Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all churches were healthy, full of whole and perfectly-loving people? If the church could be an oasis from the rest of the world, a true sanctuary where God’s love reigned all the time… well, we can dream, right?
Today I did a Google search for: “Why is the church so,” and the automatic searches that popped up included, “Why is the church so… important, weak, messed up, divided, judgmental.” It’s not exactly a list I would use, but it is what people are saying.
I’ll never forget how I felt going off to seminary (it was much how I felt moving across the country to my first call as an ordained pastor): A beautiful mix of excitement and fear. With a lot of questions and fears of inadequacy, I was thrilled to get to live in a community of future pastors, take classes with people who liked talking about theology and the church as much as I did. For the first time in my life, I thought, I’m going to “live and breathe church” every day. Like being at youth group or at church camp all the time. YAY!
Okay, so I did know that it would be challenging. I knew that the classes and assignments would stretch me and test me. But I remember the day I discovered again that even future pastors are broken and sinful. Of course I knew this all along, as I am also broken and sinful. But I wanted to believe that future pastors, really incredible and intentional Christ-followers, could not be mean and hurtful. I wanted to believe that these people weren’t weak, messed up, and judgmental.
I’ve talked to several people lately, across generations, who have been surprised by the sin and brokenness of people in the church. All of us yearn for the church to be the one place where God’s love reigns, where inclusivity, peace, understanding, and compassion are absolutes. We have very high expectations of people in the church, especially pastors and church leaders.
Your pastor (or someone at the church) might say something that stings or hurts your feelings. Your pastor might forget to take care of something. The governing body might argue over how to spend money. Another church member might exclude you from a conversation or decision. A church member might talk about you behind your back. (You could probably re-read this paragraph and replace each “might” with “will.”)
The truth is: We are all broken and sinful. I don’t mean this in a “We’re all going to hell” kind of way. I don’t mean this in an “All pastors and churches do evil things” kind of way. (Note: I am aware that some pastors and churches have done really awful and evil things. I am not addressing most of those today: sexual misconduct, forced exclusion, public or private humiliation, etc.)
I do mean that churches are full of people. And people, pastors included, are broken and sinful. We don’t always say and do the “right thing.” We fall short of acting out of love for God, others, and ourselves. The fruits of the Spirit are not always thriving in our lives. We need healing, grace, love, mercy, forgiveness.
We are called to self-examination and confession. As broken and sinful people, we need to rest in the grace and forgiveness offered to us by God in Jesus Christ. And from that place of grace and mercy, we can open our real selves up to God with honesty and humility. We can surrender our weaknesses and our mistakes to God; we open ourselves up to be restored, renewed and changed.
And we will gather as church community, a church family, to do all of this together. We’ll remind each other how great and awesome God’s grace is. We’ll have opportunities to practice love and forgiveness with each other. We’ll work to create a safe space where all can be their real, true selves and know they are loved.
The kicker is: I don’t think a healthy church is full of whole and perfectly-loving people. That doesn’t exist in this world. A healthy church is full of real, authentic, honest, trying-their-best-to-love-and-serve-but-accepting-grace-when-they-mess-up people. These are also people who are able to offer grace to others.
And that question that keeps popping up around every corner: What do young adults want in a church? I think this is it: honesty, authenticity, room for growth and grace.
So friends, broken and sinful people—May we all trust and believe in the Good News of the gospel: In Jesus Christ, we are forgiven, healed, and made whole. Amen.