The most-read post I’ve ever written is When Church is a Lonely Place. It seems readers are after an answer for confusion, hurt or feeling left out when they enter the doors of our churches.
How could this possibly be?
While our God is the good forgiver, the kind redeemer, and the holy sustainer, the church is too often a terrible reflection of his nature. Churches can tend towards gossip, lust, money-hunger, bad communication and abusive care for the hurting and the poor. But we must not be surprised. After all, the church is made up of sinful humans: us! We must remember the only way to be a better church is by knowing our better Jesus.
If this is our church’s reality, what should Christians do?
We must be careful not to worship the church above Jesus.
Programs do not win souls. Only Jesus does (Jn 14:6). Churches cannot fix people. Only Jesus can (Ps 147:3). The church is made up of mutually broken, sinful human beings. When we have expectations for how it should care for us, when we put our confidence in its legacy, or when we talk as if the act of showing up is what saves us, our community gets muddled and our perspective veers off Jesus. Christians who make up the church are given commands to share the gospel, to love one another and to encourage one another towards Jesus by gathering together. But the church isn’t worshipped in scripture. Only Jesus is. If church attendees are not careful, the church can become a god that comes before the God (Ex 20:3).
We must be careful to love others more than we love ourselves.
The church is a diverse group of people supernaturally moving in the same direction: Christlikeness. This encompasses so much, but mainly it’s being devoted to Jesus and living out of that love. Inevitably, this is going to lead us to love one another more than we love ourselves. Not because we are a self-loathing people, but because it’s how Jesus served his brothers and sisters. If the church is seeking to be mutually submitted one to another, it will display radical care (Eph 5:21). This means there would be no church politics. It means that pastors would care for the least of these as much as the rich of these. It means that we wouldn’t worry about who is wearing what or who is friends with who. It means we would be characterized by a love so enriched by God’s truth and so confident in Christ that it would be the most loving place in the world.
We must be careful to meet our own expectations as the church.
As a church member, I want to be known and cared for. These are the expectations I have for a pastor whose responsibility it is to care for my soul (Heb 13:17). But let’s be clear, these are wants, not needs. I don’t truly need anyone but Jesus to understand me (Heb 4:15). Would it be helpful? Maybe. Absolutely necessary? No. The question I must ask is: Am I meeting these expectations myself? Being what the church ought to be is my responsibility just as much as it is anyone else’s, including the pastor. This means that if you want people to be friendlier, then you are friendlier. If you want to be invited to more things, then you invite others to more things. It means if you want people to reach out and pray for you, then you reach out and pray for others.
We must be careful not to think our local church is the best church.
I’ve long been impressed and respected older generations of people who have been dedicated to their particular local church. There is beauty in a Christian being devoted to one place for the long haul. But we must remember that time in one place does not make it the best place, the only place, the right place or the mandatory place. Make no mistake: we should love our local church homes, but not because it’s the best one in town—but because Jesus has commanded us to love each other even amidst our flaws. Broken people that God calls his own makes up the church (Rom 16:5). If Christians who attend other churches besides your own are treated as they know less than, then you’re worshipping something other than Jesus.
We must be careful not to think of our church home as the only church doing anything good.
Maybe your church has the most money. Maybe it has the most people. Maybe it has the best music. Maybe it has the best coffee. Maybe it has the most famous pastor, author or preacher. Quite frankly, who cares? Never in Scripture do we read about Jesus giving favor to one congregation over another because they had the hippest preacher or owned the most property. He doesn’t favor one local church over another because they follow certain traditions versus others. What we do see Jesus doing is spending time with harlots, healing the sick, and discipling his brothers and sisters.
And most importantly, we must be careful not to equate the church with Jesus.
Jesus defines the church (Eph 1:22-23), but the church does not define Jesus. And since we are messed-up, sinful people, we should expect failure. Jesus cannot, must not and will not be confined by how his church represents him. He is so much better. When we are hurt by the church, we must not be surprised. Instead, we should seek to repent ourselves (Matt 7:5; 1 Cor 10:12), to grow ourselves and to love Jesus more ourselves (Col 3:1-17). To make your home church more important than the person and work of Jesus is a scary place to be and it will always fail you.
Jesus is better.
Jesus is better than his church and he always will be. He is the head of the church, the lover of the church, and so we can trust him with it. We can trust that he knows the ins and the outs of his people. Because Jesus is faithful, the church can be faithful to know him better and therefore shout about him from the rooftops, not about each other. Jesus is better!