Monday, February 19, 2024

Post Pastoral Thoughts Number 2: The Church and A Church

Not an Ideal but a Divine Reality (pp. 26-27, Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. But God's grace speedily shatters such dreams. Just as surely as God desires us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves. 

By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world. He does not abandon us to those rapturous experiences and lofty moods that come over us like a dream. God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth. Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God's sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it. The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community the better for both. A community which cannot bear and cannot survive such a crisis, which insists upon keeping its illusion when it should be shattered, permanently loses in that moment the promise of Christian community. Sooner or later it will collapse. Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to a genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of a 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. 

Without taking the time to double-check my history books, I believe that Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote this while in Germany, a Nazi Germany that had banned any "unofficial" church. Bonhoeffer and his Christian community, along with the seminary that he was a part of, were banned organizations that had moved "underground". As you can imagine, the selectivity of our modern church-hoppers would not have been a viable attitude for the individuals or the community that Bonhoeffer was a part of. 

I mention this quote for three reasons. First, because I just like it. Second, I think we may be facing a similar situation in the near future. I'm not trying to predict anything, and I could be wrong, but I genuinely believe we may be headed toward an "approved church" status in this nation, meaning the true church will, by necessity, go underground. Finally, this quote speaks to a very specific problem that has rooted itself in the minds of many American Christians: the idea that you can love the church without loving a church. This problem has revealed itself in our area through the church-attenders who make a priority of the programs a church offers, the church-hoppers who are always dissatisfied with how closely a church mirrors their own personalities, and the multitude of smaller churches who are attempting to model the big media-centric churches that they deem to be successful because they attracted the hoppers and attenders. 

My Church is My Family

This post was originally titled, My Church is My Family. I had it titled that way because the family aspect of A Church is at the heart of what I know and love about Edgewood. Having brothers and sisters in Christ is near and dear to what I have experientially learned and am learning, even in my post-pastoral existence.

In this post I will not attempt to write a full discourse on The Church. That would be ridiculous. I would need to write a book to even begin to scratch the surface on all that the Church is. I simply want to discuss what Edgewood has meant to me. The Church is much more than family. It is the body of Christ. It is the building, composed of people, comprising His Kingdom on earth. It is the bride of Christ in waiting, all of us longing for his return and for the wedding feast. But one of the things that the church truly is ... here ... is family. There is a reason why we are called brothers and sisters in Christ. There is also a reason why, when Jesus' earthly family tried to contact him, instead of dropping everything, he responded to the crowd, 

And he answered them, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:33–35 ESV)

He never diminished the importance of earthly, biological family, but he definitely elevated this spiritual, adopted family to something that exhibited a more real family than family. I would argue that our earthly families are just a model of the eternal family, similar to how marriage is a model for our eternal unification with Christ. The men and women of Edgewood Church are truly my brothers and sisters and that familial love for them is as strong as, if not stronger, than the love that I have for any other group of people in my life: whether that be blood relatives, coworkers, or any other circle of friends that I've ever had. 

I am bringing this up in this format, not only because it is something that I have learned during my time as a pastor, but it is also one of the key truths that I believe is of the utmost importance for our current cultural situation. I've been pondering how to say this for quite some time and I've settled on simply making a few suggestions for anyone who reads this regarding your relationship with Church.  I hope these suggestions will be especially helpful for anyone who (a) hasn't had or doesn't currently have a good relationship with a church, (b) attends a church and might have some good friends there, but doesn't feel or recognize that familial connection, or (c) is in a pastoral role at a church and, quite frankly, has entered into that role and continued that role as a career they are pursuing. 

Suggestion Number 1: Pick a Church.

Maybe it is the one you are currently attending or maybe it isn't, but pick one. It must be one that holds to a true confession of the faith. It must be one where their primary focus is the preaching of the word. (I would add that it should be one that primarily does this through expository preaching.)  Forget whether or not this church has any programs. Teen groups are a failed experiment. (Don't even get me started on that. Do the research yourself. Teen groups aren't producing young adults who are actually Christians!  If a teen group is even on your  list of priorities for your child, you need to get your head screwed on straight.) Children's programs have no relevancy apart from good parenting, so don't go looking for those either. Seriously, they don't. They are irrelevant to a good church.

Also, avoid churches that have different services for different groups: like traditional vs. contemporary or teen service apart from an adult service. In fact, you should add that on your list of important things to look for, does the oldest person in the church have weekly interactions with the youngest person in the church? 

Think it through. Pray about it. Look through a church's beliefs and standards. Visit a few that meet these basic requirements. If you need help with this, I would help you, seriously: call me, e-mail me, message me, whatever. I'm thinking I need to do a whole post on just this one point. 

If your current church doesn't meet these basic requirements... it might be time to leave it.  KEY: Might be... Read Suggestion 4 before you leave. We don't have time for popular, well-funded churches with big programs but no firm hold on the sound teaching we've received from the New Testament authors. We just don't. (Side note: I hope that you don't walk away from this post thinking that I recommend leaving a church too quickly or too flippantly. I'm hoping that as you finish listening, you won't think that.)

Work through all of this and then pick a Church. 

Suggestion Number 2: Go to a Church. 

Now that you've picked a Church, go to it. Attend. If they have a family night, go. If they have a Sunday School, go. If there is a special Christmas service, go. When they offer Bible studies, if you can, go. Don't leave right after the service, stay and get to know some people. Ask them questions. Go to lunch with them. Accept invitations to their houses and if you don't get any of those, invite people to your house. Make these church events more important than any other events involving any other circle of  friends.

If it is a Biblical church, and you've picked well, then that church will have a really good understanding of Biblical Church membership, so while you are going to this church that you've picked, ask about becoming a member. If the pastor of your church looks puzzled by this or acts like this isn't all that important, then you've picked poorly and you need to go back to suggestion 1. 

Suggestion Number 3: Serve in a Church.

Now that you are a member and you are attending and getting to know people, start serving. Move some chairs when they need moving. Set up tables when you see people setting up tables. If this church has one, offer to serve in the nursery. Ask your pastor how you can help, you'll make his day. 

Suggestion Number 4: Don't leave a Church. 

I should title this suggestion, Don't leave a church easily. This is really important and should partner well with suggestion number 1. If they are teaching or preaching heresy, whether that is verbally or in practice, you'll potentially need to leave... but that shouldn't be an easy process for you or for them. (Consider the life and legacy of J.I. Packer if you need clarification on this.)

If there is nothing blatantly heretical, then try to pick your own church and then stay there, don't leave. Maybe they aren't living up to the dream of what you think the church should be... good. Seriously, that is good. If you can't float in and out of your church on Sunday, then it is quite possible you've actually entered into a a true Christian Community. 

You see, what make a true Christian Community isn't that the people are all doing what they should ideally do, that Christian community is called Heaven. A true Christian Community on earth is a bunch of sinners saved by grace who are all growing together. (See Col. 2:19, Eph. 2:21, Eph. 4:15-16)  We haven't yet achieved, we are growing, and we ought to be growing together. And it is in the together that we will actually grow. 

This is where that distinction becomes apparent in people's lives. There are many I've known who would claim to love The Church, but they can't seem to get along with any particular church. They will operate like they have the insight on how it ought to be, but they fail to ever stick the landing. I think... I think that they've missed a key aspect of reading the New Testament. When Paul or Peter or any of those New Testament writers spoke about the actual daily aspects of the church, it was primarily about A Specific Church. You see, you can't love your brothers and sisters in Christ without loving actual brothers and sisters in Christ. When Jesus told his disciples that it was through their love for each other that the world would know that they were disciples of Jesus, he wasn't speaking about their love for the theoretical church, he was talking about whether or not Peter would be demonstrating love for Matthew. ... for examples sake. 

I'll just say it this way: You cannot love The Church without loving A Church. 

Suggestion Number 5: Center your life around a Church. 

I probably have these suggestions out of order. Maybe this one should have gone second, I'm not sure and it doesn't really matter. What is important is that you should, if at all possible, stay at a church for a lifetime. I understand that this isn't always possible, but it is more often possible than it is not. Your choice of church is more important than your choice for job or career or house. Seriously, if you are making life decisions and you aren't factoring your church into that decision, then you are missing it my friend. The only institution that is founded by the savior of our souls and has him as its head is the church. And this is played out in your life through a church. Don't miss that. 

If you stay for years and years. If you see generations come and go in your church, they you will begin to have a true understanding of a true Christian Community. And... by the way... you may find that the little old lady that has been at the same church for her entire life has a better understanding The Church than any podcast you've ever listened to. 

1 comment:

  1. After listening to this pod cast, I have a much better understanding of The Church and A Church. Thanks Pastor Matt


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