I haven’t had many golden memories of my life, but as they come to mind, they often help me consider the truths of God. They may not be perfect analogies, but I think there are truths there that can be conveyed through them. For example, I have a tale of young delinquency, and the grace and mercy my mother showed me at that time. You can check that out as my next post (on 9/12/16). My most recent post brought me back as a young child traveling to the city with my mother, remembering how it all looked as I approached and also how different it was when I stepped out into the streets. It made me consider all its nuances and how similar the church might be in some ways. I heard a pastor once say, “There are two types of sinners, the ones outside the church, and the ones inside the church.” If that’s true, then there certainly might be some similarities to consider. This is simply an analogy and probably not the best one. But, I think it’s worth considering. This is not another church hatchet job, but a realistic look at that “city set on a hill.” I’ve had my share of bad church experiences. If I’m completely honest, I take the blame or at least a good portion of it. It feels sometimes that I should be farther along, but I guess that’s the point when you get a little closer, the flaws are a lot clearer, and it seems like you have to put a new veneer on them every so often like some of those outdated office building.
Now wherever you are in your walk, there will always be on the outside looking in, people who love to “judge” the body of believers and cry hypocrite! It’s probably their favorite pastime, but as intimate and regular partakers of church, we know (or at least we should know) that the church IS full of hypocrites, because none of us follow every law, AND if we rate our thoughts correctly, ANY law! Despite the outside cries of the pagans, the newly saved Christian often come to the church with that same idea of perfection. Oh, we may not say it, but we think it. This newly-minted creation needs nothing more than God’s grace, and to hear more about Jesus, and that’s what we tell them they’ll get. We call out to any who will hear us, telling them to come as they are, and as the ferry of God’s grace pulls into the terminal of the body of Christ in the local church, it looks pretty awesome and your filled with awe and wonder as you’re eager to hear more about Christ. You feel loved and accepted and ready to “do life” together.
Then you get a little closer
The church is still an amazing place, and you’re thankful to be there, but you begin to see more than shiny exterior. You realize that you are in a place full of flaws. There may be flaws of personal preference that you’ve brought with you (I think the Christian term is “baggage”), or they may be what you see in your fellow members. That’s ok though, because you have flaws too. That should make it all the more endearing. A wonderful place of diversities of personality and culture, all able to rally around Christ despite our flaws and sins.
Just getting off the boat, foot planted on firm ground, you see so many different things. You see those people firmly rooted in the Gospel. The people who know, that despite how long they’ve followed Christ, they still need regular large doses of both God’s mercy and grace for the multitude of infractions whether of mind, words, or deeds. You see the newer believers fully equipped with the enthusiasm of salvation to propel them forward in both learning and good works. They need no “must do” encouragement, because the Gospel of Christ implants a “get to/want to” all on its own. While still they are others,who have lost the newness of salvation, and has yet to wade in the deeper waters of the Gospel. The Gospel, who’s waterfall of forgiveness waits for us to be washed by it through daily repentance. These are the ones that need to be rescued from tacking on stipulations and rules to God’s blessings, and stopped from dragging others into it as well. Every so often they get a refit of styles and language that change to fit the times, but ultimately it’s the same message, “God will bless you if______.” These are the people who need to be demolished by the law, so they can be raised newly-minted in the Gospel of grace, free of any works-based salvation, clearly aware of the first and greatest blessing that is in Christ Jesus, which is salvation alone, apart from works. Yes, within the church, as you draw near, you see the best and the worst of it all.
Then you get a little closer.
There are plenty of people in church to develop relationships with, and to be honest it is a key component of walking a Christian walk. You need it for so many different reasons, but most of all for like-minded friendship. You don’t always need to be fixed(well let’s say you don’t always need to be told WHAT to fix and HOW to do it), you just need a friend. But as you draw closer, you see that there are people in church that amount to cast offs. People who have not completely bought into the programs, people who ask a few too many questions. Again, I am guilty as charged. As these things happen, you’re even told (in love), “If you don’t like the direction, you free to leave.” There’s also people in church who don’t always fit for other reasons. Demographically, personality, theologically, and no one knows what to do with them. Let’s say, if the church is “counter-culture” (which in this age of pragmatism is debatable), then these people are counter-counter-cultural. There are also those people, who attend regularly, but don’t involve themselves in church operations or ministry for whatever reason. No one calls them, spends time with them or makes a point of including them in their lives. One day they are there and if they’re not, no one really goes out of their way to check on them. I suppose in an age of, “what is the church doing to make themselves known to the world”, we’ve forgotten that the church is primarily a place for the body to be healed, nourished, loved and cared for REGULARLY(and that’s important). Just like the most marginalized in the world, as much as the city does to help, people who are hurt, abandoned or don’t fit in, fall thru the cracks. This happens in the church as well. No one is immune.
Sometimes it makes you not want to get any closer.
So If you’re in a church long enough, you will see even more flaws in people, speakers, theology, YOURSELF, that may cause you to doubt even more. If your anything like me, your concerns, however you believe are true and righteous, may come out in unhealthy ways (which are my flaws, my sin). So please, DON’T BE LIKE ME! The best consideration in light of a multitude of differences is that it may be time to move on, but that’s not what this post is about, It’s about what you’ll find in the church, even in the next one.
Flaws and lots of them.. Or to be perfectly honest, sin!
Many of the New Testament epistles address issues within the church. The ones that don’t do it directly, encourage the church to remain steadfast against sin, which is always encroaching, always near. Here is just a sampling:
1 Corinthians – division, jealously, strife, sexual immorality
2 Corinthians – failing to forgive/reconcile, following after false “super-apostles”
Galatians – turning to a different Gospel, trusting in works & the law
1 Thessalonians – lack of respect for leadership, laziness
2 Thessalonians – idleness, meddling in other’s affairs.
1 Timothy – teaching false doctrine
These are guides for churches today. Partly for right conduct, but more importantly what to return to in our failings and that is Christ (Hebrew 10:19-23). There was never going to be a church that was without flaws. We are, by way of our old nature, sinners, which makes us hypocrites, because there is no way to NOT sin. If we truly hold the law of God in high regard, then we HAVE TO acknowledge our sin. He tells us if we break just one we are guilty of breaking them all (James 2:10). Praise God for Christ Jesus, the one who kept the law perfectly for us so we are not condemned in our failures.
This brings us to the only true difference between the city and the church. We see how wonderful both can look from a distance. We also see as we get closer, though still beautiful, many more sides. The good, the bad and the ugly. We see flaws (sins) in both places. But there is one difference, forgiveness. Yes, people in the world forgive, but it’s hardly ever unconditional. Even if we say it is, our eyes are opened to that person in a new way, like a child caught in a lie for first time. We love and forgive, but we are now aware of his ability to sin, to be flawed. Again, as much as it pains me to say, this will be true in church as well. I want to believe it’s not, but I can’t. But there is a forgiveness, if preached in its purity, that is found there. The forgiveness of God. (Ephesians 1:7) The forgiveness that asks for nothing, requires nothing and forgets everything you’ve done. It is forgiveness that was paid for by Christ’s blood. It’s an awesome and amazing grace poured out for us at Calvary.
There may be a time to move on to another church more suited to you as you grow in that grace and that’s fine. When you do, and you find a new place, remember those other cities and that as shiny and hopeful as they may look at first glance, they will have those same flaws as you move closer. So it will be with any church you care to walk into. But hopefully, those churches will have the Gospel, the good news preached. The freeing truth of unmerited forgiveness, and grace being preached and taught regularly against the backdrop of law’s uncompromising and impossible demands. So much so, that it will outshine every blemish you’ll see. The Gospel preached is what is needed to fade the scars of sin and flaws that will always be a part of the church. If you must leave a church, find one that props Christ up high. One that makes more of him than us. One that preaches sermons that regularly return to Christ’s finished work at the end so you know that Christ is our final hope over any and all imperfect work we do on his behalf.
Finally, as I bring this analogy to an end, I can’t help consider that for whatever reason you may leave a current church, as you pull far back from that shiny city on a hill, and all the nuanced flaws fade from view, you can see it for what it is, a place of a God’s people. For whatever reason, I have left and feel very little desire to return, but outside of it, from a distance, I can say that not all of it was bad, and some of it was without a doubt, a blessing. This will not be the experience of some, but maybe a few. Even if it is only to say that it was the place where God first stirred your heart for more.
I can see the ferry pulling away from the old church dock and as it does, the worst of it fades into the landscape leaving only the best aspects of my time there. I hope you can look as fondly as I can at the place you left. If not, be thankful for the place you’re at. Full of flaws but full of God’s Grace as well.
You can find the first part of this blog post here.