I had occasion a couple weeks ago to be in two very different places that got me thinking about life in the Lord's churches.

These two places are different but they have one big thing in common. I'll get to that in a moment.

The first place was Walmart. Walmart is a place I occasionally go to get something I need. Usually I prowl for school supplies or hit the pharmacy for ibuprofen. Once a year I wander over to the outdoor gear to prepare for Camp Westminster.

The other place I was just in, a place quite different, was the DMV. I have to say the DMV these days is way better than when I was a teenager. Things move along at such a steady clip. Either that or I am a lot more patient than I use to be. Why was I at the DMV? I was replacing my license and so like everyone else that was there I was keeping up my driving credentials. The occasional trip to the DMV keeps me from running afoul of the authorities.

So what do these two distinct places have in common? Neither are places I wish to stay. Nor am I allowed to.

Both Walmart and the DMV are incidental to life, not the marrow of it. The marrow of life is back home among family and among those I serve in my vocation.

When I am at Walmart I am not taking names and asking soulful questions to the guy stocking beans. If I never went to Walmart again my conscience would not be afflicted in the least. And the good folks at Walmart would not come looking for me. My absence would not disturb them. Only if I started sleeping in the home goods department would I be a bother.

Same with the DMV. When I am at the DMV, I am not deepening special friendships. I am there to keep a good record. Nobody there expects anything more of me than my personal check and change-of-address. They won't ask me about my favorite foods because, quite frankly, it would only hold up the line.

I am afraid we sometimes think our church family is like Walmart or the DMV.

Church-as-Walmart is the place I go to get some things I need to make life run more smoothly but at the lowest cost. I don't really go to give anything and I certainly hope I won't be there so often I need to know peoples' names and numbers. When I treat the congregation like Walmart, I instinctively think they are there to serve me with their cheerfulness, authentic curiosity, affirmations, and "good to see ya's." But let them not be suffering and in need of me. I'm not there for that. I'm just there to grab a few things and run. That's doing church-as-Walmart.

Church-as-DMV is the place I go to keep up my credentials. I was baptized. I professed faith. Now I make the occasional appearance to keep the authorities at bay so I can cruise through life without any embarrassing disruptions. When I treat the congregation like the DMV, all I need is for someone to notice I was there. That is enough to clear my conscience for a spell so I can get on with enjoying the roads of life I really want to be on. That's doing church-as-DMV.

But, of course, the churches of Jesus Christ are unlike both of these.

The church is more like a body: "If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it" (1 Cor. 12:26-27).

The church is more like a family: "Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another" (1 Thess. 4:9).

The church is more like a temple: "So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit" (Eph. 2:19-22).

To understand these things is to understand that among the congregation of the redeemed we receive much ministry from the triune God. The Word, sacraments and prayer remain primary means of grace, but the biblical metaphors above confirm congregational life is alive with the ministry of the Holy Trinity. Our Lord Jesus is the head of the body. The heavenly Father of our true family hears our prayers. The Holy Spirit inhabits the holy temple into which we are built.

Life in the congregation is not one more social arrangement I manage like all the others I am involved in. The triune God rules and directs my life in the church. We know this because we have heard the Word of God. Even so, we sometimes lack courage and allow what is culturally acceptable to determine the shape of congregational life more than scripture.

Let us understand, the Lord has much to give us in the congregation and much to give through us to others. Unlike Walmart and the DMV, the church of Jesus Christ is a place where we settle down. It is the society above all earthly societies in which we most wish to stay. Blessed be the name of our Savior Jesus Christ who brought us into her, redeeming us from the orphaned life of sin.