Recently a friend who had just been through a difficult experience asked me, “What do you think church is, anyway?” Her pastor was asked to leave because he wasn’t bringing in enough new people, “growing” the church. He had been faithfully serving their little body for many years, teaching the Bible, modeling vulnerability and faith. Some people were concerned that his teaching style had become too serious and wasn’t changing to meet the “felt needs” of the congregation. My friend struggles to understand what this means about “church.” She also wonders if she will keep attending, even though the people there have been part of her life for over ten years.
Another friend recently recounted how a visiting pastor at her church spoke on “How to have Success in Prayer.” The pastor suggested that if we aren’t getting what we ask for in prayer, we are doing something wrong. He went on to say that the purpose of prayer is to have a close, intimate relationship with God. My friend felt frustrated that this visiting teacher talked about topics that seemed irrelevant at best, downright unbiblical at worst. She left with a deep concern about the implications of teaching young people that our relationship with God is all about getting what we want from Him.
These days, church is often about “how-to’s,” like the visiting pastor’s sermon on prayer. Or, it is about meeting people’s “felt needs” in the context of providing activities and social involvement. Many churches today sincerely work to foster an environment that encourages a “deeper experience” of God. Many Christians have grown to expect church to provide these things. It’s as if we believe that the right formula or the right form of worship or the right environment will enable us to live more successfully as Christians. It’s as if we believe we will find a way to manage this life so that we won’t have to struggle so much. Perhaps we have decided that our sin is manageable, and we can handle it with “how-to’s” and discipline. We have moved away from the simple message of the gospel: God is in the process of taking us, together, toward the Kingdom, where our desperately sinful hearts will, at long last, be made pure.
This contemporary view of church lies in contrast with church as a group of believers gathered together to try to understand and remind one another of what is true. Maybe church is simply where, in the context of ongoing relationships, which are sometimes painful and difficult, we remind one another about what we believe: who God is, who we are, what the gospel promises us, and what it means to believe this story together. We are forgetful people. As we grow in our faith and leave behind obviously ungodly lifestyle choices, we may even forget that we are sinners, because our lives can look okay on the outside. Yet, no matter how disciplined we may get at prayer and Bible study, our hearts are still full of blindness and self-justification. God and relationships have a way of reminding us about our hearts. Living out our faith in the context of a community of believers, “church,” gives us the opportunity to see ourselves more clearly. We may, for example, have an opportunity to recognize that we unintentionally hurt a friend. Until the promise of the gospel is realized in the Kingdom to come, we will struggle mightily with our sinful hearts. Until then, we need each other to remind us about what we believe is true.
We are good at being blind. When I am confronted with how I have hurt someone, my first response is to tell my side, to make my transgression “understandable.” For example, the other day I became impatient while talking with a friend. She got quiet and then asked if I was mad at her. Immediately, I said, “No, no, that’s not it.” Reflecting on the conversation, however, I realized that was it. Only I wasn’t really mad at her; I was impatient because I felt hurried about a million other things I should have been doing rather than talking with her. Rather than knowing my own need either to finish talking or to reschedule my obligations, I became impatient and used a hurtful tone with my friend. Hurting my friend was my natural response to my stress. One might say, “Wow, you’re pretty hard on yourself.” But I know that hurting my friend is wrong. Thankfully, I know I can receive mercy in this friendship. My friend graciously accepted my apology, because she recognizes her own ability to be hurtful and her own need for mercy. We moved on. Nevertheless, I look forward to the day when I will have a new heart and when, no matter what the circumstances, I will love my friend rather than hurt her.
This is the ultimate promise of the gospel: not that we will have power over our sin here and now, but that we will see it more and more clearly, that the Spirit will help us recognize our sin and own it. We will fail and stumble and blunder our way through this life all the way to the Kingdom. But, by God’s grace, our failures will serve to secure our hope in the promise and to grow our trust in Him to get us there. And, by His gracious gift, He may even give us a community of people with whom we can stumble and find mercy along the way.
A church experience that breaks down, like my friend’s did, can become an opportunity to clarify the gospel: What is God promising? When will His promises be realized? And what are the implications of God’s promises for life in the here and now? Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book on Christian community, Life Together, observes:
Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves.
By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world…. Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it. Even when sin and misunderstanding burden the communal life, is not the sinning brother still a brother, with whom I, too, stand under the Word of Christ? Will not his sin be a constant occasion for me to give thanks that both of us may live in the forgiving love of God in Jesus Christ? Thus the very hour of disillusionment with my brother becomes incomparably salutary, because it so thoroughly teaches me that neither of us can live by our own words and deeds, but only by that one Word and Deed which really binds us together—the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ.
As we wait for the Kingdom together, we have the opportunity to work at loving each other as best we can. In the midst of the hurt, as we extend and receive mercy among one another, we have the opportunity to understand something about ourselves and about our God and His mercy. With only partial success along the way, we come to know God’s patience with each of us, the patience we are called on to offer one another. God is the One at work, in individual lives and in the body of believers. Whether we are scattered across the country or across time, He is in the process of building His church.
In this process, maybe “church” is organic. Maybe how we “do” church can vary as much as we do. Perhaps the bigger point of church is that we live out our faith with others who, like ourselves, struggle in many ways. We can struggle together: to understand how to trust God when hard things happen, to know how to love a friend or a daughter when we disagree with a choice she makes, to understand and hold to the promises of the gospel when life is weary and difficult. Together, we struggle and we ask, “What is this life for, and what do God’s promises mean?”
My little church has a bit of a “swap meet” feel to it. On any given Sunday, one is as likely to hear about a car for sale or a room to rent as about a deep need for prayer. We don’t dress up, and we don’t have a choir. When someone has a need, however, often someone takes it on—with a prayer or a practical helping hand. But we are not “touchy-feely,” and we don’t have many programs. And people get hurt there all the time. Even the people who have come for twenty years get hurt there, because life is full of hurts. But the gospel we believe accounts for those hurts in our experience. It accounts for failure, struggle, doubt, and uncertainty. And we want to press on, trying to learn together how to love better along the way.
My faith community reminds me about what is True. Singing hymns reminds me poetically of the truth of who God is. Praying together reminds me that collectively we are weak and needy and dependent on God. Studying the Bible together reminds me that God has spoken in history and is still working out this timeline for His purposes, even when sometimes it seems He is strangely absent from current events, both in the world and in my corner of it. The people who only see me on Sunday may see me—perhaps unfortunately—at my best. During the week, however, some see me at my worst, and in the context of these trusted relationships, I receive the gift of mercy.
In the end, maybe “church” is not so much about what we do together, as it is about what we believe together. We believe this message together: that Jesus came, died, and was raised again in order to secure the promise of mercy and redemption. Together, we point each other to God’s promise for a Kingdom where our hearts will finally be whole and where our hurts will finally be healed. The God who is really there is the One telling this story. Believing this message together, therefore, is a very big deal. In fact, it is the deal. May we believe, and keep on believing, together.