I think to really love the church in front of you, you have to die to the church of your dreams.
Stephen Stills’ advice that “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with” is perhaps dubious relationship advice but closer to the mark when it comes to church.
There are a variety of reasons you can’t be with the church you loved, or long for, or wish for, but you can be with the church you find yourself.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing from the past, seems to nail our church culture today: “He who loves his dream of community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.”
We don’t mean to do any harm, we’re only dreaming. But unintentionally we can wreck everything.
Regularly in the New Testament letters, the church is exhorted toward the “more excellent way” of love for one another (1 Cor 13). The church is exhorted to love even the differences and sharp edges of Christians living together as the church (1 Cor 12). The church is charged to see with wonder what God has done to bring these very different people together (Eph 2) and then seek to live in light of the unity God has brought about (Eph 4). The believers are exhorted to love their church well.
But doing this sometimes means killing a few of your dreams.
The Church of the Past
Over the years I’ve talked to several folks who were getting connected to our church with an unusual habit: they’d bring up their previous church, not just sometimes, but very often.
As we were all talking about a church activity they’d speak glowingly of how their church had done the same thing only better, had pursued community only better, had started a women’s ministry only better.
Now I love and thank God for their previous churches–in fact after hearing them described I wished sometimes I could be a member there too. But after a while, I started to wonder if they could ever be happy in the real flesh and blood church they were standing in.
The church I serve in now has roots that go back to the 70s and was founded in the early 80s. That’s a lot of history in the books before I became a pastor around 2010. One of the hardest things to move beyond was actually one of the best things about our church: our history.
It was easy to compare everything we did to the high-water marks of the past. Even if we had some new visitors, we still weren’t what we used to be. If the Spirit seemed to move in a powerful way, it wasn’t as powerful as in the 80s. When a church gets stuck there, it’s often caught in a spiral down, unable to lift its head to look to the present or the future.
What God did in the past should be remembered and loved, but not at the expense of remembering and loving what God is doing right here and now.
The Church of the Future
I live in the future. When I became a pastor at my church I spent a lot of time dreaming and longing for what the church could be in 5 years. I thought I saw where we needed to go and I wanted to help get us there.
But there was a problem: I was constantly frustrated with the bumps in the road to get there. If someone objected to a plan I felt defensive. If a pastoral care need came up in the midst of trying to launch a new initiative I felt frustrated.
Then one day in my devotional time I was praying for God to help me be patient as a pastor when God helped show me the source of my impatience: I didn’t love my church, I just loved the church I hoped it would become. I didn’t love our Sunday morning service, I loved the dream of what it would look like one day. I had to repent.
I’m not saying to die forever to your dreams and hopes for the church (I didn’t). I’m simply saying that when your dreams and hopes are more loved that the people in front of you then there’s a problem.
No one has a bigger vision for your church than Jesus (see Revelation) but to love the church means submitting to the way Jesus is choosing to work this plan.
The Church of Your Favorites
I’ve encountered this from people immersed in Reformed theology who wish everyone in our church was reading and celebrating the Puritans. I’ve encountered this from people wishing we could stop recommending books and instead just focus on the Bible like so-and-so always does. I’ve encountered this from folks constantly referencing their favorite preachers.
Is it good to read the Puritans or to focus on the Bible and to glean wisdom from other preachers outside your church? In many ways, yes. But when our favorite people or practices or ministry styles become more important than the biblical essentials and the people in front of us we’ve got a problem.
This is where the American culture around us so easily infects our thinking. We can eat nearly any kind of food imaginable, order any product, watch any movie instantly.
“Of course church is different,” we say, but then we long for our worship team to sound a little more like Hillsong or 1990s Hosanna praise our pastor to sound a little more like Matt Chandler or Billy Graham or Charles Spurgeon.
Here’s the truth: God has given good gifts to the church across history and across the church today and the same God giving those good gifts is giving you different gifts in the form of your church. They’re from the same Giver. I bet, if you look, you’ll learn to see the goodness in them too.
The Church in Front of You
Christian, love the church in front of you.
Why? Because Jesus does.
If your church confesses and proclaims the gospel of Jesus remember this:
- As Jesus has served us we are to serve one another, and as Jesus has loved us (to the point of death!) we are to love one another (John 13)
- Jesus shed his blood for that church and for those believers (Acts 20:28)
- God’s grace is at work in that church and we can see it and celebrate it, even in weakness (1 Cor 1:4-5)
- God is at work in that church, building it together for this glorious purpose (1 Peter 2:4-9)
- Jesus calls the church his body such that to harm it is to harm him (Acts 9:5)
- Jesus is at work when Scripture is read there, washing the church more and more to be spotless (Ephesians 5)
It is is not perfect. It may not be your dream. But Jesus calls you to love it. And loving it may mean letting go of what you wish it was.
If you cannot in good conscience continue to attend your church because of a serious doctrinal issue, or there is a major concern with church leadership or structure, or something similar, then you may need to leave in the end. But even until you do, you’re called to love the church in front of you.
As you do this, you may find that something strange happens. You may be surprised that more and more the church in front of you begins to strengthen and grow in surprising ways. You may find that some of the things you long for begin to be more evident–stronger preaching, more love for the word, more prayer, stronger fellowship. Or you may find that God changes your heart to appreciate what’s already there.
So love the church you’re with.