In my first year of formal theological education I stopped going to church.
No, my faith was not ruined by academics. Instead, I was learning the Scriptures and beginning to understand what the church was supposed to be. Studying through the book of Acts I was quickly convinced that the churches I had attended were substantially lacking. They smacked of triviality. The people didn’t really know or care about one another. They just gathered to sing and listen to a talking head for about an hour on Sunday. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to go to church; I just wanted to go to a “good church.” I wanted to participate in a church like the ones the Apostle Paul was starting. Eventually, slowly, feet-draggingly, I made my way back to a regular old congregation, but it was more out of necessity than choice.
Now that I’ve been working in churches for several years I’ve learned that they are far more dysfunctional than I ever imagined. Not only are congregations often misguided, worldly, shallow and lackluster, they are also led by broken, sinful people. Growing churches get duped into believing they are “successful.” Stagnant churches justify their lack of mission with excuses. Pastors have affairs. Elders care more about personal preferences or popularity than faithfulness. Volunteers quit because they are too busy with their kids sports to serve. Husbands and wives cheat. Factions start over the pettiest issues. The body of Christ is a great idea, but in reality it’s usually just church.
Lately, I’ve been reading 1 Corinthians and been startled by how dysfunctional Paul’s churches were. Christians were dividing over who they considered the most eloquent speakers (1 Cor 1.17; 3.1-4). There was a guy sleeping with his step-mom and then bragging about it (1 Cor 5.1-13). Prominent church members were suing one another (1 Cor 6.1-8). Rich Christians were stuffing their faces and getting drunk at the Lord’s Supper, all the while poor believers went hungry (1 Cor 11:17-22). It was a dysfunctional church, but listen to Paul’s opening prayer:
“I always thank my God for you on account of the grace of God given to you in Christ Jesus. You were enriched by him in every way, in all speech and in all knowledge. As the witness of Christ was confirmed among you, so that you might not lack any gift while awaiting the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will also confirm you blameless until the end – the day of our Lord Jesus. God is faithful, it was through him that you were called into fellowship with his son Jesus Christ our Lord.” (1 Cor 1.4-9)Paul firmly believed that the dysfunctional churches in Corinth were called into existence by God’s grace and so he thanked him daily for the church.
One of my favorite theologians put it this way:
“If we do not thank God daily for the Christian fellowship in which we have been placed, even where there is no great experience, no discoverable riches, but much weakness, small faith, and difficulty; if on the contrary, we only keep complaining to God that everything is so paltry and petty, so far from what we expected, then we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow according to the measure and riches which are there for us all in Jesus Christ. . . . Christian brotherhood is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, pgs 29-30).