The Problem with Church and People

In January,  I got together with some friends and worked through John Ortberg’s brilliant book “The Me I Want to Be.” One week, we explored the tension between Christianity making each of us more unique as individuals and at the same time calling us into community.

Oh, yes, there’s a tension.

Jesus, is in the business of this reclaiming us and restoring us into beautiful versions of ourselves. Ortberg uses the analogy of a mechanic restoring an old motorcycle, believing that the old rusted bike has its best years ahead of it.

We religious people, meanwhile, tend to handle each other like airport luggage handlers. This leads to the false belief that its better to lower our heads and fit in.

In spite of this, Jesus died for community. He died for many things, but good community was part of the package.

My group of friends looked at the passage in Hebrews that talked about “considering how to spur each other on to love and good works.” The author of Hebrews was concerned about Christ-followers being distracted by other things and blowing off times worship, communion, and fellowship together.

Even back then, before Cable TV and Hulu, people were still people and church was still church.

Church. Sometimes I fall into this romanticized vision of church. Flannelgraph people would hear the quitting time bell at the kosher deli and sprint to Brother Levi’s house for an evening of Bible study. Then I remember that time the Apostle Paul absolutely bored that teenager to death, so much so that the kid fell asleep, fell out of the window, and then fell to his death. If I recall, the adults did more than their share of bitching when they got together as well. The Book of Act is filled with stories of self-righteousness, racism, nationalism, legalism, and a few other -ism’s I’m not currently recalling. Maybe the audience of Hebrews heard the one about the Corinthian church where communion services had this way of turning into drunken frat parties and this one particular and mom and son earned a gold medal in taboo busting. It was enough to make televangelists blush.

As a result, enough people began to blow off church to the point where the author of Hebrews felt the need to encourage them back into the fold.

It’s hard to imagine, right?

Then there’s people. I’m not talking about “religious people” but plain just old people. You met them once or twice. People who get defensive and fight with their spouses five minutes before the first “Allelu” and choked back their hurt and anger just in time for the two-minutes of mandatory handshaking before the offering. People who want what they want. People who think that everyone has an agenda but themselves. Its seems to be that people, by definition,  are ambivalent about community. We want to be deeply known and to belong, but we aren’t comfortable with the price of admission.

A few years ago I wrote a book, Divine Intention: How God’s Work in the Early Church Empowers Us Today. In the chapter The Church Chaotic”, I took a hard look at the conflicts found in the book of Acts and opened the books on some of the church conflict I had weathered up to that point. I was trying to answer a personal question, “Is church worth it?”  Years and more conflicts later, my answer then is still holding up for me:

“So why is the church, with its history of distorted truth, worth it? What is it about its injured members; its division, staleness, anemia, and fracases: its legalism, rigidity, and traditionalism that attracts us so? The church is worth it because the Holy Spirit is constantly working to transform it, though we may not always see it.

“God’s desire is that we join together in community despite our own personal baggage, hurts, and neuroses. Just as he did at the beginning, anytime we come together to form a quivering glob of relational disorder, the Holy Spirit nestles in our chaos. He silently works his change, planting seeds of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control in each of us. The Holy Spirit gives us a diversity of spiritual gifts,  and the way he distributes those gifts forces us to be interdependent upon each other. We are slowly changed into a new community ordered around God’s kingdom.

“Christian community is worth participating in because it is a locus of the Holy Spirit’s creativity.”

p. 109