I think I am a professional church-mess navigator. I wish I wasn’t, but I have been a part of churches where heresy crept in, small group leaders undermined the overall vision, and where pastors led a double life.
With the infidelity of a pastor, when the truth came to light, it felt like a bomb had just gone off in my lap. I was shocked and regularly asked myself if this was real. The aftermath was equally devastating. The trust that was fractured by the leader permeated into just about every area of the church, which led to a myriad of new issues.
At one church where I was an associate pastor, the scandal made national news and the late-night monologue punch line circuit. Not only was I dealing with personal grief and questions about church leadership, and spending countless hours walking with a multitude of people also trying to heal, but I was also navigating public scrutiny and shame.
Maybe I choose churches poorly, or maybe the mess we experience in church is part of the story.
The Apostle Paul and the other New Testament writers sure spent a lot of time correcting and encouraging everyone to work through extremely hairy circumstances and petty annoying situations. Scandals and mess permeated the early church. In the Corinthian church, men were sleeping with their mothers-in-law, and parishioners were getting drunk on communion wine. The church in Galatia wrestled with legalism. The letter by James addresses slander, judgment and selfishness. There doesn’t seem to be anything new under the sun.
If this is reality and not just the exception to the rule, it seems we all had better expect church difficulty and become proficient at navigating it.
To make it through any situation we must settle a few things.
First, we can’t give up on church. In Genesis, after sin and evil is invited into the world, God initiates a rescue plan to save His creation by establishing a covenant with Abraham so the Rescuer will come through his bloodline, therefore making his descendants God’s people. The story of the Israelites and their waiting for the anticipated Messiah is tracked over thousands of years in the Old Testament. These were rollercoaster years of faithfulness and unfaithfulness — turning to other gods, complaining, bad kings and good kings, repentance, rebellion, killing prophets — and when it seems like it can’t get worse, it always does. At one point God compares His people’s unfaithfulness to a prostitute (Hosea).
After what seems like an endless cycle, the Old Testament comes to an end, and Jesus breaks into the story. He is the fulfillment of the covenant made to Abraham, and though the Jewish people hold a special place in God’s heart, the specific, gathered people of God as a nation state is no longer God’s modus operandi. It seems to me with the disaster that we see in the Old Testament, it would have been a great time to ditch the “people of God” idea, yet God quickly begins a new gathered people calling them “the church.” God has never, and will never, give up on His people … so neither can we! Augustine, the great third-century theologian, says it bluntly, “The church is a whore, but she is my mother.”
Second, we have to see church as a family. Sometimes we are shocked when we find mess in the church. Our ideals are shattered and our hearts broken. We determine to find a different church that has it all together. Unfortunately, after a while, you will find the same thing. I am not advocating never leaving a church; the best thing may be to get away from an unhealthy or destructive environment. The reason we find mess is not that churches haven’t found the secret ingredient to have the perfect church; it is because we are expecting the church to be something it can’t be.
All churches are full of broken people in process of restoration, and God is committed to using them. Instead of looking at church as an organization that must show the glory of God by having everything in perfect order, we must see it as a family with crazy relatives and dysfunction, committed to loving one another through difficulty by the power of the Spirit. John’s gospel says that when we do that “they will know we are disciples of Jesus” (13:35).
Anyone who reads through the Scriptures with more than a passing glance, recognizes that it isn’t a book teeming with flawless heroes. God’s story is full of broken people that He uses in profound ways for His glory. Nothing has changed today. He is still using broken people, who often make profound messes, in even more profound ways for His glory. The picture of God bringing life out of dead places is a glimpse into what He is doing in all of creation.
I am of the belief that the messiness of church is actually part of God’s plan to mature us. The difficulties that we so often want to run from or avoid actually are part of the mirror God uses to confront our selfishness, pride or other hidden pockets of sin in our hearts.
What if the annoying guy in your small group who drives you up the wall is part of God working patience in your life? What if the desire to only be around those you like is a signal of your need to push on your desire for a comfortable and controlled world? What if your not being chosen to lead is a way for the Spirit to cultivate humility and a new awareness of our limitations? What if the drama queen is God’s way of instilling compassion and faithfulness in you? What if differences in biblical interpretation is a reminder to focus on the absolutes of Scripture and embrace unity? What if the person that hurt you is how God intends to teach you forgiveness and redemption?
We should expect mess and not see it as the exception, and embrace it not as our failure but as an opportunity for grace.
Lastly, we must be committed to forgiveness if the difficulty in church is to be productive. Jesus said we are to forgive 70 times seven times. Even on the days I forgive that often, I am still not free to hold on to unforgiveness. If we hold on to offenses from every person who hurts us, toward the leaders who don’t give us the shot we think we deserve, or on to the way something was handled incorrectly, we will end up bitter, lifeless people. Sometimes forgiveness is easy, sometimes it is a struggle, but it is always necessary.
You might think we have to approach church with a grin-and-bear-it mentality. Sometimes it can be more of a practice of the will than others, but I actually think we can love church — warts and all. The key is understanding what it is.
I love the way Eugene Peterson, most noted as the author of The Message paraphrase and a local pastor for 30 years, puts it: “The Church is an appointed gathering of people in a particular place who practice a life of resurrection in a world in which death gets the biggest headlines.”
Won’t you be part of the life at a local church?
Copyright 2013 Aaron Stern. All rights reserved.