In my work as a transition pastor in various settings I have occasion to observe and think a lot about church. The experience is both exhilarating and soul-searching. On one hand I find myself deeply moved by the wonder and beauty of church life and ministry; on the other it’s often troubling to see how far short we fall of the ideal. The more I work with churches, no matter where they are, the more I see how much they have in common — both positively and negatively.
When I first get to meet a church I am always impressed with the beautiful personalities of so many people as well as their commitment to serving according to their gifts and callings. Over and over again I see people with amazing gifts who love the church a great deal and give themselves vigorously to seeing that it is all that it can be according to their best understanding. I am impressed by the many, many volunteer hours that are given to ministry in the church by board members, by worship service leaders and participants, by teachers of children and youth, and by those who work in care ministries (including kitchen and food services).
One of the outstanding features of a church is that it functions as a community — people sharing life together because of their common understanding and commitment. What makes the church unique is that it is not just a human community but a spiritual one. Those who share in the community of the church have a deep connection with one another based on their common faith in Jesus Christ and their actual spiritual union through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. And so they not only work together, but worship and pray together based on God’s revelation through the Bible, through spiritual leaders, and through their fellowship with one another. It is what sets the church apart from every other kind of human and religious community. People who are Christians, according to the Bible (i.e. 1 Corinthians 12:13), are actually connected through their common bond in Jesus Christ and by His Spirit.
But does this mean that there is some kind of experiential euphoria in that community that guarantees the absence of relational difficulty? No! In fact, every church with which I work, sooner or later demonstrates that its members are still very much influenced by earthly tendencies. It’s not long, after I am introduced to a church, that I discover there are relational tensions of one kind or another. For all of a church’s heavenly mindedness it isn’t long before human weaknesses are evident. People contend with what they see as the reality of various kinds of failures and inconsistencies among their fellow-members in the church. Some end up being hurt so deeply by their brothers and sisters that they quit the fellowship altogether. Sadly, there are many instances of Christian believers, in towns and cities all across this land, that are no longer regular participants in a church at all. What they believe usually hasn’t changed, but they have been disappointed in some way by the attitudes, actions, or words of their fellows.
One of the blessings of the Christian faith is the privilege of knowing and holding truth with a deep sense of conviction. But this blessing is also an occasion for a common hazard among Christian believers. They/we find it difficult to hold differences of deep conviction in positive tension. So often, it’s all or nothing. We don’t do well with compromise and are easily offended by those who don’t agree with us.
As I write this, we are still within the first week of a newly elected government in Canada. A long-standing conservative government has suddenly given way to a large liberal majority. As the election campaign began to unfold, I was surprised by how it appeared that Christians across the country were more politically divided than ever before (something quite remarkable in view of the fact that most Christians generally share similar views on various elements of social policy). But obviously among Christians there are those with deep spiritual conviction who might incline more toward a kind of liberalism or conservatism, depending on what they feel is really important.
No doubt this same tendency exists within any particular church. Some are inclined to more liberal applications of Scripture while others hold more conservative convictions on similar issues. These differences can easily become occasions for tension, for serious disagreement, and even offensive words. Added to this is the reality of difference in personality. Further still is the problem of carnality or spiritual immaturity which can easily affect any one of us.
Tomorrow, being another occasion for Christian worship, gives me opportunity to speak on the wonder and beauty of the church based on its initial expression as described in Acts 2:2-47. I think it’s possible to see the elements mentioned here beautifully evident in any particular instance of the church today. My main point will be that we need to come back to this first instance of the church again and again in order to consider how churches today might emulate these same characteristics. Surely, what we read here in its most organic expression is what God intended for His church in our time as well. The degree to which any church seeks God for a genuine experience of these elements, no doubt, is the degree to which it can overcome those forces of the Evil One who works tirelessly to keep the church from reflecting the glory of God.