There are times when I long to go back to being a layperson. I sometimes wish I could un-know, un-see, and un-hear some of the things I have witnessed in the church over the years since I became a pastor. These past seven (almost) years have robbed me of my innocence and have revealed to me the existence of the Church’s dark underbelly. Manipulation. Selfishness. Greed. Short-sightedness. Close-mindedness. Bigotry. Hate. Intolerance. Exclusion. Self-righteousness. It is easy to understand how people, both inside and outside of the church, may become disenchanted with organized religion, abandoning it for the “spiritual, but not religious” stance that so many have adopted in recent years.
As messed up as the church can be and is, the church can also be a place of forgiveness and reconciliation, a place of welcome and inclusion. The church can be a place where people are able to work through their differences to learn from one another, and where they can put aside their own desires and dreams for the sake of those around them and for the sake of God’s mission in the world. The church can be a place where broken people band together, committed to living as though they are God’s precious, beloved, chosen, and holy people, not because they have declared it to be true themselves for their own edification, but because God has already promised it is true and demonstrates this truth through the forgiveness, grace, and mercy God shows to us through his Son, Jesus Christ. I wouldn’t give this up for anything!
The hard thing is that while I understand that the church exists simultaneously in bondage to sin, and freed from sin, I still don’t like the sin. As a mother who wants her children to grow up in the church, to be fed and nurtured by it and the God it proclaims, I want to protect them from the ugliness. I don’t ever want them to see the darkness of the church for fear that it would sour them not only to participation in the life of the church, but that it might also harm their relationship with God, lest they should decide that since God is in the church, and the church is a hurting, hurtful place, that God is also hurting and hurtful.
Sometimes I wonder if my husband and I were both laypeople it would be easier to shield our children from the things we don’t want them to see or know of the church. Perhaps it would be. But in order to protect them, we would have to keep them away from the Church and not participate in it ourselves. And what would that accomplish? It would teach them that the best way to navigate rough waters is to run away or hide from them. I don’t want my children to fear the church or be resentful of it. I don’t want them to learn that it’s okay to hide or run away from our problems because then they will never be resolved.
Instead, I choose for my children to be active participants in the life of the church no matter how ugly it may be at times, because as much as the church has to teach about sin, disagreement, pettiness, and the like, it has more to teach about forgiveness, grace, mercy, and love. My children can learn from church how to welcome strangers, how to seek and offer forgiveness, and how to be generous with their time, possessions, and talents. My children can learn the challenging lessons of diversity within a community: how to disagree without judgment, how to be flexible when others want different things than they, how to embrace new experiences as opportunities to grow and learn, and how faith is lived and expressed through the lives of the people with whom we learn, worship, and fellowship in the church.
The existence of sin, brokenness, disappointment, and disagreement in the church shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, though. The church is not a meeting place, the church is the people, and people are as broken inside of the church as they are outside of it. As Christians, we are all hypocrites: people who profess an ideal of living in Christ that is peaceful, loving, forgiving, and merciful, but who fight, hate, judge, and condemn. We live broken lives, are in bondage to sin, and despite our best intentions, are not always successful in dwelling together in community. Such is life. Inside the church, and out.
We are the church together, better in community with other broken people than we could ever be alone, and better in community with God than we ever could be in community without God. The church isn’t perfect. But the search for a perfect Church isn’t what inspires us to remain active in congregational life; the calling of our perfect God is. For me and my house, that’s as good as it gets.