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.