What do you reply when someone asks, “How is church?”.
I recently asked this of two persons from the same church. “It’s…okay..”, came the response. It isn’t an easy question to answer is it? We don’t want to sound cliché; and in truth, most of us have some concerns or issues with our local churches.
“No church is perfect” – we get it, sort of. But in truth, our hearts are not at peace about it.
Rightly, we don’t usually go around digging for dirt (although some seem to have been gifted for doing just so). It is more an unspoken understanding we have that our brothers and sisters have quirks and we learn to let live.
When elder Jim walks up to the stand and we all know we will be singing some of his favourite Hillsong-chart choruses; we clap along and belt it out. We get used to someone’s sense of humour, ministry zeal and even pet theology.
But sometimes these imperfections become more serious. Somewhere along the line, a difference of opinion, work-style, personality and even theological emphasis can become a serious fault line; and people make the difficult, often heart-aching decision to depart from the community.
Pastors may be asked to leave – at which point, the church that was family can feel like an employer who wants a better candidate. (The specific pains of pastors in another article).
I have seen enough of it:
The couple who leaves because those around them suggest that they may not be compatible.
The once zealous lay leader who suddenly quits his role and packs his family off.
The local church hauled to state courts by members or the state.
The departure of senior leaders, a change of Board and elders seemingly overnight.
The thing is – these are eruptions. The magma is already burning under the surface.
And it is hard, when these eruptions occur – for people get hurt and friendships get tested and sometimes even severed. Great teams can become broken, working systems screech to a halt, roles are replaced, discontinued or juggled among those who remain. There is pain, frustration, disappointment and a sense of lostness. It feels like a train that was chugging along merrily had suddenly hit a split track it did not see coming.
The big question we want to know is: how can God be okay with all of these?
Twenty years ago while I was in theological college preparing to become a missionary, two things happened and this question hit me with a force. I had been raised on a somewhat simplistic notion that the Protestant reformation improved things and set the record straight regarding salvation through faith. (It’s always got to know one is on the right side of things); but studying Church History brought me face to face with the abject darkness, corruption and deception that lurked within the highest ranks of the church. I understood leaders can have lay feet; but to have the world plunged into darkness for hundreds of years seem unreasonable and felt horrible. A loving God? That same period, Schindler’s List the movie about this selfish man who transcended himself through saving hundreds of Jews during the evil madness of Hitler’s Third Reich hit the big screen.
For a whole week after that, I lost my appetite, and could not take my mind off the question: how can God be okay with all this? Why does He allow His church to sink so low? How can he let his people get so trampled upon? Where is truth, righteousness and justice?
I banged on the doors of heaven demanding an answer. “God, I am about to give my life to whatever it is You are all about; and this just doesn’t make sense. This scares me! Can I trust you?”
Other faiths answer this question:
it’s what they deserve [karma] It’s what is ordained [sovereignty]
But my God refuses to give me a straight forward answer.
And I am still finding out today that this is because what we see and experience is like refracted bits of a shattered mirror. The image is distorted, the light bounces off at strange angles and funny tangents emerge.
As I ask the question, I find myself journeying deeper into the events and — finding myself right there. I am that bishop who may sell the indulgence to help poor uneducated and desperate souls find the assurance of salvation. I am the warrior who may have left home and hearth to charge into battle to claim a land I believe belongs rightly to my God and my people. I am too that frightened Jewish girl who wonders why my world has suddenly lost all sunshine and everywhere I turn, there is nothing but terror; and my heart and body begins to lose the will to live. I am that soldier who numbly shoves a fellow human being with my rifle butt so that they fill out a gas chamber faster.
Underneath all of these specific behaviours is fear, pride, sin. And I am not above any of it.
I felt such a pang of conviction as the Cross of Christ shows me that it is precisely that the church is so imperfect that Grace is real, hope is powerful, and love is eternal.
I felt such a desperate need for God because I realised that without His salvation, the restraint of angels and the Holy Spirit, chaos will truly reign on earth.
I felt that God is far wider, deeper and more mysterious than ever before and I am hushed and wary of saying things that show nothing but my prideful presumption.
When things go awry in church, we want to jump quickly to a place of assurance. We may push ourselves harder, play a little blame game or two. We may turn to prophets and spiritual luminaries to ‘fix things’. All the while, in our hearts, we refuse to see everything for what it truly is: fallible beings making a mess.
We proclaim loudly that “God is in control”, keep our chins up and go on business as usual. We even try to justify it as inevitable: personality differences, stylistic differences, new seasons…
But the heart of any matter is always a matter of the heart.
What I have also seen is God’s patient Grace that lets his children mess up, skin their knees, hurt each other – and learn, forgive, reconcile.
In every imperfect situation, there is much to unlearn and learn.
Chances are, there is also much to repent of, because we hate to lose and lose out and are wont to resort to thoughts and deeds to defend and entrench our positions.
It is time to slow down, ask ourselves some hard questions, seek help. If we truly wait and are open to growth, God may show us new ways to pray, think, and so do things differently. Hopefully, it will be a maturing towards a form of godliness with power (2 Timothy 3v5).