. Hypocrites? The church is full of them. The same grace that lets them in lets you and me in.
Heroes? The church is full of them. Whether you find the hypocrites or the heroes depends on who you’re looking for.
Yes, the church is frustrating, even maddening. There’s only one thing worse...trying to go it alone.
So, look around. Find a church near you and give it a try. You may have to try more than one to find one you feel comfortable in. There’s one for you out there. You’ll find your kind of people, and when you find your tribe, join them.
Yes, they’ll slow you down, but you’ll get there. And you’ll get there. Together. Finally. It may take a little longer — OK, a lot longer — but you’ll get there.
And after all, getting there is all that matters. It’s the whole point of the trip.