My church felt way off track. In my head I pictured an industrious, shiny First Baptist Church that was in step with the design of its Engineer. Instead, everything was falling apart. If I could grip theological truth and see the practical application for it, why couldn’t anyone else? It seemed like the more I dove into the Word, the further away my church felt from where it needed to be. I remember thinking, exasperated, “Maybe I should just find another church.” That’s when I first read Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer at the suggestion of a mentor. After months of feeling like my role in our church was nothing more than drudgery, this little book destroyed what had been dragging me down: a wish-dream.
Bonhoeffer describes the effects of the wish dream: “He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.” I’d been had. I wasn’t being dishonest in my efforts. It wasn’t that I didn’t care. Instead, my twenty-first century idea of Christian community simply wasn’t practical. It was a good goal to shoot for, sure, but if you walked into its doors you couldn’t have found a single sinner. That isn’t the church my Savior died for.
This spotlessness is exactly what the Pharisees and Sadducees wanted. In Matthew 23, Jesus critiques the scribes:
“Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.’” (Matthew 23:1-4)
Here, Jesus distinguishes true spirituality from mere religion. He commands his followers to respect their religious authority but abstain from their practices. Calvin helps outline the boundaries Jesus put around the teaching of the scribes and the Pharisees: “Christ exhorts the people to obey the scribes, only so far as they adhere to the pure and simple exposition of the Law” (emphasis mine). In other words, there was considerably less wrong with what the Pharisees were saying in comparison to how they were acting.
They wanted to point fingers at others’ under-performance because nothing short of perfection would inherit the Kingdom of God. They wanted to form an ideal populous so that they could be seen before men. But this isn’t the goal of the Christian life. Jesus says, “For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger” (Matt. 23:3-4). Is this the kind of community you want to be part of? More importantly, is this the kind of member you want to be known as? One who isn’t willing to pull their own weight?
Here are a few reminders that helped me dissolve my wish-dream for the church:
Dying to self looks different for everybody.
I know it’s popular nowadays to gravitate towards antinomianism (which teaches that sanctification isn’t necessary in the life of a Christian). Unfortunately, it seems all but forgotten that we can teach sanctification while extending grace to others. For me, dying to self is listening to criticism and receiving it well, fighting cynicism, lust, and impatience—being reminded daily that I am a sinner who is incapable of doing anything worth its salt apart from Christ. For others, dying to self might mean stopping after a few drinks because they realize after their first that what they’re doing isn’t working towards the Kingdom even though they love the buzz. For some, dying to self might be waking up to go to church even though they know they could catch the sermon online after they slept in. Wherever mortifying sin falls for you, remember that you are incapable of it apart from the Spirit. Pride hates sanctification and leads it into legalism. Don’t think that just because you’re doing something “holier” than someone else that you’re fighting sin harder than they are.
Count others more significant than yourselves if you have any encouragement in Christ.
In Philippians, Paul exhorts Christians to humility. He writes, “So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Phil. 2:1-3). This isn’t negotiable. Paul makes it clear that this is a must, using words like, “any encouragement”, “any comfort”, “any participation”, and “any affection”. If we have any hope in Christ the Mediator, we have to love others. People are (normally) the medium God uses for His work on Earth. We must treat His subjects with the utmost respect and love.
An active, Spirit-dependent prayer life might be the greatest gift you can give your church.
I recently heard David Platt say that prayer is the hole in the canvas of the reformed resurgence. He’s right. We have reduced prayer to a science of wish-granting and time-filling. If we want something, we pray. If we need to waste ten minutes of our Sunday service, we pray. The church exists in a debilitated prayer culture. Reflecting on church history, times of major church growth are typically preceded by times of increased private devotion and prayer. This isn’t a spin off of the name-it-and-claim-it false gospel; this is evidence of God holding true to His promises. God doesn’t filter prayers, hearing the ones from the “good churches” and ignoring the ones from “bad churches.” We’re commanded to be faithful in prayer no matter the circumstances (1 Thes. 5:16-19). Rejoice, pray, and give thanks in all things. This is God’s will for you. If your prayer life is dead, you run the risk of quenching the Spirit.
I’m no expert. I haven’t been part of enough congregations to know what kind of techniques or programs will promote church growth, neither statistically nor spiritually. But I do know that the Word of God will not return void. For me, these three reminders have cultivated a deeper love for people, a higher doctrine of joy, and a Spirit-led desire to pray for my church body. All in all, the wish dream endangers the church. Try to engrain these ideas in your head as you gather on Sunday mornings, in your small groups, or for Bible studies. Remember that the bid to follow Jesus is a bid to love deeply those whom He loves deeply—His children.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, trans. John W. Doberstein (San Francisco: Harper, 1954), 27.