I have never been called to serve as the pastor of a perfect church. In fact, sometimes, I have found myself called to churches which were struggling with some serious dysfunction. I have also had contact with a lot of other churches over the years and have yet to find a perfect church. Because of the nature of the connections I have had with many congregations, I have often ended up discovering the hidden dysfunction in even the best of churches.
Now, I want to be clear at this point—I don’t go looking for the problems in various congregations. I am actually not overly interested in the internal dynamics of other congregations—most of the time, it takes most of my energy and ambition to cope with the realities of the congregations that I have been called to serve. But because I have taught pastors, written about the struggles of small churches and been the pastor of churches with open problems, I have learned much more about many congregations than I want to know.
The end result of all this experience with churches is the depressing insight that there are no perfect churches. That might seem like a totally unnecessary statement of the obvious to some people. But I think many people pay lip service to the imperfection of churches while at the same time assuming that the congregation they are part of or want to be part of is somehow an exception to the rule. Whatever the reason, there are plenty of believers out there looking for the perfect congregation.
To those of you still looking, let me be clear: there are no perfect churches. They don’t exist. Every Christian congregation in the world is going to be a confusing blend of good and bad; right and wrong; inspiring and depressing; perfection and imperfection. The congregation that produces the deeply spiritual Good Friday worship will also discriminate against some people groups. The congregation that condemns any deviation from their norms loudly and publically will also love and care for their disabled members in ways that put others to shame.
No matter what the congregation looks like from the outside, once you become a part of it, you will see both the good and the bad. Well, actually, you might see both, although there is a more than even chance that you will only see one or the other. We human beings are prone to selective vision so we can and do block out the parts we don’t want to see. But if we are honest with ourselves, we will soon discover that the great congregation has some serious problems and the dysfunctional congregation has some seriously good expressions of the faith.
There are no perfect Christian congregations. There are just gatherings of believers who are trying to work at and work out their faith in the context of a Christian community. Running through the whole of the New Testament is the assumption that believers will form communities and that these communities, which we call churches, will be imperfect expressions of the ideal that the New Testament writers keep pointing is towards. Many of the letters in the New Testament were actually written in response to the lack of perfection in various congregations.
Very early in ministry, I realized some implications of the lack of perfect congregations. If there are no perfect congregations, I will never be called to one—and even more importantly, I will never create one. My ministry goal isn’t to create a perfect congregation but to work with the imperfect congregation I have been called to so that together, we can overcome some of the imperfection and dysfunction and become a better congregation—not a perfect one but a better one. And the goal of every member of every congregation should be the same. We become part of a congregation and seek to use our gifts to make an imperfect gathering a better gathering, all the while recognizing that we are never going to be perfect.
Rather than look for a different congregation when we see the problems in the one we are at—or give up on the church completely, as some have done, our response to the reality of imperfection in the church probably needs to be confession of our part in the imperfection, acceptance of the reality of the imperfection and commitment to doing what we can to make things better. We might never become a perfect church but we can become a good church.
May the peace of God be with you.