It seems like everyone in the evangelical world is talking about starting over. Everyone is talking about how corrupt the church has gotten. Many are urging us to return to the purity of the early church. Others are saying our theology has been co-opted by a Greek or Roman or Platonic philosophical system, and we need to free our minds from this system in order to tap into the “true version of the church.” Others, say that the right way to do church is emerging in this new generation that is radically contextualizing the Bible in new forms of Biblical justice and honest community.
I just want to say that while I believe these are all noble pursuits, ultimately they will be disappointing. Every church sucks. It’s just the way it is. This side of heaven, every church is full of people, and people are full of problems. There is no perfect model. There is no perfect community. And, there is no system under which our theology is oppressed and can be liberated into a pure and unadulterated form. Theological perfection is a pipe-dream. Theology is always done from within some system, church is always done in some culture, and community is always complicated. There is no easy, perfect, or un-messy way to do church.
When Jesus laid out for his disciples the essence of what it means to follow him in a bizarre chapter in John 6, he concluded by asking his disciples if they were going to abandon him too. He had just told them how hard it was going to be to follow him and now he wants to know if it’s too much for them. They respond by saying:
Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.””
(John 6:67–69 ESV)
It’s as if Peter is saying to Jesus, “Following you is really hard but everything else is worse. We know that in you are the words of truth even though it is so hard to follow you. We recognize the source of life and the truth about all things in the words you say and the way you live even though living the way you do is so difficult!”
I think that is why there is a constant temptation to malign the church and look for better ways of doing things. It’s easy to say the church has gotten it wrong for so long because being a part of the church is just flat out unpleasant at times. It’s not nearly as rewarding as we dreamt it would be. There is undeniable disappointment in the church. But at the same time there is remarkable success and joy in there too — In it are the “words of eternal life”. People’s lives are literally transformed in the context of Christian community. People are saved from sin, sickness, and death. The church is the place where people come in contact with Jesus. It’s where they learn about his teachings and experience his acts. The church is Jesus’ Body, his physical presence here on earth, and it’s in the church community that He resides regardless of what model the church follows. For those of us who make the commitment to stick it out in a church community we end up experiencing God at work and experiencing God’s salvation.
This happens in the church on the corner that’s 110 years old and isn’t following any of the “right” church growth models and it happens in the up-and-coming mega-church that’s bursting at the seams. God is in both, and neither should be scorned nor dismissed.