When we can get over the fact that the church isn’t Instagram-ready, something amazing happens. When we own up to our messiness, we actually open the door for real, undiluted, unadulterated grace. I mean, the mess is exactly what grace is for! You wouldn't need grace at an Instagrammable church.
But at the real church? The one with the snot-nosed kids and the cantankerous old folks and the arrogant hipsters and the out-of-touch Baby Boomers and the pastor with his short-sleeved button-up shirt tucked into his high-waisted Dockers and the overweight “praise team”? Well, that’s the kind of place where grace can really show off.
Grace is pronouncedly stronger in churches that are profoundly weak.
No, the actual church isn’t the church in the stock photos. (Not sure what those guys raising their hands out in the middle of wheat fields are doing but I’m fairly certain it does not resemble what takes place in your worship service.) The actual church is a motley crew of sinners who are more primed together to really experience grace than they would be if they were all apart.
And when grace takes over a church? When grace changes the conversation? When we stop sucking in our guts and stop with the religious preening and stop hanging around the margins, tapping our foot with our back to the wall? When we take a chance and get out and dance our dorky dance and risk looking stupid in front of each other in order to finally, at long last be ourselves?
Okay, sometimes you get laughed at. Sometimes it goes badly. I’m not going to lie to you. It doesn’t always go so well. If you’ve been a follower of Jesus for any significant length of time, you probably have some experience of finding your risk-taking for grace landing you right on your face.
When I was a very young man trying to figure out what it meant to pursue a call into vocational ministry, I found myself in a very painful church experience. I was desperate for a mentor, but the men in leadership around me seemed downright hostile. I could not figure out what I had done wrong, and I couldn’t get a meeting with any of them to ask how I’d offended them. Instead, I lived every ministry day in the middle of a bizarre kind of psychological warfare. It was about enough to make me give up the idea of ministry all together.
I was young, green, vulnerable. And I got chewed up and spit out. “If this is what church behind the public curtain of Sunday mornings is actually like,” I thought, “I don’t want to have anything to do with it.”
But it was church that rescued me from church. My wife and I eventually defected, as difficult as it was, and found ourselves on the team of a new church plant where we not only found ministry roles that helped us grow in our gifts, we found a community that helped us flourish in our faith. We had seen what judgment does to the honest and it was very, very bitter. Then we had tasted what grace does to the honest, and it was very, very sweet.
Grace does this to a church that is desperate for it. There is a sweetness, a palpable kindness, a gentleness that begins to override the previous pretense, the illusion of having it all together none of us can keep up for long in close relationships anyway. Paul in Romans 15:5 prays this beautiful prayer for the church: “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus . . .”
The church Paul is writing to is experiencing a unity of doctrine, sure. But it is also experiencing the harmony of what that doctrine produces. The doctrine of grace when administered with a spirit of grace gradually becomes a culture of grace.
A message of grace will attract people, but a culture of grace will keep them.
See, the gospel cannot make us into little judges of each other’s ministerial output. It cannot make us people who keep sizing each other up, measuring each other, rehearsing each other’s failings. It’s not tuned to the frequency of accusation. We instead become advocates for our brothers and sisters.
If anything, we should be astounded they let us into the community. Given what we know of ourselves, given that we are the worst sinners we know, it is a staggeringly arrogant thing to begrudge any other repentant follower of Jesus a place at the dance. If the bar was low enough to allow our entry, what advantage is there to raising it?
The gospel requires self-denial, applying the gospel to our community means bearing with the failings of the weak, not trying to please ourselves first, and pleasing our neighbors for their good, to build them up (Rom. 15:1-2).
The gospel cannot puff us up, it cannot make us prideful, it cannot make us selfish, it cannot make us arrogant, it cannot make us rude, it cannot make us gossipy, it cannot make us accusers. So the more we press into the gospel, the more the gospel takes over our hearts and the spaces we bring our hearts to, it stands to reason the less we would see those things.
You cannot grow in holiness and holier-than-thou-ness at the same time.
Now, this scares people who believe God has delegated his sovereignty to them. But it honors the gospel of Jesus, in whom there is no condemnation and through whom we are being built together—as we welcome each other—as a place of welcome for the Spirit of the living God. In the kingdom to which the church is meant to bear witness, people flourish and become at the same time more like their real selves and more like Jesus Christ.
So this means that, instead of coming to church with our preferences, we see first our real priorities. Instead of coming with a desire for our own fulfillment, we seek the flourishing of others.
We seek out the covenant of church membership, then, not simply for its privileges but for its responsibilities and obligations. We want not to join the club, in other words, but the mission.
And it means approaching the community of faith not as a consumer, but as a contributor. It means, if I can use this language, becoming a “low-maintenance” church member.
This is a slightly edited excerpt from my new book The Imperfect Disciple: Grace for People Who Can't Get Their Act Together, which releases tomorrow (May 2).