We’ve all said it at some point, “That wasn’t what I was expecting.” It may have happened at the movies, at the end of a novel, in a restaurant, or after meeting someone new. Sometimes we weren’t even aware that we had expectations about a given situation until they go unmet. One of the key things I struggle with in my own particular “career path” is that people have a multitude of expectations (both positive and negative) in regards to church. People walk through the doors with a metaphorical backpack full of ideas of what they will (or think they should) find, and more often than not those expectations don’t become fully visible until they aren’t met.
Being the nice guy that I am, I have decided to change the world (somebody needs to do it) by developing the first formal list of “What you should expect from church.” My hope is that if we can get this information out there people will have a better sense of why church is important and they might even have a little patience when things go differently than they had planned. So, in no particular order, here is what you can expect if you connect to your average local church (or at least what you can expect if you walk through the doors of Grace Baptist Church in Hope, BC).
Expect imperfection. People are imperfect, so when they get together in a group for any purpose, that usually increases the odds of imperfection exponentially. The underlying assumption most people bring to church is that what they need is perfection. To the contrary, often what we actually need is to come face to face with the opportunity to interact, engage with, and even love others despite their imperfections. Surprisingly enough, they also need a chance to do the same to us, with all our imperfections.
Expect to be hurt. This flows naturally from #1, but it constantly amazes me how people are surprised that interacting with other imperfect people can cause them emotional pain. The whole point of church is to learn to walk through this pain in a way that is both forgiving and transformative; to learn to love others the way we have been loved by God. So yes, you will get your feelings hurt. At some point it is going to happen. What we need to understand is that this becomes an opportunity to pass on the grace you have received from God to others. Granted, as churches we don’t need to seek to hurt others, but making space for people to move from hurt to forgiveness is important. Learning how to do it is a skill in short supply in our world today. Henri Nouwen wrote, “There are two extremes to avoid: being completely absorbed in your pain and being distracted by so many things that you stay far away from the wound you want to heal.” (The Inner Voice of Love, p.3) Church as it should be helps us to walk that middle line.
Expect to be challenged in your thinking and to disagree. Think about this for a moment. If you think you have everything already figured out, and evaluate a church by it’s ability to agree with you on all points, then how will you ever learn anything you don’t already know or grow past where you currently are? Disagreement is what cultivates the spiritual soil of your mind. It forces you to think about things from different angles, and opens you up to what you may have been wrong about. Of course, if you are right about everything already, then church is pretty much irrelevant for you.
Expect your expectations to be exposed and challenged. Hence this list. You come to church with an agenda, most likely a hidden agenda. We all do. If you stick around long enough that agenda will bubble to the surface, usually indicated by anger or irritation at what is going on around you. This is the moment of reckoning. If you can get to this point, and then stick around long enough, you might be able to clarify what it is you really need, instead of just being frustrated by not getting what you think you need.
Expect the people teaching and leading to make mistakes. We really are all on a journey and while some may have been at it longer than others, we each progress at different speeds in different areas of our lives. If you are looking for an expert to fix you, head to your local mechanic shop. It’s better to seek people who have been on the journey to come alongside you as you seek to follow Jesus. He is the one we are all seeking to follow, so keep your eyes on Him and allow the leaders and teachers in the church to help you do that, despite their failures and mistakes (refer back to #1 if needed).
Expect the Bible to be a weird book. It’s not a “rule book” for life or an operations manual for success, at least not how we usually define success. It’s a written (inspired) collection of books written over hundreds of years to give insight into how people have experienced God. Its target audience is separated from us by both cultural and chronological distance (a lot of it), which means we have to seek to understand what it meant to them before we apply what it means to us. Don’t rush to make it fit all the categories that you want it to fit. God gave it to us the way He wanted us to have it, so let it be what it is. Despite all the unusual aspects, it has stood the test of time as a spiritual document that has repeatedly allowed people to encounter God and be transformed.
Expect moments of great joy. I know most of these have had a more “negative” spin, but the reality is that the greatest and most fulfilling joy that I and my family have experienced has come in the context of 20 years of living in relationships with a group of people whose only real commonality is Jesus. Living together through the challenging times (often challenging BECAUSE we are living through them together) makes the depth of joy so much deeper and profound than could be experienced any other way.
Expect God to impact you…and expect it to take some time. This is the big one. Spiritual growth starts by admitting that you don’t really know how to get to where you need to be. This is a challenging posture to adopt, because it requires humility and willingness to be wrong. Those aren’t high values in society today. We want clarity and confidence. Church asks you to walk into the fog and trust. But for centuries we have seen that church (and by the word church I mean the people there and the God who holds them together, not the building or the organizational structure) has been the instrument that God has used to impact people. But it doesn’t happen overnight. Often you think you are getting nowhere because learning and growing often starts with unlearning and dying. It’s a process, guided by One beyond you who uses methods that you may not understand. But hang in there. You didn’t get to where you are overnight. Don’t expect instant transformation.