Churches have seldom looked like much. The churches we read about in the New Testament were small. When Paul wrote the book of Romans, he wrote to a church at the center of the Roman Empire, and there were only some 50 or so people there. Most churches since then have been easy to overlook. There are exceptions, but the norm is pretty unimpressive.
Then there are the problems. They have always been there. A quick read through the New Testament can make anyone think twice about wanting to associate with groups like these. We read of power struggles, ruptured relationships, lawsuits, drunkenness, immorality, racial tensions, and classism. Jesus himself has concerns about what he finds in many of the churches not too long after they start. The churches we read about were small and full of problems. They were full of real people dealing with problems and tensions, just like today.
But there was something about them, despite their insignificant size and their many flaws. Racial tensions were present, but they were also overcome as Jews and Gentiles worshiped together. Masters and slaves became brothers and sisters. Men began to view and treat women with unprecedented respect. The apostle Paul could look at messy groups like this and call them holy. He could say that despite their faults, these groups showed God’s wisdom to angels. What else could explain what was happening apart from the wisdom of God?
I look around me today, and I still see insignificant churches and very flawed groups of people. But I also see beauty in the mess: people sharing generously with others in need; racial barriers being overcome; different classes and ages coming together with nothing in common but Christ. Sometimes I’m overwhelmed as I see this happen, that I get to be part of what God is doing in the middle of the mess.
I don’t deny the mess. In fact, I’m part of the mess. But I think I also get what Paul was talking about in Ephesians. God is creating a new community as part of reconciling all things to himself. It’s still messy, but it’s real. He is in it. And despite its insignificance and its flaws, it’s somehow what God always had in mind, what Christ gave his life for, and where the Spirit is at work – often, it seems, against the odds. But God is pretty effective at overcoming the odds. And despite all of its flaws and all there is to say, he still works in small and messy groups of people who call themselves the church.