I remember someone sharing the headline from a newspaper from a Midwestern town in the USA. It said TWISTER HITS CITY CENTRE: No Serious Damage. That headline was revealing because below it was the picture of a church building destroyed by the tornado. For the reporter who wrote that headline, the loss of a church seemed to be the loss of nothing of any real value to the town. Many people share his perspective, even people who claim to Christians.
Over the last few years, I have encountered an increasing number of people who have left the church because of disillusionment, disagreement, hurt or a combination of all three. They just don’t think being part of a church is worth the effort. In fact, they think they can grow spiritually and make a bigger impact for the Kingdom of God outside the church than inside it. Right at the moment there many churches facing an uncertain future which means many Christians are having to decide if they think the church, they belong to is worth the sacrifice and effort to save. We at Westlake are in that category. The bottom line is that Westlake will survive the current crisis if enough of us value it enough. As Christians we are going to have to decide if we value our church enough to work with the Lord to save it. So let’s think about whether the church is worth the effort.
Now when it comes to thinking about the church I must start by confessing that the biggest gap that exists for me between my head and heart, between theology and experience is around the Church. I was taken to church from when I was weeks old and apart from a couple of teenage years have attended all my life and attended lots of churches of “different flavours”, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Baptist and Wesleyan. I have served as a church leader for over 30 years. My experience of church has been pretty wide and deep. My academic work also means I have been read widely and thought deeply about the church. So, I have had to think about whether church is “worth the effort”. to put it in the starkest of terms.
What has been my personal conclusion? Well despite all my negative experiences and doubts I am more convinced now than ever of the importance of the church, of Christian community. Despite being attractive in many ways the rejection of involvement in Christian community, seeing church as an optional extra to discipleship, is an aberration. Privatized and individualized Christianity maybe easier but is in fact no authentic Christianity. Scripture is clear, God exists in community. The Trinity is a loving community and when God created humanity in his image, he created us for community. In Biblical terms, to be human, is to be connected to others in authentic loving community. The stories of Abraham, Moses, David and the others are not primarily stories about individual heroes of the faith but the story of God’s love, grace and power in creating a community to represent Him and partner with Him. A people through which he could restore his intention for creation. Jesus came not to save individuals souls but to create a new people, a Kingdom people. Christ died not so much for us as individuals but for us “all” as a people. Pentecost wasn’t about people having an individual spiritual experience; it was God keeping his promise to pour out his Spirit on all His people. It was a community that was baptised with the Spirit and it was a community that was commissioned and empowered as a result. We cannot experience what God wants us to do as humans or as Christians without the connection to others in community the Word of God calls Church.
So, despite negative experiences and frustrations with it. I personally can’t really do anything but believe in the importance of the church. From what I understand there can be no spiritual maturity outwith it or without it. The teaching of the NT is that the church is indispensable to every believer and every believer is indispensable to the church. So as an act of faith I believe that the church is a God created, God directed, and God empowered communal revolution of love before which the gates of Hell cannot stand. I choose to believe that the church, warts and all, has the power to change and transform us. I believe that individually I can grow to be more like Christ when we are collectively growing to be more like Christ. I believe that as we look at the problems of the world, violence, poverty, hunger, injustice and meaninglessness that the Church in the power of the Spirit is God’s antidote.
I believe all of that but to be honest I have a problem. My problem is that I so rarely experience it. My experience of church has all too often been one of pettiness and politics. I mean petty in the sense of making small issues hugely important and what should be big issues virtually unimportant. I have encountered people in church leadership with strong opinions about architecture, (don’t move the communion table etc) about singing from hymn books, about whether you wear a tie at worship about sitting in pews rather than seats. Yet the Bible is silent on all those matters. Broadly speaking the same people were not involved in any sort of authentic fellowship, ministry or mission and were rarely if ever seen praying, all things which seem fairly important to God. In churches like these changing the colour of the carpet in the ladies’ toilet is likely to stir up more passion than God’s call for the church to change the world. I hate the pettiness of the church, why can’t we make what is important to God important to the Church?
And as I am being honest, I need to acknowledge the politics, the power plays and even the bullying. I know personally of a church where a woman with dementia was brought to the annual general meeting to make sure that she could cast her vote to ensure the family’s seat on the church board remained in their hands. I have been in church business meetings where more attention has been paid to Roberts Rules of Order than the teaching of the Word of God or the leading of the Spirit of God.
So, I really understand why people leave the church but still believe in Jesus. I understand why some people think church is not worth the sacrifice and effort. I have experienced and do on occasions experience the same emotions. Yet I have always resisted the temptation to abandon the church as a hopeless cause for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, I know that Scripture says that Jesus loved the church and gave himself for her. If Jesus can embrace the pain of the cross because of his love for the church, I think I can work on liking it a bit more and enduring the times of frustration.
Secondly, I also have read enough of the New Testament and Church history to know that there was no real golden era when the church was consistently all it should be and could be. The Corinthians were immoral and cliquish. The Galatians were legalistic. The Ephesians according to Jesus were devoid of passion for him. The Laodicean Church was so spiritually apathetic and ineffectual it literally made Jesus feel sick. Augustine’s church had other believers persecuted, the Catholics thought up the Spanish Inquisition, Luther encouraged anti-antisemitism in his part of the church. Calvin far from loving his enemies had one burnt alive for disagreeing with him theologically. I could go on and on. Scottish church history at some points is a history of intolerance and violence and precious little love. I can see the church today is worse than some eras in church history and not as bad as others. I’ve been challenged by Dietrich Bonhoeffer who said that we shouldn’t allow our idealistic dreams for the church to prevent us from experiencing the church as it really is. My position is that if believers in those eras could stick with the church despite its “warts,” then so can I.
I also stay with the church because I have had what I can only call” glimpses.” Glimpses of what the church can be. Glimpses of what God intends it to be. I have seen glimpses in church history, as the early church spread round the Roman Empire by the power of love. I have seen glimpses in the early Methodists as they transformed a nation on the brink of violent revolution. I have seen glimpses in Anglicans who fought the vested interests of the rich and powerful and so killed Atlantic slavery. I have seen glimpses in the German confessing church that refused to bow to Hitler when everyone else did even when it cost them everything. I have seen glimpses in contemporary churches in my country and round the world which are being transformed by the love of God and helping bring the Kingdom of God in here and now. And yes, I have seen glimpses in Westlake. I can’t give up on the church because I have had glimpses and I long to see more and for those glimpses to be longer and clearer.
Lastly, I can’t give up on the church because I looked in the mirror this morning and saw that I am not perfect either. Yet despite all my imperfections (of which there are many) throughout my life , my parents, wife, children, friends and my church didn’t give up on me. If people don’t give up on me despite my imperfections, I don’t feel I have any right to give up on Church because of her imperfections. I recognize that when I talk about the church “warts and all” there have been times when I have been a wart.
Above everything else I love and value the church because that is what the cross tells me Jesus’ attitude to the church is. I love and value Westlake, and not just because it was the church that took the risk of inviting me to be their pastor. I love and value it enough to do everything I can to make sure we survive the crisis we face. I am sure that God wants to give us and those around us more glimpses and tastes of His Kingdom through Westlake. Now what about you?