My last few posts have been looking at the importance of the church. I have tried to make clear the reality that the New Testament assumes–believers need a gathering of other believers to experience the fullness of their faith and to grow in the way they are meant to grow. I have no particular structure or format in mind when I say this–the church exists in many forms today, from highly structured and organized denominational gatherings to informal, shifting collections of people who would be very reluctant to call themselves a church. As long as believers are coming together to enable each other to grow in faith, discover more about themselves and God and discover how best to do God’s will, they are a church.
It is easy to see from what I have written that I am a strong believer in the church and its importance to believers and in God’s scheme of things. But at the same time as I champion the church, I am also deeply aware of the damage the church has done to individual believers, groups of believers and the Christian faith as a whole. I am deeply aware of the number of people who are deeply committed to God through Jesus but who have experienced such hurt and pain in the church that they not only have refused to ever be part of a group even vaguely resembling the church but also have begun to doubt the value of the Faith itself.
As a pastor, I have been involved in the cleanup that follows a messy and painful fight in the church. I have seen the long term effects that come from churches that degenerate into fight clubs and worse. Some people abandon that group and become spiritual refugees, wandering from congregation to congregation, looking for someplace to call home. Others simply stop–they join the uncounted crowd of former church-goers whose past allegiance to a congregation only comes out when their funeral is planned. A few always stay put but their fears and suspicions create a congregation marked by division and separation, not unity.
The mission of the church is effectively destroyed in the community of the fighting church–and not just the mission of the fighting church. All the congregations in the area are lumped in together as hypocritical fakers whose message means nothing. People on the verge of making a commitment to the Faith draw back, losing their interest in spiritual matters. Those who haven’t been part of the faith use the mess as one more reason to avoid the whole thing.
I have seen all that. I have listened to the stories, provided kleenex for the tears, ministered to the refugees, absorbed the community disillusionment and anger–and even more, I have been on the receiving end of the messiness more than I want to admit. And to be painfully honest, I have been the cause of some of the problems as well.
But I simply can’t write the church off–and not just because my income and pension are dependent on the church. In the end, I can’t write the church off because I have come to realize that I–along with every other Christian of all time–am dependant on the church. For all its problems and difficulties and failures, the church is still God’s plan for his people, it is still the gathering that God intended and intends to use to accomplish his purposes for us individually and as a body. The church is still the intended bride of Christ.
And so I am committed to the church–but mine isn’t a blind and naive commitment that pretends everything is wonderful and tries to hide the wrong and painful under spiritual rugs and in locked cabinets. Far from it–I have chosen not only to recognize the ugly side of the church but also to challenge and change it. I have some advantages in this process–I have been called by God to pastoral ministry, I have significant training in a variety of ministry related areas and most of all, God has given me the patience that seems to be a basic requirement for helping the church acknowledge and deal with its ugliness and the consequences of that ugliness.
But creating a positive and powerful church is not the job of just one person–all of us have a part in creating whatever ugliness or goodness that the church ultimately produces. And so for the next few posts, we will look at how we can help produce a good church.
May the peace of God be with you.