I’ve been thinking a lot about Rachel’s questions to non-church-goers. I want to express solidarity with them, to acknowledge in many ways that the church does suck. I want to say that even though I’m a pastor, I believe that we’ve become something horribly different from what God intended. I agree with this, but yet I still find myself believing in the church. Here’s why. I believe the church has always sucked. Well, not always – it’s sometimes stumbled into doing and being the right thing. The most incompetent person gets it right sometimes. But if you go back even to the very start, you find a ragtag group of people who can’t get it together. They’re supposed to leave Jerusalem to go to the uttermost parts of the earth; they stay until God drives them out. They fight and they sue each other; they teach and believe the wrong things; they ignore the poor and get drunk at the Lord’s Supper. Jesus himself writes them angry letters not long after they start. It’s hard to find a good church, even back then. But it’s still clear that Jesus loves them. He stands at the door and knocks. He wants to come in and eat with them. That’s not an evangelistic appeal to an unbeliever. That’s Jesus’ invitation to a church gone bad. Let me back in, he says. I want to share a meal with you. I believe because I’ve gone so horribly wrong in my life, but God hasn’t quit with me. I bought into the modern notions of the church, I’ve worshiped the gods of success and technique, but God seems to give me more chances anyway. God hasn’t given up on me; it’s hard for me to accept that he’s given up on the lot of us quite yet. I believe because I’ve been part of these ragtag groups of people who really do care. Sure, we get a lot wrong, but God loves us even at our craziest. I’ve pastored a blue-collar congregation of not much more than forty people, including some of the most idiosyncratic people you could find. The singing wasn’t great, we didn’t offer exciting programs, and the preaching wasn’t always great. We weren’t as evangelistic as we should have been, and I’ve got more than a few stories of how weird we all were. But we loved each other. They cared for me in ways that I can’t begin to describe. I’m now part of a larger group of people, and we’re not quite as crazy. We’re a bit more buttoned down. God is working with us in different ways. He’s up to something even when we, the leaders, don’t have a clue what we’re doing. He’s humbled me, sharpened me, challenged me because I’m part of a group that gets it wrong in different ways – not the crazy ways, but the more reserved ways – but we’re learning. And every time I begin to give up, God reminds me that he can work whether or not I believe. He can work in spite of my disbelief. Anne Lamott writes:
I saw something once from the Jewish Theological Seminary that said, “A human life is like a single letter of the alphabet. It can be meaningless. Or it can be part of a great meaning.” Our funky little church is filled with people who are working for peace and freedom, who are out there on the streets and inside praying, and they are home writing letters, and they are at the shelters with giant platters of food. When I was at the end of my rope, the people at St. Andrew tied a knot in it for me and helped me hold on. The church became my home in the old meaning of home – that it’s where, when you show up, they have to let you in. They let me in. They even said, “You come back now.”
I don’t disagree with the frustrations of those who follow God but don’t go to church (there’s the problem with language – church isn’t a location or a building but a group of followers), but we lose something when we refuse to enter the brokenness of a group of others who are trying to follow God, imagining that we by ourselves could do any better. I know that I’m no better off than any of the crazy churches I’ve been part of, and when you get right down to it, I need them. That’s why I still believe in the church.