The Prickly Side of Grace

We have many expectations when it comes to church but one thing that we do not expect is to be sinned against by the church’s members. When it happens, as it sometimes does, we are always surprised. In hindsight, I suppose we shouldn’t be. What else would we expect from a congregation of sinners?

The church understands itself to be forgiven and in the process of being transformed. But it is still a company of sinners. Martin Luther’s description of the Christian as being “simultaneously justified and a sinner” is an admission that although Christians have been forgiven and declared righteous through the death and resurrection of Christ, we still struggle with the sinful nature. Being a sinner is a prerequisite for admittance to the church (Matt. 9:13; Mark 2:17; Luke 5:32). What is more, when Jesus spoke about relationships in the church, He seemed to describe sin between believers as a probability when He commanded: “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you” (Matt. 18:15).

The practice Jesus describes in this verse doesn’t fit the image many of us have of Christ. The contemporary church favors an uncritical and accepting Jesus. This popular Jesus doesn’t point fingers but stands with arms wide, ready to welcome everyone as they are without expecting either remorse or change. Rather than urging us to point out our brother’s fault, we would expect Him to say that we should let it slide.

Christ’s command to point out a brother’s fault is a hard pill to swallow in an age that regards amiability to be the chief of all Christian virtues. Likewise, the apostle Paul’s directive in 1 Corinthians 5:13 to “expel the wicked” seems incomprehensible to those who are persuaded that the church’s primary mission is to be a place where people feel comfortable and accepted. We are further confused when we read that with one breath, Jesus counseled His followers to confront those who sin, and then with the other, told them to forgive the same person repeatedly (Matt. 18:22). We tend to see these two responses as mutually exclusive.

According to Jesus accountability and mercy are not opposed to one another. These two obligations do not contradict each other, nor does one cancel the other out. Confrontation is its own kind of mercy because its ultimate aim is not to punish Christians for their sin but to loose them from its grip.

Although the vocabulary of confrontation that Jesus uses is drawn from the courtroom, He speaks of reproof more than prosecution. The aim is not revenge or even necessarily justice but restoration of the offender. Yet, the conditional language that Jesus uses to make His point implies both the possibility of failure and the probability of resistance. “If they listen to you, you have won them over,” Jesus says in v. 16. We must win over the offender before there can be any hope of reconciliation, and they might just reject our reproof.

The likelihood that our attempts will initially meet with resistance suggests that the scenario Jesus outlines is not a simple three-step procedure. We do not approach the person once and then immediately move on to stages two and three until we eject them from the church. Many private appeals may take place before one decides to move to stage two. Furthermore, every step provides an opportunity to reevaluate. Is the issue serious enough to take things further? Or should we merely absorb the offense and “bear with” the person?

The truth is that many of the things that bother us about others never even rise to the level of stage one. They may be the result of a moment’s thoughtlessness or perhaps the person’s immaturity. Most of the time, they are not even sins in the technical sense but merely irritations that we must tolerate with grace and patience.

What raises a matter to the level that it compels us to heed Jesus’ command to “treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (Matt. 18:17)? It isn’t necessarily the level of outrage we feel or even the fact that we have been wronged by someone. The gravity of the sin is one obvious factor. When the apostle Paul urged the Corinthian church to expel someone from their fellowship, it was because the sin he was committing was “a kind that even pagans do not tolerate” (1 Cor. 5:1). Perhaps the greatest challenge we face in following his example is that our standards have sunk so low that we have begun to wonder whether any sin warrants such a response from the church. The gap between what pagans tolerate and what the church accepts has closed. Church discipline itself has come to be seen as, if not a sin, then at least a form of spiritual abuse.

The confrontation that Jesus prescribes for the church isn’t only for the benefit of the person who has sinned against us. Church discipline has a reflexive effect as well. Jesus warns those who intend to confront others to scrutinize themselves first and remove the plank from their own eye before they try to remove the speck from their brother’s eye (Matt. 7:3–5). We usually think that our reluctance to confront those who have sinned against us springs from a fear of how others will react. But theologian Stanley Hauerwas notes that we are just as liable to be afraid of how it might affect us. “Such confrontation is indeed hard because it makes us as vulnerable as the one we confront,” Hauerwas observes. “The process of confrontation means that we may well discover that we have been mistaken about being wronged.”

Even if the erring sister or brother repents, we may find that we are unwilling to reconcile with them. “I seldom know what I really want, but I know what or whom I deeply dislike and even hate,” Hauerwas explains. “It may be painful to be wronged, but at least such wrongs give me a history of resentments that, in fact, constitute who I am. How would I know who I am if I did not have my enemies?”

What is it that separates the church’s execution of this kind of discipline from bullying and spite? Self-interest and revenge often clothe themselves in the garments of righteousness. How can we tell whether our aim is to win over an erring brother or sister or to exact revenge? The presence of grief is one indicator that we are not acting out of our own selfish interests. If we take pleasure in confrontation, we can be certain that we are motivated by the wrong kind of spirit. Church discipline should always be exercised with a measure of reluctance (1 Cor. 5:2; 7:7–11). Careful forethought is another characteristic. No church should be in a hurry to expel someone from their fellowship.

Jesus’ command is a stark reminder that grace has a prickly side. To comply we need to submit ourselves to the same light of truth that we must shine on others. That light will change our view so that we can no longer approach the offender from the moral high ground but must come to them as a companion and peer. And even if things go badly and we find that we must treat the offender like an outsider, we do so in the hope that we will once more be able to call them friend.

Bright Lights in an Age of Complaint

Some centuries have cooler names than others. Historian Will Durant labeled the Reformation period “the age of faith” and called the 18th century “the age of reason.” Lately, I have been wondering what historians will want to call this century, and I think a good candidate might be “the age of complaint.” 

The thought came to me the other day when I read Philippians 2:14, saying that we are to do all things “without grumbling or arguing.” I am not sure that I could find a directive in Scripture that is more out of step with the spirit of the current era. As proof, I submit the ubiquitous and generally disingenuous phrase, “I don’t know who needs to hear this but. . .” It is one that often shows up in Christian posts on social media. I don’t know who needs to hear this, but most of the time, the person who uses this phrase knows exactly who they think needs to hear what they are about to say. 

On the surface, Paul’s admonition that Christians should distance themselves from grumbling seems a bit trivial, coming on the heels of his stirring description of Christ’s descent into humility in verses 5–11 of the same chapter. It is as if, after urging us to make the effort climb to a great height because of the vista it affords, the apostle uses the occasion to draw our attention to some relatively insignificant blemish on the horizon, say a gas station or fast-food restaurant. What he points out is ugly, but is it really so serious as all that?

Given the magnitude of Christ’s example, we might have expected Paul to set our sights higher by urging us to a greater level of sacrifice. He might have asked us to meditate on the possibility of martyrdom or spoken of some great act of surrender or sacrifice. Give up your kidney. Sell yourself into slavery to preach the gospel to the heathen. Something like that. Instead, the admonition Paul leaves us with is the rough equivalent of a warning nearly every parent has had to give when taking the family on a long trip in the car: “Stop arguing with your brother. Don’t make me come back there.”

Not only are grumbling and arguing commonplace occurrences in everyday life. They are now a source of popular amusement, thanks to social media. As long as they do not direct it at us, we find the expressed contempt of friends and strangers immensely entertaining, second only to the articulation of our own dismay at the stupidity and wrong-headedness of others.

Censoriousness is no longer a character flaw. It is treated as a virtue, especially on social media, where our observations compete with one another for the audience’s attention. We do not feel that we have done our job until we have driven a stake through the heart of our opponent’s argument. The sharper the comment, the greater its sticking power. It is even better if we can express the sentiment with the cynic’s half-smile.

There is, however, an unsettling subtext to the apostle’s command in Philippians 2:14 that deconstructs our utopian fantasy of what we should expect from church life. When Paul tells us that we must do everything without grumbling or arguing, he implies that others in the church will provide many opportunities to do those very things. Tertullian, the second-century church father from Carthage, wrote that observers of the early Christians marveled at what they saw. “It is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us,” Tertullian wrote. “‘See how they love one another,’ they say, for they themselves are animated by mutual hatred; how they are ready even to die for one another, they say, for they themselves will sooner put to death.”

See how they irritate one another.

Paul’s directive to stop grumbling provides a necessary counterpoint that helps us understand the true nature of the love Tertullian’s quote describes. Those early pagans made their observations from the outside. They saw the behavior of Christians after grace and the gospel had done their work. Beyond their vision was the underworking of the flesh that created the occasion for those remarkable acts of love. If they had looked at the same deeds from that perspective, they might just as truthfully have declared, “See how they irritate one another.”

Another clue that the experience of mutual irritation is the field in which the Spirit sows the seeds of Christian love is found in those New Testament commands, which tell believers that they are to “bear with” each other (Eph. 4:2; Col. 3:13; cf. Rom. 15:1). The elegance of this phrase does not do justice to the experience it describes, and it would perhaps be more honest to translate the command “put up with” one another. Such language signals that Christian fellowship is as liable to be an act of endurance as it is a love feast. Indeed, the frequency with which Paul speaks about the church’s relational difficulties in his letters gives one the impression that Christian fellowship is primarily the practice of enduring the company of those who would otherwise be unlikely companions. In his poem The Death of the Hired Hand, Robert Frost defines a home as “the place where, when you have to go there, They have to take you in,” In the same poem, he also proposes an alternate definition when he says that home is,  “Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.” It strikes me that we could say the same about the church.

Throughout its history, the church has struggled with two related problems where community standards are concerned. On the one hand, it has often veered in the direction of perfectionism. Perfectionism, in turn, inevitably leads to hyperbole. When I say that the church has veered in the direction of perfectionism, I do not mean that it reaches a state of perfection on this side of eternity or even necessarily makes a serious attempt to do so. Rather, it is a habit of one-sided expectation. We make demands of others that we do not require for ourselves. When the church slips into perfectionism, it falls into a state of mutual disappointment.

We used to call this Pharisaism–the hypocritical practice of expecting more from others than ourselves. According to Jesus, the chief problem with this moral affliction is not merely its failure to meet the standard it sets but its lack of self-awareness (Matt. 23:25). Pharisaism turns us into blind guides who make demands of others but cannot see how we fail to apply the same standards in our own lives.

This lack of self-awareness, in turn, affects the church’s view of its practice of holiness in much the same way that over-realized eschatology does one’s view of the kingdom. That is to say, the church tends to claim too much for itself too soon. The result is a false perception of our own experience supported by exaggerated claims about our performance. “We have a fatal tendency to exaggerate the faults of others and minimize the gravity of our own,” John Stott observed. “We seem to find it impossible, when comparing ourselves with others, to be strictly objective and impartial. On the contrary, we have a rosy view of ourselves and a jaundiced view of others.”

It is easy to see how such a view would lead to grumbling and criticism. The inevitable result is a toxic mixture of self-satisfaction mixed with disappointment. We are pleased with ourselves while being irritated with others, and we fail to understand why they can’t be more like us. The irony, of course, is that they are like us. Or rather, we are like them, and we can’t see it. But is Paul’s message in Philippians 2:14 essentially that Christians are irritating and that we need to just suck it up and put up with the unpleasantness that comes with such an unfortunate condition? Far from it.

The church is not a community that has already arrived at perfection but one in the process of becoming. The apostle’s command implies not only the power of the Spirit to control our innate tendency to grumble and criticize, but it rests on a promise of transformation through the gospel. We are to do everything without grumbling or arguing so that we “may become blameless and pure, ‘children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.’” (Phil. 2:14–15). Self-help gurus tell us not to sweat the small things. But it turns out that that it is precisely in the small things where grace is most needed. It is in our small speech and everyday actions, where the reality of our salvation shows up most vividly.

Church Hunting: What People Want from Church

I know a couple of people who are in the process of looking for a new church. One is a family member who recently retired and has more time on her hands. The other is a friend who is moving to a different state. In both cases, I was reminded how much the search process feels like dating. It is exciting, uncomfortable, and most visits feel like a mismatch.

The internet has altered the experience of church hunting. Back in the day, looking for a church was a lot like going on a blind date. You showed up without really knowing what kind of church you were going to find. You might make a few assumptions based on denominational pedigree or the appearance of the building. But you had to visit to get any real first impressions.

Speed Dating the Church

Today most churches have an internet profile, and similar to internet dating, the initial point of appeal is almost always physical. When you visit the church’s web page, you are greeted by smiling faces meant to reassure you that the congregation is full of friendly, happy people that you will like. If you are not impressed, you can always swipe left and move on to another site. No need to go to the trouble of making an actual visit.

But as we all know, first impressions can be deceiving. Sometimes the pictures you see on the church’s web page aren’t even from the church but are stock photos inserted by some anonymous web developer. If you dig a little deeper, you can usually find photos of the church’s staff, a statement of what the church believes, a calendar of events, and an archive of recent sermons by the pastor. It’s not enough information to tell you whether this is the church of your dreams but sufficient for letting you know which ones you should probably ignore.  In this regard, I suppose this stage of church hunting is a lot like speed dating.

When I was a pastor, it felt like the people who visited our church were looking for the congregational equivalent of a supermodel. We were a good little church but never quite good enough for them. The congregation was too small, and we didn’t have enough programs. It irritated me at the time. But when I became a civilian and started looking for a church myself, I saw things differently. In fact, according to a poll done by the Pew Research Center, what most people look for in a church is pretty basic.

Good Preaching & Friendly Leaders

At the top of their list is a good sermon. Pastors tend to consider those who come to church mainly to listen to the sermon as selfish. But it makes sense that the sermon would be important to those who attend church. Listening to preaching is one of the main things we do there. Is it too much to ask that the sermon be both helpful and listenable? One of the marks of the first Christians was that they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching (Acts 2:42). We don’t accuse them of being selfish or consumeristic for doing so.

Next to preaching, people looking for a church want to know if it is friendly. Many churches know this and station people at the entrance whose main job is to grin at newcomers and extend “the right hand of fellowship” as soon as they cross its threshold (Gal. 2:9). But visitors are not dummies, especially if they have been to more than one church. They know that it takes more than a handshake and a smile to be friends. Visitors appreciate the greeting, but they do not necessarily trust it. The greeter’s warm welcome doesn’t carry any more weight than the flight attendant’s smile as you board the plane. At least the flight attendant’s greeting serves a practical function. They are sizing you up to see what kind of passenger you will be. Plus, they eventually serve snacks. The typical church greeter doesn’t offer more than a smile. They barely focus their gaze on you before moving on to the next person in line.

But even if the church’s greeters seem genuinely friendly, that doesn’t mean friendships will be easy to find. A church whose members seem close to one another is often a congregation where opportunities to connect will be scarce. The more close-knit the community, the less interested it is in including newcomers. People who have friends are not usually looking to make new ones, and they may even have trouble finding time for the friends they already have.

Perhaps this is why the respondents in the Pew survey said that feeling welcomed by leaders was what was important to them. They weren’t looking for a friendly congregation so much as for friendly pastors. To be honest, I’m not sure what this looks like in today’s church, especially in large congregations. Many pastors no longer visit their parishioners. The pastor may meet with you at a restaurant for lunch or even invite you over for dinner, but usually not more than once or twice. As soon as you have graduated from newcomer status to regular attendee, you will likely find yourself on your own again.

Proverbs 18:24 says, “One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.”  The Hebrew literally says that a man of friends is to be broken. The proverb may suggest that the person with too many friends isn’t much better off than someone who has no friends. Those who appear to be friends with everyone often prove to be a friend to no one in particular.

Church size has a surprising effect on this dynamic. The larger the congregation, the easier it is to move in and out. Because so many people in the sizeable congregation are anonymous, it often has a larger pool of those who would like to be connected. The challenge is in locating them and finding a meaningful point of access. Visitors to small churches can often tell that they are close-knit, but they do not often find these congregations friendly. They are like a small town. You have to be born there or marry someone who was born there in order to belong.

Style of Worship

The third priority of church hunters has to do with worship style. This is another sensitive issue for pastors, especially worship pastors who like to remind the congregation that worship is “not about us.” What they usually mean when they say such a thing is that we shouldn’t complain if we don’t like the music. The irony (I am tempted to say hypocrisy) of this is that churches where one hears this sentiment expressed during the service usually rely on their worship style to attract new attendees. The philosophy of these churches seems to be that the style needs to appeal to those who don’t attend the church; it just doesn’t matter whether or not it appeals to members.

The trouble with a preference for a particular worship style is that it is so personal. It’s unlikely that a church can craft a worship style that has universal appeal. People who say that a certain style distracts them from worship are not exaggerating. C. S. Lewis believed that the best style was the one that you didn’t notice. He was talking about liturgy instead of music, but the principle is the same. Lewis compared the experience to dancing. “As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not dancing but only learning to dance,” he explains. “A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice.”

As long as our attention is distracted by the style of worship, we are not worshipping. According to Lewis, an even worse scenario is one where innovations in worship cause us to fix our attention on the one who leads worship. Try as one may to exclude it, the question, ‘What on earth is he up to now?’ will intrude,” Lewis observes. If he is correct in this, today’s performance style, which focuses so much attention on the worship team or a worship leader, is more likely to be a distraction than an aid.

Location, Location, Location

There are a handful of other factors that people usually consider: like children’s programming, whether one has family members in the congregation, and opportunities to volunteer. But the only feature in the Pew survey that rose to the level of the three mentioned above was the church’s location. This is a surprise, given our mobility. Before the advent of the automobile, one’s choice of a church was constrained by a combination of personal conviction and local geography. For most attendees, church was unavoidably local. This also meant that you usually worshipped with the same people among whom you lived.

Those days are unlikely to return. Nor should we necessarily assume that closer proximity meant a better experience. If there was an advantage, perhaps it was that the limits of one’s geography also produced a kind of reflexive stability. You stayed in the church because you had no choice. In this regard, those churches were more like households than spiritual shopping malls. Worshippers did not see themselves as customers but as members of the same large family. This is the primary metaphor the Bible uses when it speaks of the church. The church is called the household of God (Eph. 2:19; 1 Tim. 3:15). Those who are part of it refer to one another as brothers and sisters (1 Cor. 16:20; 1 Tim. 5:2).

The Bible’s family metaphor is a needed correction in an age when churches are more likely to feel like a Starbucks than a royal priesthood (1 Pet. 2:9). The reminder that the church is a family will help with the letdown that inevitably comes after hunting for the perfect church, only to discover that it has the same rough edges you saw in the one you used to attend. You can choose your friends and even your spouse. But your family is given to you.

Growing into Salvation

Have you ever wished that you were taller or had eyes of a different color? Or maybe you wondered why you were better at basketball than someone else or could play the piano like a virtuoso. Some things are programmed by heredity and DNA. But not everything. There are things we can do to nurture growth and development, or we can hamper it.  

The same is true in the spiritual realm. Those who are in Christ cooperate with the Holy Spirit as they grow in grace and obedience. They may also hinder the process. In 1 Peter 2:2, the apostle tells us to “crave spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation.” The Greek text literally says that we grow “into” our salvation. It almost sounds as if there is a mold, and spiritual growth is the experience of being poured into it. In a way, this is true. The shape of spiritual growth in its final form has already been determined for us. It is not a list of behaviors but a person. We are growing into “the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13).

But the process of growth is not automatic. There are some Christians who seem to be stalled in their spiritual development while others grow more quickly. What makes the difference? Is there a secret to spiritual growth? The primary means that God uses to nurture our growth is the word of God. Peter describes it as “pure spiritual milk” and tells us that we should “crave” it. This command is a little surprising. It implies that we have a responsibility to be disciplined in our intake and cultivate our hunger. In a way, Peter tells us to develop a taste for God’s word.

Spiritual growth is not automatic.

When it comes to ordinary food, we develop a craving by tasting it. This is also true of God’s word. But many Christians find that the taste for God’s word does not come automatically. They may begin to read Scripture and find that parts of it are hard to understand. There are many stories in the Bible, and they don’t understand the background. Or maybe they don’t enjoy reading. So they begin but quickly lay the Bible aside.

Acquiring a taste for the Bible begins with a conviction about the Bible itself. We read it because it is more than a book. It is the word of God. Our belief about the Scriptures is the same as the Thessalonians, who “accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God,” which is at work in those who believe (1 Thess. 2:13). The truths of the Bible not only work on us. They work in us. God’s word transforms those who crave it.

Prayer is another practice that contributes to our spiritual development. There is more to spiritual growth than learning to perform a series of spiritual tasks. It is growth in our relationship with God. If Bible is the primary means that God uses to speak to us, prayer is how we talk to God. When we pray, we not only make requests, we also worship, unburden our hearts, and spend time in God’s presence. Prayer is not conversation so much as it is communion.

We do not need to go to great lengths to get God’s attention when we pray. Nor do we need to make clever arguments. Jesus assures us that God not only hears our prayers but also says that “your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matt. 6:8). “He is neither ignorant, so that we need to instruct him, nor hesitant, so that we need to persuade him,” John Stott observes. “He is our Father–a Father who loves his children and knows all about their needs.

In most cases, spiritual growth is not something we experience in isolation. God has designed the spiritual life so that it flourishes best when it takes place within a community of believers. The Bible’s name for that community is church. Ephesians 4 says that Christ has gifted the church with individuals whose ministry is “to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Eph. 4:12). Those that he lists include pastors and teachers who exercise a ministry of God’s word. They proclaim the gospel and teach the truths of Scripture. Those who are trained by their teaching implement what they have learned by building up the body of Christ.

We do not experience spiritual growth in isolation.

We often talk about the church as if it were a location. We think of church as a place we go to worship. But the Bible speaks differently. On the one hand, in 1 Corinthians 11:18, the apostle Paul describes how the Corinthian believers “come together as church.” According to this, church is something we do. It is the act of coming together as those who worship and follow Jesus Christ.  On the other hand, the apostle also speaks of church as an identity. Church is what we are. It is a community of those who belong to Christ.

Christians come together as church to experience the reality of God’s presence through worship. Another reason the church gathers is to hear the word of God taught. When Acts 2:43 gives a snapshot of the life of the early church, it says that the first disciples “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.” Christians meet together to study God’s word to know how to be the church when they go their separate ways. A church is a community bound together by what Jesus Christ has done and what it has been taught.

In the natural realm, eating and exercise go together. Food provides fuel for growth and activity. The same principle holds in the spiritual realm. Spiritual development comes when we combine spiritual nourishment with obedience to what we have learned. Ultimately, however, it is God who makes us grow. God has given both the word and those who teach it. His Spirit grants us understanding and empowers us to obey. Spiritual growth is not an accomplishment for which we can take credit or feel pride. Like everything else in the Christian life, it springs from grace. Those who grow spiritually “grow in grace” (2 Pet. 3:18). Just as God is the source of our spiritual life, He is the secret behind our spiritual growth.

Why We Need the Church

I began to follow Jesus seriously in the 1970s. Back then, I thought of it as a decision. “I have decided to follow Jesus,” I sang. “No turning back, no turning back.” But over time, I came to realize that it was more a case of Jesus drawing me after Him. I worked the midnight shift at a fast-food restaurant and started reading the Gospels during my breaks. Their stories of Jesus calling the disciples to drop everything and follow Him caught my attention and eventually captured my heart.

In the early days of my new life, it didn’t dawn on me that church was also part of the package. Our family didn’t attend and now that I thought of myself as a Christian, it seemed unnecessary to me. I had Jesus and the Bible. I had made friends with others who shared my faith. Why ruin it all by adding church into the mix? I had visited a few churches in the past. With its unfamiliar people and odd music, the experience was more uncomfortable than anything else. We stood and sat. Stood and sat. And then a man got up and lectured us about things I didn’t really understand. But after I became a follower of Jesus, I started regularly attending because someone told me that it was what Christians do. The music was still strange to me, but the lectures made more sense now that I was reading the Bible. I have been going to church ever since, though not always with enthusiasm. The music and the people still seem odd to me at times. But I have come to see the church as an essential part of my Christian life.

What is the Church?

We often talk about the church as if it were a location. We say we are “going to church.” We point to a steepled building that we call “the church on the corner.” We think of church as a place we go to worship. But the Bible speaks differently. On the one hand, in 1 Corinthians 11:18, the apostle Paul describes how the Corinthian believers “come together as church.” According to this, church is something we do. It is the act of coming together as those who worship and follow Jesus Christ.  On the other hand, the apostle also speaks of church as an identity. Church is what we are. It is a community of those who belong to Christ. For example, later in his letter, Paul brings greetings from Aquilla and Priscilla, two of his friends and colleagues, and from “the church that meets at their house” (1 Cor. 16:19). This is the same letter that he addresses to “the church of God in Corinth” (1 Cor. 1:2).

So a church is not a building but an assembly of believers. A church is a community of faith. When you read Paul’s references to the church in the New Testament, you find that he sometimes refers to it in the singular and at other times in the plural. He speaks of “the Church” and also of “the churches.” These are the church’s two primary modes. One is broad, and the other is narrow. On its most expansive level, there is only one Church made up of all believers, at all times, and in all places. This church is not confined to what is seen. It spans heaven as well as earth and includes both the living and the dead. It is also evident from the way Paul writes that there are many churches. This is the other mode of the church. It is local and consists of individual congregations made up of those who profess faith in  Christ. These local assemblies each have their own distinctive make-up, personality, and style and may sometimes differ on points of doctrine or practice. As a result, the New Testament can speak both of the Church and the churches without contradiction.

Irenaeus, the second-century bishop of Lyons, characterized the church as “a paradise in the world.” The book of Acts provides a snapshot of what life was like in the early church. According to Acts 2:42, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” Luke describes what, on the surface, might sound like a utopian community. They shared their possessions, and their meetings were characterized by gladness and sincerity. Yet, the New Testament also paints a realistic portrait of church life. There we find people who are much like us, forgiven sinners who sometimes fight and complain but are still traveling the way of Christ together with the help of the Holy Spirit. In the book of Acts, we see some of the real-world flaws of this remarkable community. We discover that some of its members were hypocrites (5:1–2). We learn that the church’s first significant organizational change took place because some of its members were being neglected, possibly due to cultural prejudice (6:1). And we observe how reluctant the church initially was to accept the newly converted Paul because of his former life (9:26). Its members struggled with jealousy and ethnic prejudice. Some New Testament Christians were upset after they heard Peter had met and dined with Gentiles (11:2–3). Paul and Barnabas had so sharp a disagreement that they each went their separate ways (15:39). Some preachers taught with needed further doctrinal instruction (18:25–26). And Paul warned that others would become false teachers (20:30).

Why Church is Necessary

But do we really need the church? The Bible’s answer is an emphatic yes. One reason is that the assembled church provides a unique context for worship. When Christians come together as church, they do so to worship God through Jesus Christ. Ephesians 2:19-22 says that those who are in Christ are fellow citizens with God’s people and members of his household. They are a kind of temple, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. All who belong to Christ are being “built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” One of the primary reasons Christians come together is to experience the reality of God’s presence through worship. Another reason the church gathers is to hear the word of God taught. When Acts 2:43 gives a snapshot of the life of the early church, it says that the first disciples “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.” Christians meet together to study God’s word to know how to be the church when they go their separate ways. A church is a community bound together by what Jesus Christ has done and what it has been taught. On the one hand, the word of God is the foundation that establishes the church. The church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:20). Because of this, the church is also an agent of truth that proclaims God’s word to the world.  In 1 Timothy 3:15 the apostle Paul describes the church as the “the pillar and ground of the truth.”

Long before social media adopted the language of connection to refer to relationships enacted in the digital realm, the apostle Paul expressed the idea more concretely by calling the church a body made up of members who have been joined to one another through Christ. The church is a place where “we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others” (Rom. 12:5). God’s Spirit has empowered every believer to contribute to the well-being of the other members. Instead of losing our individual identity and disappearing into the whole, each of us has a distinctive function in the church. Every member adds value to the church, even those who do not seem to add value. Christ has arranged the church this way, “so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other” (1 Cor. 12:25). Therefore, Christians come together as church to worship God, hear the word of God proclaimed, and care for one another. Then they each go their way to represent God’s interests in the world around them.

Although there are many organizations that work for the betterment of the world, three things set the church apart from every other institution. First, the church is a community where God uniquely manifests His presence. It is the dwelling of God by the Spirit. Second, the church is a believing community that both hears and proclaims the word of God. It is through the church that God spreads the good news of forgiveness through Christ. Third, the church is a community of servants empowered by God to represent His interests in the world.

God’s Beautiful Imperfect Church

Anyone who has visited a church knows that it is still a work in progress. God has given Christ’s righteousness to the church as a gift, but our practice of that righteousness is not yet perfect. Those who claim that there are hypocrites in the church are right. No congregation is everything that it should be. But there is more to the church than our experience of it. An essential discipline of the Christian life is learning how to view the church through the eyes of faith. We learn to look beyond our disappointments and take God at His word. All that God says of the church is true. This faith-driven approach to church life does not deny or explain away its problems. Just the opposite. Most of the New Testament was written in an effort to apply the truth of God’s word to the failures and inconsistencies of the church.

So how does one find their place in the church? The starting point is to recognize that union with Christ also unites us to the church. The same faith that is the door to a relationship with God through Jesus Christ is also our entrance pass into the church. We must also recognize the importance of intentionality. Scripture urges Christians to study the art of being a church. Belonging to the church comes automatically, but behaving like the church takes learning and practice.  Hebrews 10:24-25 uses the vocabulary of thoughtful reflection when it tells us to: “. . . 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.” The closer we get to Christ’s return, the more we need the church.

Preaching in a Crisis

One of my former students recently asked me how I thought the COVID-19 crisis was affecting pastoral ministry and preaching in particular. How do you preach in an environment like this? The simple answer is that you do the best you can, given the circumstances. Preaching is challenging enough under ordinary conditions. The nature of the current crisis has completely upended our normal patterns of meeting and communicating. Preachers are speaking to empty seats and recording their messages for broadcast over social media. As one popular meme observes, we are all televangelists now.

The answer to my student’s question involves more than the medium, though much could be said about that as well. The medium of delivery matters, but the content of the message is always primary. Whether we preach live or by means of a video, we are still saying something. What should we say? The Sunday school answer to this question, of course, is that we should preach the gospel. There is a sense in which preachers only have one message to deliver. Our determination, like the apostle Paul’s, is to know nothing except Jesus Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). Yet as true as this may be, to put it this way in answer to this particular question seems like and oversimplification. It is not.

Preaching More than the Facts

The gospel offers hope for the present life as well as for the future. It is about living as much as it is about dying. Living the Christian life is more than a matter of willpower and information. The Christian life is Spirit-driven and grace enabled. It is a life that is lived not only in response to the gospel but through the power of the gospel. Paul’s letters are proof that the saints do not need to hear a different gospel after they have believed than the one that was preached to them prior to faith. The apostle was just as eager to preach the gospel to the saints at Rome as he was to proclaim it those who had never heard Christ named (cf. Romans 1:15 with 15:20). While the saints do not need a different gospel, they do need a gospel which is explicated in terms of their experience.

This means that preaching the gospel to the saints during this season of COVID-19 demands that we do more than state the facts of the gospel. What is especially needed is gospel preaching that demonstrates priestly sensitivity. In the Old Testament priests, like prophets, exercised a ministry of God’s word (Leviticus 10:11). The priest, however, differed from the prophet because he shouldered an additional burden, serving as the people’s advocate. Priests were not only “selected from among men” but were “appointed to represent them” (Hebrews 5:1). Preachers, like the priests of the Old Testament, do not stand apart from those who hear them. The default disposition of every sermon is one of sympathy. Priestly sympathy is not pandering but a compassionate ministry that is born of shared experience. Priestly advocacy should not be confused with trite slogans, pat answers, or simplistic explanations. Unfortunately, our culture’s bent toward pragmatism makes us especially vulnerable in this area. We are too eager to come to God’s defense–too quick to fill in the silences God leaves behind and attempt to explain what he himself has not explained.

Similarly, it can be tempting for preachers to use a crisis like this to leverage their favorite rebuke. If the posts I see from pastors on social media are an indication of what we are saying in our sermons, not a few of us have seized the opportunity afforded by the pandemic to teach the church a lesson about our favorite cultural or congregational irritation. We are saying that this crisis has come upon us because of abortion or that it is God’s judgment because of homosexuality. Some suggest that God sent it to show us that we are spoiled or that He allowed the churches to be shut down because we took worship for granted. Some are saying that God has forced us out of the building so that the church could be the church. The intent of these assertions, I think, is to be prophetic. Unfortunately, such varied explanations merely gives the impression that God cannot make up His mind about why He is angry with us. He is just mad. I am not saying that God would never deal out judgment on a national or even global scale. The Scriptures show that He has done so in the past and will do so again. What troubles me is the underlying note of smugness that seems to attend so many of these kinds of statements. Perhaps before we try to call down woes upon the nation like the prophet Jeremiah, we ought to learn how to weep like him first.

Some of this comes from the pressure we feel to exonerate God. Like many others, I have had more than one person ask me what I thought God was up to by allowing such a devastating pandemic to occur. In our effort to provide an answer, we may overreach. We can make the mistake of thinking that since we speak for God, we may also speak as God. Like Moses at the rock, we speak rashly or out of spite (Numbers 20:10). We jump to conclusions about God’s intent. We make statements about God’s motives and reasoning that sound like certainties but are really only speculations. It is not wrong to address the questions that people ask. One of the preacher’s most important responsibilities is that of leading the congregation in the collective practice of theological reflection about the questions and challenges which are peculiar to their context. But they must do this with what I describe as priestly advocacy.

The key to priestly advocacy is identification (Hebrews 2:17). This means that the preacher functions as a kind of mediator, standing between the text and the congregation and listening to the word of God on their behalf. Because we stand in the place of our listeners, we ask the questions they would ask. Some of these questions are obvious. Many are mundane. If we are to be true advocates for them, we must also ask the questions our listeners would like to ask but dare not. We can give voice to the questions that plague our listeners, but we cannot always answer them. Our priestly role demands that we speak the truth, and the truth is: God does not always explain himself. Part of the priestly responsibility of preaching is to give voice to the congregation’s unspoken questions and then listen with them to the awkward silence that sometimes ensues once the words have been spoken. It is not our job to answer all the congregation’s questions. When we try to say what God has not said, we inevitably replace God’s judgment with our own.

What We Can Say

What, then, can we say? We can affirm the congregation’s questions and fears. To admit that we don’t know what God is doing is not the same as saying that God is doing nothing. To acknowledge fear, grief, or uncertainty can itself be a great relief in times like these. Of course, it is crucial that we not stop here. More needs to be said. We do not want to only point at the problem. But if preaching aims to facilitate an encounter with God,  a precondition must be that we face God as we truly are, with all our doubts, fears, and questions in plain sight.

If our aim in preaching really is to help our listeners meet God through His word, then the second thing we can do in the sermon is to speak of God. More particularly, we can speak of God as He has revealed Himself to us through the person and work of His Son Jesus Christ. This may sound too simple, so let me make clear what I do not mean. I am not talking about hawking God as a product by selling the audience an airbrushed version of the Christian life. Such sermons try to resolve every serious problem within a matter of minutes, much like the television dramas and commercials that so often provide contemporary pastors with their themes. This “airbrushed” portrayal of Christianity is not preaching at all but a form of sentimentalism that trivializes the gospel. Trivialized preaching is triumphalistic. Triumphalism is a perspective that grows out of our evangelical heritage of revivalism. The revival tradition of preaching emphasizes the transforming moment, when the listener’s life is forever changed. Certainly this is true of the gospel. We are forgiven in a moment. But the redemptive process takes much longer. Triumphalistic sermons give the impression that every problem can be solved in a matter of moments simply by leaving it at the altar. Undoubtedly there have been remarkable instances where this has been the case. Sinners plagued by long standing habits leave the sermon miraculously freed from bondage. Yet for many others–perhaps even most others–the experience is different. For them transformation is progressive rather than instantaneous. These believers do not skip along the pilgrim path but “toil along the winding way, with painful steps and slow.”

Directing our listeners to hope in Christ is not a platitude. 

Preachers who do not acknowledge this resort instead to clichés and platitudes. Their sermon themes are flaccid and the remedies they offer mere placebos. Such sermons are unable to provide any real help to those who hear. How can they, when truism stands in the place of truth? In order to be true to our audience’s experience, preaching must reflect the reality of living in a post–Eden world in anticipation of a new heavens and earth that have not yet come to pass. Times like these, where not only our congregation but the entire globe must deal with the collateral damage that sin has wreaked upon us, are uniquely suited to such a task. Never has Paul’s statement that creation itself is in bondage to decay as a consequence of Adam’s sin been made more vivid (cf. Romans 8:21).

Directing our listeners to hope in Christ is not a platitude. The root of our fear in this current crisis is the fear of sickness and death. Some would like to promise that Jesus will protect us from all such threats. But this is not the hope that the Bible offers us. The message of the gospel is not only the story that Jesus died and rose again. It is the good news that Jesus suffered death “so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (Hebrews 2:9). The gospel does not assure us that we will be able to avoid the experience of physical death. It tells us that Christ will meet us on the other side. This promise is no small hope.

A Distanced Congregation is Still the Church

A third thing that we can say, especially at a time when our normal community life has been so disrupted, is to remind the church that they are still a church. Some Christians seem to feel a kind of glee over the fact that the church cannot meet together during this season of social distancing. “At last,” they seem to say, “the church can finally be the church.” I find this reasoning odd. The language that the Bible uses to speak of the church implies proximity. This aspect of the church’s nature is best expressed by the phrase Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 11:18, “when you come together as a church.” The fact that the church comes together is not a weakness. It is not an indulgence. The church is, by its nature, an assembly.

I find it ironic that while some Christians seem to be celebrating the fact that the church cannot meet, the rest of the world recognizes the need for a sense connection. Nearly every commercial I see on television that mentions the pandemic also says, “We are in this together.” They assure me that “We will get through this.” What surprises me the most is how moved I am by such assurances. Those who record their sermons while preaching to empty seats need to remind the congregation that the bond they share with one another in Jesus Christ has not been diminished by physical separation. They really are in this together. The church will survive, and one day we will come together again as a church. But even though we are now separated, we continue to be “members of one body” (Ephesians 4:25).

The scope of the COVID-19 pandemic may be unusual but the experiences of fear and uncertainty are not. If you doubt this, just take note of how many times God tells His people not to be afraid in the Scriptures. Those who preach often speak to people in crisis. While not as massive as a pandemic, each individual crisis a listener faces under ordinary circumstances can be just as shattering. Pastors and teachers were not an invention of the church. Ephesians 4:11–12 says that they are Christ’s gift to God’s people. The church needs its preachers. What is true during this singular time of crisis will still be true when things return to normal. How should you preach during this season of the coronavirus? You should preach like someone whose hope is cast upon the word of God. Speak the truth with priestly sensitivity. Point your listeners to Jesus Christ. Do the best you can. You can do no more.  

If you want to learn more about preaching, check out John’s books Folly, Grace, & Power: The Mysterious Act of Preaching and The Moody Handbook of Preaching. To see several short videos about preaching, click on the Tips for Preaching tab on John’s website.

Ill at Ease in Zion: Why You Don’t Fit in at Church

The first major challenge I faced after I became a serious follower of Jesus in the 1970s was that of telling my friends and family that I had “decided to become a Jesus freak.” The second was the decision to start attending church. I navigated the first fairly quickly because I knew that if I didn’t, I would never follow through on my commitment. With the sea at my back, I burned all the boats, along with a few relationships that I later came to regret. I was brash in my new found faith and a touch obnoxious. To be fair, the obnoxiousness was not a necessary component of my new Christian identity. It was a feature of my personality that was already there. I merely baptized it and put it to use for the sake fo the kingdom.

The decision to attend church took longer. My lifestyle was not especially conducive to the practice. I normally worked midnights and tended to stay up to the early hours of the morning on those days when I didn’t work. The thought of getting up early on Sunday morning to attend church seemed impossible. Besides, going to church had never been an especially important feature in my life. My family didn’t go to church when I was growing up. My neighborhood friends who did attend, forced to do so by their parents, did not seem to enjoy it. Besides, this was the anti-establishment era. Institutions, in general, were under fire and the church along with them. Jesus had bad things to say about “the traditions of men,” which seemed to me to be a pretty good description of church life. And hadn’t Jesus’ enemies mostly come from the religious establishment? I had the Bible. I was spending time with my new Christian friends. Why should I ruin it all by adding the church?

When I feel out of place in the church, I’ve noticed that it is usually the result of one of three factors: treatment, style, or identity.

Two things changed my mind. One was the patient and loving invitation of Mike, one of my new Christian friends. The other was a growing desire to preach. A preacher needs an audience, and the best place to find one was the church. Of course, I didn’t attend church one Sunday and then preach on the next. My first task was to try to fit in.

In a way, fitting in was easier than I might have expected. The people in that little church were glad that I came. They didn’t seem put off by my long hair or blue jeans. If anyone was stand-offish, it was me. I tried to fit in. I learned to say “Praise the Lord” and to call people “brother” or “sister.” But the music was strange, and at times the people seemed even stranger. I could tell that this was all familiar territory for them. They seemed comfortable. But it was an alien landscape to me. Even though I wanted to fit in, I often felt like I didn’t belong.

The Challenge of Fitting In

That was almost fifty years ago. major challenge I faced after I became a serious follower of Jesus in the 1970s was that of telling my friends and family that I had “decided to become a Jesus freak.” The second was the decision to start attending church. . I have learned the words to the songs, figured out the dress code, and discovered the secret handshake. I’ve also listened as the music styles have changed several times over, seen the dress code grow so casual that I’m wearing pretty much the same kind of clothes I was in 1972 (though with considerably less hair and no bell-bottoms), and learned the new secret handshake. I know that I belong. I am still going to church, but there are times when I am still ill at ease. I don’t always feel like I fit in. When I feel out of place in the church, I’ve noticed that it is usually the result of one of three factors: treatment, style, or identity.

Sometimes we feel like we don’t fit in because of the way others treat us. The church is not always good at making people feel welcome. During my years as a pastor, I served in a small farming community. There was a plaque in the town hall which celebrated the beauty of small-town life. High on the list was the way people cared about one another. But in our first week there, my wife Jane and I took a walk down the main street to get a feel for the place. A little girl who was playing in her front yard stared at us. As we drew near, she turned and ran to her mother. “Mommy, I don’t know them!” she said. When we walked into the local diner, we were greeted by the same kind of stares and sidelong glances.

Every church is a small town. A congregation is a cultural eco-systems as well as a spiritual institution. They have their own customs, lingo, and tribal structures. Sometimes we feel like outsiders in the church because culturally speaking, we are outsiders. It takes time before things feel familiar to us. We may need to figure out how things work. Who makes decisions, and how are they made? What is the path to involvement?

Cliques and Culture

People sometimes complain that the church is full of cliques. This isn’t a new problem. The first major conflict the New Testament church faced was the cultural clash between two sub-cultures (Acts 6:1). A clique is really just another word for a tightly knit but closed community system. Some churches are better at creating on-ramps for those who are new to the community, but every church has cliques. The same dynamics that make a church’s culture “sticky” for insiders will erect walls for those who come in from the outside. This is the catch-22 for any tightly knit church. The closer the church, the harder it is for newcomers to find their place within it.

Membership classes, Bible study groups, affinity groups can all help. But they probably won’t work without a Barnabas to help people make a personal connection.

Paul had trouble finding a place in the church at Jerusalem because of his personal history as a persecutor. Things changed after Barnabas took Paul under his wing as a kind of sponsor and introduced him to the community of believers (Acts 9:26-27). Most newcomers to a church need someone who is already established in the community to help them find a place. These community gatekeepers explain the culture, teach them the secret handshake, and help them make connections with other people with whom they can bond. Intentional structures are often needed to help outsiders become insiders. Membership classes, Bible study groups, affinity groups can all help. But they probably won’t work without a Barnabas to help people make a personal connection.

Tightly knit subgroups are not necessarily wrong. Indeed, they are the glue that is necessary for creating a cohesive church culture. But they can also be sinful. Sometimes the church is responsible for making people feel like they don’t really belong. James 2:2-4 warns of the danger of practicing discrimination by showing favoritism: “Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here’s a good seat for you,’ but say to the poor man, ‘You stand there’ or ‘Sit on the floor by my feet,’ have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” Class, race, gender, age are all areas where the church is vulnerable to this sin.

Is there anything we can do if we sense that the church’s culture has relegated us to outsider status? Acts 6 may provide us with a helpful model. First, talk to the church’s leaders about it. Many churches are not self-aware. They may think they are opening doors when in reality they are building walls. Second, take initiative to connect. This may mean trying to form your own affinity group within the church. Or it might mean making an effort to join those that already exist. Join a small group. Invite someone out to lunch. If the walls are impermeable and deliberate, you may find that you need to look for another church.

Differences in Style

Style is another reason that people sometimes feel out of place in the church. This is really a subset of culture. Churches do not all have the same style of worship. Some are expressive, while others are more reserved. Some use set forms and liturgies while others are informal or spontaneous. There are churches that prefer a classical style of worship, others like contemporary, and some try to blend the two. The same is true when it comes to preaching. Sermon styles differ as do the personalities of those who preach them.

Not every style resonates with everyone. What is more, our tastes and our needs often change. When I first started attending church, it was in a context where the worship style was casual and expressive. We clapped, lifted our hands, and shouted, “Amen!” Although it was meaningful to me at first, after a while, I began to feel like I was performing, not just for God but for the people around me. Eventually it no longer seemed genuine to me. I felt out of place.

The church member who struggles with the feeling that the church “just isn’t like it used to be,” has a decision to make. How much discomfort are they willing to tolerate?

It can be traumatic to church members when a church suddenly changes its style. Churches usually do this because they think it will attract newcomers. If it works, long-standing members often feel disenfranchised. All too often, church leaders respond to this understandable discomfort with impatience. The church member who struggles with the feeling that the church “just isn’t like it used to be,” has a decision to make. How much discomfort are they willing to tolerate? We may grow to like the new style with time. But in most cases, a decision to stay is also a commitment to endure. Such a commitment is easier to make if it is values-driven. We might stay for missional reasons because we hope the things we don’t like will help the church grow. Or we may decide that the friendships we already enjoy or the ministry we have in the church are more important than those aspects of style that we dislike.

Doctrine as Style

Doctrine is another element that can make us feel out of place in the church. When I include doctrine in the elements that make up a church’s style, I am thinking here of those secondary doctrines that shape a church’s theological identity. Some doctrinal differences are more important than others. Foundational doctrines are those non-negotiables that are essential to the faith. Doctrines like the deity of Christ and justification by grace through faith are so foundational that without them, you no longer have Christianity. But there are also doctrinal differences that aren’t as consequential. They are not exactly unimportant, but they are differences we are willing to agree to disagree about.

There are some doctrines that aren’t exactly fundaments but we deem them to be important enough to warrant differences in practice and sometimes even fellowship. We would still consider those who differ with us on these matters to be Christians but they are imporant enough to the church’s theological identity that we might make agreement about them a pre-condition for membership or ministry.

If a church champions a doctrine that does not agree with the theological views you hold, sooner or later you’re going feel like you don’t fit in. You might enjoy the worship and love the people. You may agree with 90% of what they teach, but if the difference is significant enough, sooner or later, it’s going to create a rift. The church is unlikely to change its views. If you try to make it your mission to change the church’s theological identity, you’re only going to create division. If it is that important to you, then you  probably need to find a new church.

Feelings of Inferiority

When I first started attending church, I had a lot of rough edges. I didn’t know it at the time. But I began to sense differences in values and behavior almost immediately. I felt a little intimidated by those who had attended the church their entire lives. They knew where to find the books of the Bible. They knew the songs. They seemed more comfortable with the whole experience. In Paul’s case, the church in Jerusalem felt nervous about his history as a persecutor. But it often works the other way around. We can be embarrassed by our moral past, or we may be frustrated with our status as a newbie in the faith. In such cases, it is not the church that makes us feel like second class citizens in the Kingdom of God. We do it to ourselves. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. Paul thought of himself as the worst of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). He readily admitted that he did not deserve to be called an apostle because of his past (1 Cor. 15:9).

How should we respond when we begin to feel like we don’t deserve to be numbered among the saints because of what we’ve done in the past? We can begin by admitting that this is indeed the case. It is true of everyone who is in the church no matter what their background is. Like all struggles that have to do with identity, we need to let the Bible shape the way we think about ourselves. Belonging in the body of Christ is not a function of feeling. It is a result of Christ’s work. By His death and resurrection, Jesus Christ has secured our place in the church. We may feel out of place, but that feeling cannot undo the work that Christ has done on our behalf.

What is more, 1 Corinthians 12:24-25 says that “. . . God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.” Belonging isn’t just for those who look good, feel good about themselves, and have all their rough edges smoothed out. It is as wrong for me to think that the church doesn’t need my presence as it is for others to make that judgment about me (1 Cor. 12:15 & 21).

The only way to deal with feelings of spiritual inferiority is to take God at His word.

The only way to deal with feelings of spiritual inferiority is to take God at His word. Not only do I belong, but I am necessary. The language Paul uses when dealing with this erroneous thinking is strong. He says that “those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable” (1 Cor. 12:22). The apostle’s example has to do with spiritual gifts but it applies equally to those who feel they don’t belong based on their moral past, spiritual background, or social class.

The discipline that has probably helped me the most in grasping this truth has been the regular observance of the Lord’s Supper. Every time we participate in the church’s meal, we not only remember the Lord as Jesus commands, but we are reminded of who we are. This is what Paul meant when he warned the Corinthians about the importance of “discerning the body of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:29). In the context, the sin of the Corinthian church as they observed the Supper, wasn’t the way they treated the elements but the way they treated one another (vv. 20-23).

We are not the best judges of the value we add to the church. Ultimately, it is our union with Christ that gives us the right to belong. When we trust in Christ, we are united with Him in His death and resurrection (Eph. 2:5-6). Union with Christ also joins us to every other member of the church. This is true whether we like them or not. It is just as true whether we like ourselves or not.

John’s latest book Practicing the Present: The Neglected Art of Living in the Now (Moody Publishers) is now available. Order your copy today.

Added Value

The leaders of a church I know were discussing the membership roll. It is the sort of thing that congregations have to do every once in a while. People move away or they decide to attend somewhere else. If the constitution calls for a certain number to be in attendance in order to hold a business meeting, a bloated and inaccurate roll makes it difficult to achieve a quorum. I get it. I really do. From time to time a church needs to purge its list of members.

But more than once during the meeting, as various candidates for removal were discussed, the same observation was made: “Well, they don’t contribute anything anyway.” The comment didn’t have anything to do with money. They weren’t even talking about attendance. Not really. They were talking about involvement.

I have found this to be a common way of thinking in churches these days. It is a perspective which believes that the value of those who claim to be a part of the church is shaped by what they produce for the church. It is not enough to simply show up on Sunday or even to worship. You must somehow add value to be of value. Serve coffee or sit in the nursery. Teach Sunday school or go on the church’s latest ministry trip. Serve on a church committee. Do whatever you like but don’t just sit there. I thought the same way when I was a pastor.

I was wrong. Our value is derived not produced. We are of value to the church simply because we belong to Christ. Even those members who seem to contribute nothing are essential. As 1 Corinthians 12:21 says, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’” “But that’s just the point!” some of us will want to reply. “Everybody knows that eyes and hands are important. They make a contribution to the overall well-being of the body. The problem with these deadbeat members is that they are atrophied limbs. They just sit there. They don’t do anything. They are just dead weight!” Yet Paul warns that we cannot even say this. Those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable. The parts that seem to be deserving of less honor are to be treated with “special honor” (1 Cor. 12:22).

We, of course, tend to do just the opposite. We value the strong and award special treatment to those that we think contribute the most. But God’s assessment is radically different. He has “…put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other” (1 Cor. 12:24). His standard of measure is not what people contribute but their need for someone to be concerned about them. We are not the best judges when it comes to determining whose presence adds the most value to the church, especially when we are in leadership. Our motives are too mixed. Our assessment is shaped too much by our own goals. Those who are worthy of the most attention are likely to be the ones we notice the least. Those who add the most value are liable to be those in whom we see little or no value at all.

The Last Whole Earth Catalog

Sometime in the early 1970’s, I stumbled across the Whole Earth Catalog. It was expensive. It cost five dollars, a lot of money for someone in my income bracket in those days. The edition I purchased said that it was the Last Whole Earth Catalog, which made me wonder what had happened to the others and why I had never seen it before. But I had to have it. It was the cover that first caught my eye, a huge color photograph of the earth as seen from space. I was even more captivated by the content that covered its pages. In a way, this giant volume functioned as a kind of Sears catalog for the counter-culture of the late 60’s and early 70’s. But it was really much more than that. The Whole Earth Catalog was a kind of manifesto. To someone like me, in my late-teens and creeping reluctantly toward adulthood, it seemed like a revelation. To use the vernacular of the day, it blew my mind.

I was intrigued by the design and the scope of the project, which somehow managed to seem both carefully crafted and haphazard at the same time. But it was the utopian ethos of the catalog that really gripped me. This was an Edenic vision of a future marked by community, sustainability, and peaceful coexistence. I read about Buckminster Fuller, the inventor of the geodesic dome and saw pictures of resources that were meant to enable people to live off the land. I lived in a working-class community in the heart of the rust belt. My father and most of my relatives worked for the automobile industry. I did not want to work in a factory. Indeed, I did not really want to work at all. I wanted to live on a commune, where we grew our own food and with people who spent their time having deep conversations. I did not know anybody who lived this way. It did not occur to me that living this way, if such a thing was even possible, would probably involve more work than any factory job I might get.

I also did not realize that I had come of age during the closing days of 60’s counterculture, which was starting to look more like a failed social experiment than a cultural revolution. I doubt that I could have articulated this at the time but I could sense it. From a distance, the freedom which the counter-culture reveled in was starting to look more like squalor. Love was hard to differentiate from debauchery. Too many of the kids who left their families looking for utopia found homelessness, addiction, and a lifestyle of grifting instead. By the time I was fantasizing about joining them, the smell of decay was already in the air.

Was it the protection of Providence or simply a lack of courage that kept me from following? Perhaps it was a little of both. I fantasized about moving to the West Coast but couldn’t bring myself to take the risk. Besides, by the mid-1970’s I had decided to become a Jesus freak. They seemed to possess a similar utopian vision, although it was one tinged with apocalyptic flames. There was no commune but there was a kind of community. They addressed each other as “brother” and “sister.” They talked about the peace of Christ. It all seemed so familiar. So much like the Whole Earth Catalog but without the Eastern mysticism, drugs, and sex. Maybe it felt safer to me.

I won’t say that this Christian vision of community was borrowed from the counter-culture of the 60’s and 70’s. But it certainly was influenced by it. It was no accident that many of the Jesus freaks I knew had initially been part of the counter-culture and had grown disillusioned with it. I met more than one who told me that their first encounter with Jesus had come during an acid trip. Also, like the utopian vision of ordinary freaks, the idealized community of the Jesus freaks never really realized its full potential. This was not because of drugs, debauchery, and grifting but as a result of something far more mundane. We got older. We got married and went to work. We had children. We ran for the school board. We left the coffee house and joined the church.

Looking at it from the distance of age, it seems to me that there was something infantile in the utopian vision that first attracted me to both these movements. Was I looking for some version of Neverland, a place where I would never have to grow up? Perhaps I was searching for an alternate family, one that felt less broken than my own. In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer warns that utopian idealism is the enemy of community. “Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream” he notes. “Only the fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy, and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it.”

I confess to feeling a certain nostalgia for the golden vision of those early days. But if the gates of Eden are closed to us this side of eternity, the reality of community is not. The Christian community is an earthly community in every sense of the word, one that is as earthy in its limitations and its failures as it is in its location. It falls short of the vision I had for it more often than it fulfills. There are times when I consider walking away from it. On those occasions I remind myself of Bonhoeffer’s warning: “A community which cannot bear and cannot survive such a crisis, which insists upon keeping its illusion when it should be shattered, permanently loses in that moment the promise of the Christian community.”

They lose it, not as a punishment, but as a natural consequence. What they call community cannot survive because it is a vision that is not grounded in reality. “Sooner or later it will collapse” Bonhoeffer warns. Either the vision will collapse under its own weight, as a result of the imperfections of those who espouse it, or it will dissolve into the mist like the mirage that it is. The church, however, will survive. When the old earth is remade the church will be remade with it. I realize that this is still a kind of utopian vision. What has changed is the point of origin. It is no longer a community that we create for ourselves but one that comes down from above. It is still earthy in terms of its location. But its foundations lie elsewhere. It is the city whose builder and maker is God.

Standing By Truth

I ate dinner in a church basement the other night with a group of friends and colleagues. When it was over our host dismissed us with a blessing and his assessment of our experience. It was, he assured us, the essence of Christian fellowship. This is the sort of thing one often hears at church.  At potlucks, missions conferences and the church’s services in general, we are told that we are enjoying a foretaste of heaven.

I hope not. Surely there is more to heaven than boiled beef and small conversation about last night’s game. The problem here is not really the menu or even the company-though both could stand improvement on occasion. The problem is the language we use to describe our experience. I am not condemning the art of small talk, which has a legitimate  place in the life of the church. I am criticizing the church’s slovenly approach to language and its penchant for meaningless hyperbole.

In an essay entitled “Standing by Words,” Wendell Berry speaks of the importance of fidelity to language. According to Berry “there is a necessary and indispensable connection between language and truth.” Berry states, “My impression is that we have seen, for perhaps a hundred and fifty years, a gradual increase in language that is either meaningless or destructive of meaning.” As a Church which is constituted by the Word and which worships and serves the one who is called the Word, we ought to be concerned about this decline. Language matters deeply to God. Instead, we ape the culture. We resort to cheap hyperbole to describe our Christian experience. We overstate, understate, and euphemize. We are civil tongued but inveterate liars.

The good news is that there is a remedy for this. According to Ephesians 4:15 we are to “speak the truth in love.” Unfortunately, most of us are proficient in only one of these languages. Either we speak the truth but without love. Or we speak out of love but cannot bring ourselves to tell the truth. We opt for the tired path of truism and cliché. But if  we are to speak as if language matters, such half-measures will never do.