New Year 2017 When Church Works...
I’m sure that you have had at least 1 experience where a church let you down in some way - may have been a church you belonged to as a child, or a church you were part of before coming to WP, or this church – these pastors and people - have disappointed you.
I’ve often thought that, if there was anything that would make me quit being a pastor, it would be watching people that I love and care about, want to see grow, change and develop in their faith, become disillusioned enough to leave the church.
Now, you may be thinking that this is an odd topic to be addressing as we come up on 2017. Don’t we want to be pumping everyone up with how great it is to be part of WPBC?
“You’re all excited about getting new people. But you don’t care about the ones you already have.”
That’s not true, but when a person is disappointed, those are the kinds of thoughts they have. Let’s look at some of - the realities of church life -
1. There is no such thing as a perfect church - never has been
I’m not a perfect pastor. We don’t have a perfect building, perfect programs or perfect members. In fact, every church I’ve been a part of has had something wrong with it that should be fixed.
“We just need to get back to the Bible, back to the way church was in the NT days.” Even a surface reading reveals that most of the NT was written to messed-up churches that needed to be fixed. Apostles give instruction to churches on how to deal with hypocritical members, bad theology, disorganization, loss of vision, lack of commitment, miscommunication, members not caring for one another, prejudice, legalism, holier-than-thou attitudes, poor attendance, too much emphasis on money, not enough emphasis on money, etc. When you look at the big picture, what you see of the church - wonderful institution of God … full of flaws.
2. It’s full of flaws because it’s full of less than perfect people
Acts 4: 32 - 37 - say, “Isn’t that nice how everyone was so loving and giving?” Next verse - Acts 5: 1 – 4. In the middle of this loving and giving community, there were people who were still struggling with the sins of selfishness and deceit. Even the most sincere Christians still sin and fall short of God’s intention for their lives. If you get involved in a church, some of this junk is going to spill over on you. In spite of this, the early church continued to grow quickly. The apostles spent a lot of time preaching and teaching and lots of people became Christians. “Wow, isn’t that great that these leaders were so effective?”
“But”…Acts 6: 1 - who do you think was responsible? The apostles - doing a good job of preaching and teaching but not doing a very good job of taking care of the people in need. v. 2 - Almost sounds as if they felt the need to justify how they spent their time - “we can’t do it all.” 3rd reality of church life –
3. The “caring capacity” of pastoral leaders is limited
The most visible people in a congregation are the pastoral leaders. If those pastors share their hearts - people in the congregation like them and form an emotional attachment to them. Not a bad thing unless those emotional attachments lead to expectations that the pastoral leaders become personally involved in everyone’s life and personally try to meet everyone’s physical, spiritual and emotional needs - sure recipe for disappointment because it’s just not possible. In fact, it’s not what pastors are supposed to do.
Ephesians 4: 11, 12 - What a pastor is supposed to do is to equip other people and turn them loose to do God’s work. Specifically, when it comes to the issue of providing care for people, what a pastor is supposed to do is to create space that allows for people to be cared for. That’s what the Apostles did in Acts 6 - solved the problem of poor pastoral care – v. 3 – 5a. The widows were cared for properly. The Apostles were able to focus on what they were good at - very few others had the time or gifts to do – v. 7.
I’m not saying that pastors don’t need to love their people - cannot be a pastor for any length of time unless you genuinely care about people. Pastors should love their people so much that they’ll devote some of their energy to working out ways to get all of them involved in caring for one another. The issue is not who does the caring. It’s that caring for the needs of people actually happens.
I’m thrilled to have the other pastors, elders, deacons and small group leaders as part of the solution in these things, but again, it won’t be perfect because there is no perfect church and church is made up of less than perfect people. That’s reality and if we can’t accept it, we won’t be able to handle the inevitable disappointments.
Let’s say you have a pretty good grip on those realities and you jump into this church thing with both feet. You’re still not out of the woods. There are many other –
personal issues that can serve to compound the imperfections of church - steal the joy of being part of it. I want to share 3 that are significant.
1. Unresolved interpersonal tensions
In a group of imperfect people - inevitable that folks are going to get sideways with one another. If you get involved in a church beyond just occupying a seat on Sunday morning – get in a small group, serve on a ministry team, people eventually are going to say things and do things they shouldn’t, or not say and do things they should - you’re going to be hurt. Most of us in those situations try to be nice - pretend it doesn’t really bother us. So, instead of saying “could you help me understand why you said that or why you didn’t do that for me” we put our antenna up and make a mental note to “watch out for that person.”
We begin to build a filter through which we process everything that person says or does. When things get caught in that filter, we pull them out and use them to build a case against that person … while smiling and pretending and being a “nice Christian person.” Then one day, the case gets so big that we explode. We try to get people around us to take our side and then there’s a big mess. People get hurt and disillusioned and they leave. Bible says much about conflict resolution.
Matthew 18: 16, Ephesians 4: 25 - 27.So much disappointment could be avoided if people would just deal with these kinds of things early, when it happens.
2. Unresolved “baggage” with God
We have talked about disappointment with God. God does not always do what we expect or desire Him to do - makes us angry. However, most of us are not very good at being mad at God because it’s a little too scary to shout against Heaven for very long about loved ones who died unjustly or unexpectedly, or children and relationships that didn’t turn out like we wanted. But that anger has to go somewhere and often gets aimed at the church or the pastors. I’m not saying that churches and pastors don’t give real reasons for people to be disappointed. Often our unhappiness with God translates into our church’s mission, leaders and people and makes the problems appear worse than they really are.
3. Unresolved priorities
Jesus observed - Luke 16: 13 - if you hang around church you’ll hear the invitation to go beyond Sunday morning and take some courses to help you grow, get involved in a small group and get connected. You’ll hear the need for people to serve or to give. You’ll hear the call to spend regular time alone with God. That’s the way it works and all of those things are necessary if we’re going to receive the maximum benefit of involvement. Some of us can’t get our priorities ordered so that we can do these things. We are too tied up with making money or getting ahead so that we can have the things of this world. You can’t serve God and money.
I’m not trying to excuse the imperfections of the church in all of this. I want to be a better pastor than I am today, and my goal is to lead anyone who is interested to make this church better than it is. We still have a long way to go. But it’s important to understand reality and some of the other issues that sometimes impact how we view things. How many people start out going to church with the thought, “you know, I really do hope that I wind up totally disillusioned here, I wonder how long it will take?”
No, we think “I really hope this is a good thing. I hope I get something out of this experience and I hope I can contribute in some way, too.” That’s the hope we have when we consider involvement in a church. I don’t want us to lose that hope, so let me ask a few questions –
1. “Am I expecting perfection?” Sometimes we need to take a deep breath and remember that we’re not in Heaven yet, nothing will be completely as it should be until then.
2. “Are there any issues I need to address?” Is there unresolved interpersonal tension with people in the church? Do I have unresolved baggage with God that’s colouring how I am seeing things? Is there an issue of unresolved priorities?
3. “Could struggling with these imperfections and issues actually be part of God’s plan for my growth?” Maybe God has you here so you can address these things. He sometimes does that. He likes to put us in places that test our character or expose our junk so that we can grow stronger. What better place for that to happen than the church?
You may begin to think “why bother? It sounds like you could avoid a lot of hassle by simply avoiding church altogether.” Short answer - in spite of all the imperfections and all the junk we bring to the table, there is nothing like the church when it does work. That’s why I love the church. That’s why I understand when the Bible speaks of the church as the body of Christ and calls it – us, you and me - his beloved bride.
“If people commit themselves to the church, they will undoubtedly suffer. The church will fail them and frustrate them, because it is a human institution. Yet it will also bless them, even as it fails. A living, breathing congregation is the only place to live in a healthy relationship to God. That is because it is the only place on earth where Jesus has chosen to dwell.”
As a church, that’s what we are. We are his body – the imperfect, wounded, healing, growing body where he dwells. I want to encourage everyone who is part of WPBC that it really is worth it to get involved in serving and inviting people.
We have looked at the honest-to-goodness truth that this church is far from perfect – beginning with the pastor. Sometimes people don’t get their needs met around here. Sometimes people get hurt. Sometimes our ministry falls short of expectations.
Sometimes, church just doesn’t work like it should. But sometimes … it does. Sometimes, God gives us a vision of what we should do and people rally around it and pray and serve and love and give … and good things happen. Sometimes … church works. I want to focus on the fact that this church works – sometimes - because there are many folks here who have heard the call to serve and have responded with, “Yes, Lord, whatever you say.” Because they work, church works. By the way, that’s exactly what the Bible says: “A spiritual gift is given to each of us as a means of helping the entire church.” 1 Corinthians 12:7 (NLT)
When we take the talents and abilities that God gives us - when we give ourselves to doing His work - then the church works.
Now, for a lot of people, the hardest part is taking that very first step of getting involved: getting “out of the pew” (so to speak) and taking the risk of serving. It doesn’t matter if it’s being a door steward, or working in the kitchen or being part of a ministry team or serving in Discipleland. It’s the first step that’s the hardest.
One day, Jesus gathered the future leaders of his church together to teach on a wide range of subjects. One of the first things he said to them: “You are the light of the world—like a city on a mountain, glowing in the night for all to see. Don't hide your light under a basket! Instead, put it on a stand and let it shine for all.” Matthew 5: 14, 15 (NLT)
Friends, the church is the light of the world! You and I - all of us together - have been called by God to be a light that shines in the darkness so that people who are far away from Him can see and be enlightened about who Jesus is, and maybe come to believe in Him as the Son of God, the Lord and Saviour of this world, the Lord and Saviour of their souls.
Obviously, that means that the stakes are pretty high in what we do. That’s why serving matters in the church, whatever it is. When we volunteer and serve, we make it possible to leave the light on. We make it possible for people who are seeking God to find Him.