“Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves.” –Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together
This Sunday, after sitting through yet another sermon that left me feeling guilty and inadequate and worn out rather than refreshed, loved, and encouraged, I just wept. Our church of four years preaches social justice while neglecting the gospel, leaving a hollow shell of a community, rife with burnout, bitterness, and false piety. I was angry, but more than that I was just sad. Sad to see yet another church community fail to embody the truth of the gospel, the love of God.
It wasn’t the first time. When you’ve been a Christian and a part of Christian communities for as long as you can remember, you begin to rack up a significant list of the times the church has failed you. Personal sleights, leadership failures, organizational crumbling, members giving themselves over to sin. My heart breaks when I say that I’ve seen it all.
And like every other time I’ve been disappointed by my church community, I feel terrible about feeling this way. I mean, who am I to tell a church that they’re doing things wrong, that they’re missing the mark? For a long time, despite my previous experiences, I’ve been unwilling to admit that my current church has its problems too. People smarter and more spiritual than me have to be in charge, and they know what they’re doing.
But yet again I have to acknowledge the disappointing truth: the church is imperfect.
And I have to ask myself: why haven’t I just left? Why haven’t I given up on this project altogether? I know plenty of people who have left, who have rejected God because of His people. And I’ve heard it over and over again from people who have heard my war stories: “I just don’t see myself staying in the church after something like that.”
So why have I stayed?
I can narrow it down to a few foundational truths.
1. God is not people, not even church people.
The goal of the church is to be a community that embodies and reflects the heart of God through love, worship, thanksgiving, and service. In an ideal world, in which we do not reside, the church would be a perfect and accurate representation of God’s character. However, in this world, full of sin, trying to see God in the church is like trying to see an image in a broken mirror. We do our best, but because we bring our sinfulness with us into the community of the church, this community of people will never be a perfect reflection of God’s character.
This is why I have difficulty with the idea that I should have left God because of the ways I’ve seen church people fail. I admit that I have felt the temptation in my pain and disappointment to equate God with those who have hurt me or the community. After all, people are right in front of us while God is invisible, and sometimes it’s just easier to believe that how people treat us reflects how God feels about us. But in these moments of despair, I have to come back to the truth of God’s Word: He loved us enough to die for us, and He had to die because humanity is enslaved to sin. God is perfect love, and we are broken. Was God the pastor who had the affair? No. Was God the person who said something about me behind my back? No. God is Himself, perfect and blameless and loving and forgiving. People may fail in their attempts to emulate God, but this does not change God’s character. Our failure to embody Him does not make Him any less of a perfect model. God is not people.
2. The church is a community of sinners.
Though this was already touched on in the first point, it’s worth its own mention because it’s a truth so often forgotten. We would all like to think that when we go to church we are somehow escaping the evils of the world, that we’ve found a safe haven where we never have to worry about conflict and temptation and difficulty ever again. We want to feel completely safe, isolated from the sin we know lurks around in the world outside. In principle, this isn’t a bad desire. We are longing for heaven, and in its attempt to bring heaven to earth the church should look brighter and more heavenly in comparison to the rest of the world. But the church is not heaven. Its members are not completely sanctified, washed clean from all sin, except in the sense that they have been forgiven of those sins through the blood of Christ.
We all bring our sinful selves with us to church. In fact, that seems to be the point. In seeking out a church community, we seek out brothers and sisters who can help us combat our sinful desires in order that we may live closer to the holiness God desires for us. An acknowledgement of our sinfulness, then, seems a necessary first step for a healthy church community; unless we recognize sin in the church, we can’t do much to work on it, much the same as how an individual must recognize their sinfulness before God before they can receive forgiveness and salvation.
Bonhoeffer discusses this “necessary disillusionment” at length in his book about church community, Life Together. He insists that “only that 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. The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community, the better for both.” In other words, Bonhoeffer argues, a church can only truly begin to understand God’s plan for community when it comes to terms with the reality of its own brokenness, when each individual member realizes that their church is not perfect, but rather a place where imperfect people have come together to strive toward holiness. To believe in the perfection of the church is to hinder its progress toward that holiness. “He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself,” Bonhoeffer insists, “becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.”
To avoid in the first place the illusion that the church is a perfect community, it helps to remind myself who I am. I am a member of the church, and I am not perfect. I am a sinner. Everyone else in this endeavor with me is a sinner. Therefore, why should I expect the church to be perfect?
So what do we do when the church disappoints us? Every time I’m disillusioned with the church yet again, I come back to this critical decision. It’s never an easy situation to face. But in addition to remembering the two most important points above, I try to determine the source of my disillusionment and my response to it by asking the following questions:
1. Is my disillusionment being caused by the church community as a whole or just one person?
Though it seems silly, this is an important question. I don’t know if this is true for everyone, but I know for me sometimes a person just ticks me off, and instead of dealing with my feelings towards this individual, I start lashing out against the community within which I am forced to interact with them. We might have been spurned or judged or rejected by one person, and yet we point to the music or the sermons or dissatisfaction with the children’s programming as our contentions. And we leave. As I’ve already beat to death, people are sinful. There will always be individuals or even groups of individuals who we don’t get along with at church, whether because of our sin or theirs or both. I have learned not to blame the church for the sins of individual members. Dealing with sinfulness is just a part of being in a community.
There are, however, also those times when we realize that our church is not theologically sound, and that is a more serious issue. Rather than our frustration being centered on the unavoidable sin of other church members, we realize that the church as an organization is not following the direction of God’s word. I won’t tell anyone what they should do in this situation. Certainly, discussions with pastors and elders about your concerns are a good, though difficult, first step. Sometimes, as hard as it is, this problem might even require leaving to find a different church community. But the first step is just determining whether this is actually the problem, or whether we are simply frustrated with the reality of the sinfulness of fellow members.
2. Is this a me and church problem or a me and God problem?
Sometimes church rubs us the wrong way because we just don’t want to hear what the community needs to say. For example, that annoying tithing sermon. Or that sermon that tells you that you shouldn’t be having sex outside of marriage, but you just really want to stay with that person you’re living with. Or when the pastor talks about the end times again. Some subjects of the Christian life just aren’t comfortable for us to hear. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t need to hear them. If I’m sitting in church and find myself getting angry at the pastor and/or the church I have to ask myself: Am I angry at the church because they’re making me feel guilty over something I should probably feel guilty over? The converse also needs to be asked. Am I angry because someone is making me feel guilty over something I don’t need to feel guilty about? This is an important question. In these situations, I take the time to search my heart and look to Scripture, godly advice, and what I know of God’s character. Sometimes we get angry at the church because we feel convicted, and that conviction is a good thing. But if a community is making us feel guilty in a way that doesn’t line up with God’s Word, we need to take a second look at what is being taught.
3. Is this something I can fix instead of just complain about?
This question always kicks me in the gut. It’s really easy to complain, but much harder to be a part of the solution. But the reality is that if no one in the church actively seeks to improve the community, then nothing will ever change or progress. If you see a visitor alone in a corner, don’t just get angry that your church doesn’t have a better greeting ministry. Instead, remind yourself that you are the church, walk over there, and say hello. Better yet, talk to your pastor about setting up a greeting ministry, so you can recruit more people to help you out in your goal. A handful of pastors and elders can’t be all things to a church. So if you see a place where your community is falling short, step in and fill up the gap.
These truths and questions can help us consider wisely our place within a Christian community and the reality of disillusionment due to sin. Just because we accept disillusionment as a part of the project of the church, however, does not mean that we should not also mourn whenever it occurs. When yet another sex scandal breaks on a church like a storm, we mourn. When someone we trusted as a fellow believer betrays that trust, we mourn. When we are unnecessarily hurtful or unkind toward one of our brothers or sisters, we mourn. But in our lament over our sinfulness, we should also look to God and His plan for the church in hope. No, this community is not perfect. But the fact that it exists, that God is moving it toward perfection, and that we have each other to lean on as we limp slowly toward that glory: this is a gift and a mercy on which we should never give up.