Why the Church Will Always Fail You

“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.

Woven Together

This past weekend I had the opportunity to share a story with my church family on our annual retreat. I thought I’d share it here as well.

Our church has recently been emphasizing evangelism, specifically by individual church members in daily life as opposed to large church outreaches. At the forefront of this movement is the idea of “discovery groups,” organized by church members around a common activity or hobby to which they can invite non-church members. The main idea is to connect with the community in a non-threatening way. It gets non-Christians connected to Christians and gives Christians a chance to talk to them about Jesus while making friendships over, say, basketball or cooking or origami.

Great idea, right? But when I was handed a sheaf of paper full of details, logistics, and bullet points about this plan, I felt only resentment and frustration. For one, I was just sick and tired of how complicated and intimidating the church kept making these things. Can’t we talk about stuff in simple, straightforward ways that make sense to everybody? I mean, we don’t all have seminary degrees.

I also felt alienated by the nature of the plan in general. For a goal that the church was emphasizing as its primary vision for the future, it was very much geared toward extroverted people who were good at leadership and organization. Like people who were already pastors.

It made me angry. It was too complicated. It was too exclusive. Mostly, though, it hit me in a place that was already feeling sore about the church and my belonging in it.

Where was I supposed to fit? I’m an introverted bibliophile who chooses the paperwork jobs instead of the at-the-front-door-greeting-people roles. I sit in the back with my eyes closed instead of standing in the aisle with my hands raised. I pray for friends before bed or over coffee with them, not in the middle of a group of people at the altar after service.

It’s not that I’m ashamed of my faith. It’s the most important part of my life, my purpose, my joy and my hope. And I want everyone else to feel as loved by God as I do. I’m just not that person. I’m quiet. I’m shy. I’m in the background. I’m a perfect churchy version of a wallflower.

When it comes down to it, I just don’t really like people. I do fine at loving them in small numbers. But they’re scary, and sometimes hurtful, and always exhausting. I was just doing my best with the small group of close friends and acquaintances I could manage.

Was I doing something wrong? Did I need to change myself? Jesus talked about the left hand not knowing what the right is doing, and the blessings due to the meek. He often went off to pray by himself and tried to escape the crowds. He had only twelve close disciples and three trusted friends. Right?

I felt guilty. Just looking at the packet gave me an anxious stomachache.

I mean, I didn’t feel like I had anything to offer anyway. I didn’t have enough non-Christian friends to create a group. And nobody cared about my weird hobbies and interests. Everyone would just laugh and make fun of the girl who thought people would come to a social group all about the birth of the modern novel or the economic world of Charles Dickens.

So when I was urged to create a discovery group, my heart gave a resounding, injured no.

But my extroverted friends, Isabel and Heather, were super excited about the idea. They already had lists of people they knew they’d like to invite, tons of non-Christian friends who they couldn’t get to come to church but who would come to a discovery group. They just couldn’t come up with an idea for a group to invite them to.

Their devious solution: make me start a free crocheting class. They had the people. I had the skills.

I only agreed on the condition that this would not be a discovery group. It would just be me teaching crocheting to Isabel and Heather and their friends in a local coffee shop every other Saturday. Girls showed up, I taught them how to crochet, we talked about life and frustrations and relationships and religion.

Then I was asked by the pastors to talk about “my discovery group” as an example for the rest of the church at the annual retreat. And grudgingly, I finally had to admit that I had done exactly what that annoying, complicated guide was meant to encourage the congregation to do all along.

Yes, their method of communicating their goal might have been wrong. But I was wrong too for thinking that I had nothing to offer in forwarding that goal.

Yes, their wording excluded the introverted, the meek, the ones who aren’t good at networking. But it was selfish of me to think of my hobbies and activities as just mine, as something no one else might be interested in but me, as something God couldn’t use.

I realized I had matured enough to recognize that God made me the way I am, but not enough to realize that I could be used for evangelism as well as anyone else. Like Moses, I fell back on excuses provided by my weaknesses instead of asking God how He wanted to use those “weaknesses” He gave me.

I also made the mistake of thinking about evangelism as something I had to do on my own. I didn’t look around and see all the people who were good at what I wasn’t, the people who could fill in the gaps.

And the more I stepped back, the more I saw the metaphor right in my own hands. The church was a blanket.

In my crochet projects, it’s really boring to use only one color. But with a combination of contrasting colors, a project becomes uniquely beautiful and complex. It’s also a fact that each row is woven into those before it. If you try to rip out one color, the whole thing falls apart. Every row, every half inch, is created in inseparable connection to the last.

Progress is slow. The work tedious. Sometimes it feels like hours of work haven’t gotten you anywhere at all. But if you don’t give up, in the end you have a beautiful, useful final product.

I thought I had to be the only color, a boring, unlikeable tone. I didn’t see my place in the pattern. But working together, woven together, different colors made something beautiful. I didn’t have to be everything, just something. I didn’t have to knit everything together myself. Rather, I submitted myself to the Master Craftsman who made me just the way I am so I could represent a specific hue in the spectrum of his artistry.

We are each in fact what we’re meant to be, woven together to make something beautiful. So beautiful, in fact, that we can’t even imagine the end result. So don’t be afraid. Open your eyes to the work going on around you, and like me, you will find your place in the beauty He makes.