I’ve been a pastor of an amazing church for the past 19 years, but church has been a part of my life for much longer than that. I often joke that I’ve been in church for what ever my age is plus 9 months, cause my mom would have been there all throughout her pregnancy with me. I love church, and I think that connecting with a local church is one of the key ingredients in a growing spiritual life. But my relationship with church has not been without its challenges. At different periods along the way I have found myself disillusioned with the whole concept of church, frustrated with how slow things are to change, and often hurt by those who claim to love me. Despite all of this, I’m still here, and it’s not just because as the pastor I get paid to be here. (Although that does help.)
I’m sticking with church because it is what is. God chose to call this group of diverse and unique individuals and by His spirit and the death and resurrection of Jesus to make them into “one body”. It’s a crazy idea, and one that obviously has its challenges. But it was His idea, and He hasn’t pointed out a new way to do things, at least not yet. Despite this I see growing numbers of people who want to do faith apart from a church. They tell me that they have a relationship with Jesus and they don’t need the religious structures that far too often muddy the water. I can appreciate that, as a pastor I swim in those muddy waters everyday. But I want to share something that I’ve learned. There really are only 3 types of churches.
First, there is the church that we want. Everybody has one of these, even if we don’t realize or verbalize it. We want a place where we are impacted spiritually when we come together. We want music that touches us. We want relationships that encourage and challenge us to grow (preferably in that order). We want a place that is vibrant, one we can see making a difference in our lives, and one that won’t make us look like weirdos when we bring our friends with us. We want to come away from our gatherings with a clear sense of God and His will for us. This is the church we want.
Then there is the church we have. The contrast here is sometimes drastic. The church we have is full of people who seem so different from us. Either they never have a spiritual struggle (and we find that hard to believe) or they have so many struggles it seems like that is all they can talk about. Somedays the music is good, and some days not so good. The pastor is nice, but he or she seems to go on and on and it’s easier to tune out than to focus. And then there is that person, the one who hurt me so much by what they said that I can hardly stand to look at them. They make it hard for me to even come, especially when they stand there singing with their eyes closed and arms lifted high. They weren’t so spiritual when they ripped me apart with their condescending words. The truth is that often when I leave the church I have I wonder why it is I even come here. In fact, if the church that I have is all there is, then maybe no church is better than that.
Finally, there is the church that we are. This has more to do with who I am and who God is making me to be than the church I want or the church I have. This is where it all seems to come together. I have known about the first two churches my whole life. Every Sunday for as long as I can remember has involved living somewhere in the tension between the two. I knew what I wanted in a church, but I was disappointed time after time by what I was actually finding. Sure, I thought about giving up on church, who hasn’t? But somehow God kept telling me there was more there. It didn’t take me long as a pastor to realize that until you love the church you have you will never have the church you want. I’d love to stop there, to let that bold italicized phrase be your “nugget” from these paragraphs, but I am beginning to understand that this doesn’t quite go far enough.
The goal of the spiritual life is not to find or build the church you want. In fact, the church you want may hinder what you actually need. Jesus deals with us in regards to the church we are. He uses all those things in church, the good and the challenging, to shape us into a church that He would have. Is it wrong to desire all those things I listed above to describe the church I want? No, but they can easily become idols that I hold on to in order to block the work of the Spirit in the building of the church that I am. Do we just tolerate mediocrity or the constant failures of the church we have? No, but instead of ignoring them or running away from them we open our hearts to them, realizing that even the painful things (sometimes especially the painful things) help the Spirit to build the church we are.
I do not know your story, or which church you currently have or want. But if you think you just want to leave it all behind let me ask you to reconsider. You need church. We need you. Maybe as you ask God to let you love the church you have He will begin to make you the church you need to be. My theory is that in that process, the church you want will start to pale in comparison to what He is making us all to be.