My response: Guilty.As.Charged.
Is the capital “C” Church, and are all the many, many individual churches, populated by sometime cantankerous, grumpy, judgmental people? Yes, absolutely; guilty as charged. Do those same people fall short of biblical expectations for life and service? You betcha!
Should those facts make me stay away? Better yet, should those facts make me stay away and then target those in the camp with explosive-laden complaint drones? Well…
There are a million reasons not to be connected with a local church or regularly in worship. I’ve heard them all and, in moments of personal honesty, I’ve used some of them myself. At the top of the list: many of the people you find there. One seminary wag said it: “Ministry is great, except for the people.” Or, as a former parishioner of mine put it so eloquently, “I love God’s church; it’s God’s people I can’t stand!”
There are a million reasons not to be in worship regularly. But there is one overriding reason to be there: God says so. So, from a simple “obedience” perspective (for those of you concerned about the disobedient people in the church), I think you’d need to deal with that. The Writer of Hebrews says, “Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another–and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:24,25).
But, in the purity of the power of a relationship with the Heavenly Father, that’s not what moves me to be among God’s people, in church. I don’t “have” to go; I “get” to go…and there are light years difference between those two things.
The God who loves me wants me to hang out with Him AND He wants me to regularly hang out with those other people He loves…not so that we can all show off how much better than the rest of humanity we are, but to worship Him and adore Him and face our need for His grace and power to accomplish His purposes. “Apart from me you can do nothing,” Jesus said…nothing.
The church is not a beauty contest, it’s a “Critical Care Unit” — “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” That’s true before people come to know Christ and, sadly, still true after we come to know Christ. This side of heaven we are still plagued by sin.
Is the Bible full of calls to be better? Certainly. But that “betterment” is not a self-help effort. It’s an “only Jesus can make this possible” effort. And the very second we start to compare “betterment” we are in serious, serious trouble. “Do not judge,” Jesus said, “Do not judge.”
I think a wise church leader friend of mine is right: many in the church over the years have thought they were going to a spiritual Lowe’s to pick up the tools to be able to become better people (Let’s Build Something!). When, in fact, worship is about God, not the life “score card” of the person sitting next to me–nor even my own spiritual “batting average.” I don’t have to go; I get to go. And, when I do go, I get to worship the God who loves this broken sinner. And (and here’s the key point in this particular ramble): I get to hang out with others just like me who know they’re broken and who are partnering with each other and the Living God to experience grace such that we might show grace to each other and to the rest of the world.
Do we get that right? Sometimes…ok, maybe rarely…perhaps hardly ever…but when we do, it’s a wondrous thing to behold…and it’s worth every second of church-based stupidity I’ve ever experienced. And trust me, as a pastor, I have seen, heard, felt, and been bashed by more of that stupidity than anyone observing from the sidelines will ever know.
And…by the way…I do know that many have been egregiously wounded by those in the church…wounded by those who thought they knew better…or perhaps even wounded by those who did know better but couldn’t “speak the truth in love.” This is not to diminish any of those hurts and pains. It is to say, with Peter, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). And, if we think we can have Jesus (Simply Jesus) without the pains, travails, and (yes) joys of the church, then I think we miss the entire tenor of the New Testament’s witness about the church.
Winston Churchill, in commenting on the frailties of democracy, once remarked: “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all wise. Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those others…” The same could likely be said of the church: “No one pretends that the church is perfect or all wise. It’s the worst form of Christian gathering, except for all the others.”
To a more “Christianly Correct” audience, perhaps it would be better for us to hear Billy Graham’s pithily profound observation: “There’s no such thing as a perfect church; if you think you’ve found a perfect church, don’t join it–you’ll ruin it.”
I regularly hearken back to John Newton’s, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found; was blind but now I see.”
What do I see? Not how much better I can perform now, but how much I desperately need the power of God every day. What do I see? That grace is not a onetime proposition, but the constant outpouring of undeserving love on this weary and wary sinner. Where do I see that best? With and among God’s people…in worship…even when they’re cantankerous, grumpy, and judgmental.
Before you discard the church, friend…remember that the church was (and is still) God’s idea (Matthew 16:17-19). Standing on the outside looking in and lobbing verbal grenades? Well, that’s someone else’s idea.