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Disappointing Church

I am part of a disappointing church.

They weren't a disappointing church at first. They were once welcoming, warm, loving, spiritual, worshipful, and generally fun to be around. That was then. This is now. Now they are a disappointing church. I've had time for a good long look behind the scenes, and some of what's there just isn't very pretty.
The truth is this is not the first time I've found myself in the middle of a disappointing church. It doesn't happen every time. Just some of the time.

Some churches I've seen are caring and faithful and loving and I have nothing but good memories of them. Not detailed memories, since these were churches I visited on a Sunday or two and never went beyond that. I never got deeply involved.  But, the worship service was certainly powerful.  And based on my admittedly limited visits, everything from the happy greeters that met me at the doors to the joyful praise songs that lifted my soul, proved that these were wonderful churches. Unlike the church I'm at now.

After some careful analysis of the past thirty years, that is the common denominator true of all disappointing churches.  My level of involvement.

The churches I found disappointing were the churches where I got really involved. Went to Bible studies.  Went to meetings.  Got in deep enough to actually get to know people over time.

So, the best way to avoid finding yourself in a disappointing church is to limit your involvement. Only go to worship. Don't volunteer. Be friendly, but don't make friends.  Sing, clap, and give a little money. Stay at the edges. You have probably noticed, if you compare worship attendance with the totality of those showing up for anything else, that many Americans have already figured this out.

That's the key. The truth is I've never gotten really involved in a church – any church – that was not sometimes disappointing.

Of course, it's likely, at some point, I may have been a little disappointing to them.  OK, my unpaid editor-in-chief, Linda, assures me the words "it's likely" and "a little" ought to be deleted from the previous sentence. Hmm. Sometimes our wives can be disappointing.

OK, I'm back. The good news is I think the bump on my head is already getting smaller. Now, where was I?

There are simply no churches, if you peel away the gloss and the Sunday morning smiles, that are not populated by imperfect and inconsistent people. We do not confess our sins to each other because we have so few, but because we have so many.*

Churches become disappointed in pastors. And pastors keep getting disappointed in churches. The steady prattle of small talk about churches changing pastors or pastors upgrading to better churches permeates our ministers' meetings and our conventions.  It follows a pattern.  Everything is going to be great. Everything is great.  All in all it's great.  OK, it's not great but it's acceptable.  It's less than acceptable.  This is not where God wants me. (In evangelicalese that means, "I'm getting outta here.")  And then, wow, this new church (job) is going to be really great.

The somewhat tentative involvement of vast numbers of church attenders follows a similar pattern.  The whole thing is like a watching people on roller coasters, where some are optimistically climbing to the heights of finding the greatest church ever, while others are plunging into chaos of disappointment, disillusionment, and withdrawal. Many decide to get off and never get back on. Others go find another roller coaster to get on, and start climbing upward in idealized expectations once again. There is a sad irony in realizing the very thing we all want in a church is the very thing we ourselves lack: consistency.

The church is a hospital. That's true. But it's a hospital with no doctors, only patients. The healing hands of the great physician are not always miraculously coming down from above. No, many times He uses the wounded to tend the wounded. Grace given to sinners is also grace to be given through sinners.

But, we still have to face the fact of disappointments. Psychologist H. Norman Wright once said that, on balance, most people will experience more anger in life toward our own husbands or wives than anyone else. Why? Because there is no one else closer to us. To get close to the family of God is discover that you are a disappointing person called into community with other disappointing people.

I love the church. I love the church from the outside in and from the inside out. I love the faith, the love, the pettiness, the doubt, the hope, the spirituality and the carnality that walks her halls, sits in her meetings, and serves her cause in the world. I love the visible gathered in-the-flesh church as it is, not simply the church as I wish it was. And, here's the marvel, I have it on good authority that they actually love me.

Once Oliver Cromwell is said to have scolded the artist painting his portrait: "No, no, no. Go back and this time paint me warts and all." I've seen the painting of Cromwell. There's no doubt the artist did just that. I wish I had never disappointed a church. I wish a church never disappointed me. But, there we stand, blemishes and warts and all.  And to think, He calls this His bride.

    * In reality, a regular planned time of confession as a part of our disciplines of corporate worship would be both appropriate and a return to one of those ancient traditions Protestants should never have entirely abandoned.


Donald Crane said...

Tom you have said so much in this post. I totally agree. We have forsaken our first love in so many ways and the seasons of discontent that so many of us feel is a true sign of confusion. God does not see churches, he views his kingdom as one church. Our call is to return tot he spiritual disciplines that draw us closer to God and a renewed connection to Jesus.

Unknown said...

Tom, Thanks so much. You were a strong encouragement to me in our early days in NY and you continue to be. Somehow the church in Clarence has loved me warts and all. Because so many people have come and gone it sometimes feels like I'm the one who moved. Our work remains the same.....making disciples.....planting the good news in hearts.....loving the sheep of whom I am the worst smelling. Sometimes I wonder how things would've worked out if i had moved to So. Cal or Florida or Iran. The prophet Jeremiah has been a constant example to me. "If you can't deal with the foot soldiers how can you deal with the horsemen?" We are in a fight. The opposition is the great discourager. If it was easy anyone could do it. I have always been encouraged by good teaching and time in the word of God. For all those who are looking to move I encourage you to be strong and courageous. Read a biography of a saint who went before you. Tom, keep writing. I'm reading. You are in my corner helping me stay in the fight.

Peter Alexander said...

But it's a hospital with no doctors, only patients. The healing hands of the great physician are not always miraculously coming down from above. No, many times He uses the wounded to tend the wounded. Grace given to sinners is also grace to be given through sinners.

I don't entirely agree. When we look at I Corithians 12-14, we were given spiritual gifts to build one another up. From 1 John we learn that the koinonia we have with each other can also be experienced with each other. Most of our spiritual bios come out of the Isaiah reading in Luke 4. I think that what John is saying is that the very first time Christians begin to experience God as father is through the local ekklesia. This is where, for many, we begin learning to trust. And out of that, we can then begin confessing one to another. Otherwise, how do you confess deep things without trusting the one(s) you're confessing to!

Tom Lawson said...

Peter - An insightful and timely comment. Thank you for clarifying the centrality and primacy of the work of God within us out of which authentic and healing community can arise. It is centrally a God-work, rather than human-based group therapy. Helpful and needed reminder. TL