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Dear Really-Idyllic-Idea-I-Have-of-What-It-Means-to-Be-A-Church,
You don’t exist. You aren’t real.
I realize this sounds harsh, and it hurts my heart a little bit to write it out like this, but I have to say it because it is true.
This past week I stood in the rain next to someone who was talking to a group of people about Christian faith. The conversation meandered, as good conversations tend to do, and then he made a comment that has taken root in my heart. I can’t shake it off, even though sometimes I want to. I can’t forget it because it is true, as painful as it is to admit that.
Although his comment had nothing to do with church, it has come to be all about the church for me. He was going off on some diatribe about creation care, and about how he has worried about what the planet would be like for future generations if we don’t change the way we live. But then he said he had a realization that the earth was going to win. What he meant by that wasn’t that the earth was somehow eternal, or somehow stronger than humanity, or any of that. What he meant was that God has a plan for the world, and the world will keep on with God’s plan even if we try our hardest to work against it.
And though he was talking about the earth, all I could hear was someone telling me, “This is about the Church.”
Not church, but the Church.
You see, for a long time I believed that if I just preached the right sermons, prayed often enough, studied the Bible hard enough, and smiled enough that the lost would be found, the sick would be healed, destroyed relationships would be mended. And, I’ve seen some of those things. I’ve experienced God’s grace. I’ve seen God’s love. I’ve come to worship drained, and left overflowing.
But, here’s the thing, it’s not about me. It never was. It was never supposed to be about my ability to preach winsomely, my ability to baptize the masses, my ability to lead people single-handedly to faith in God.
When I preach a flop of a sermon, is it possible that God still uses my words and turns them into just what someone needed to hear? Is it possible that on a Sunday when the sanctuary is mostly empty that the Church is still the radiant bride of Christ? Is it possible that when – by all worldly measures – we are failing, that we are somehow still strong, still faithful, still living as Christ called us to live in this world?
I’ve stood in a sanctuary a world away from where I live and prayed and wept with Christians who were suffering. We could not speak the same language. There were a few of them, and a few of us, and yet, the Church was there.
Church has shown up in the living room with warm meals and clean clothes for someone who needed it.
Church has taken place in an alley with a small hamburger wrapped in paper as the communion someone desperately needed.
If the pews are empty or filled to overflowing…
If the sermon tanks, or it brings in the masses…
If all you can do is go through the motions that day because it’s too painful to feel what you’re going through…
When your marriage is failing and a friend comes by to offer hugs and conversation…
When you’ve had a new baby and the outpouring of love and support is overwhelming…
When you’ve faced loss that you knew you could never make it through alone, and friends and family showed up when you needed them…
In the kind word, the deed that went the extra mile, the cup of soup when you would have been hungry otherwise…
In imperfect people trying in their imperfect ways to worship a perfect God…
In rag-tag collections of people who gather for worship in traditional sanctuaries, in abandoned theaters, or in places of hiding…
The Church will win the day.
Not because it is strong, but precisely because it isn’t.
Not because I’m capable, but because God is more than capable.
Dear fantasy-idea-of-Church, it’s time for me to stop letting you blind me to what God is doing through God’s people.
I don’t have to build up the Church to make sure it will still be there. Be faithful, yes. But it’s not about me. It’s about what God is doing, and will continue to do.
I hope you understand,