I recently read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. It is a short book that explores the importance of the Christian community. As with almost any book that I read, there were moments when I wrote a question mark in the margin, wondering if I agree with the author. But then there were sections where I thought my highlighter might run dry because I was highlighting so much.
One such section was under the heading “Not an Ideal but a Divine Reality.” Here is what Bonhoeffer says,
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 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.
After 21 years of pastoral ministry, I can attest that Bonhoeffer is correct. I see this truth in others. I feel this truth in my soul. Let me explain.
The church will always disappoint you. That disappointment is not because God’s plan fails; it is because we expect more out of the church than what God intends. Any pastor will tell you how most conversations go when people choose to leave the church.
The person leaving the church: “So, uh, we have been thinking about going to church someplace else. It’s not that we don’t like you or the church, it’s just that…well, we don’t have many friends here.”
Pastor: (thinking to himself, “Yeah, me either”) “Boy, I’m sorry to hear that.”
Usually, at this point, the pastor is debating in his mind whether or not it will be profitable to remind the person of all of the things the church has done for this person over the years. He sometimes concludes that it will just make the breakup harder and complicate any chance of the person coming back to the church in the future. Therefore, he wishes the person well, knowing that they already made up their mind anyway.
Of course, my illustration above is anecdotal and not representative of all situations, but I would guess that it is close to many examples of people leaving their church. What led to this breakup?
Perhaps the church was indeed unfriendly, and maybe the person would be better to attend elsewhere. More probable is that the person had unrealistic expectations of their church. Everyone has a dream of a church always being loving, accepting, gracious, kind, and generous. The problem is that sinners make up churches, and where sinners exist, so does sin.
Back to Bonhoeffer:
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.
I’m not saying that there is never a time to leave a church. In fact, in my pastoral ministry, I have sometimes told people that they should change churches. However, the majority of the time, people should give up their concept of the ideal church and accept that only God can be our ultimate source of joy and acceptance. But instead of giving up their dream, they give up their church. And according to Bonhoeffer, they do so with the purest intentions.
It’s a powerful temptation. I know. I feel it too.
Bonhoeffer is again helpful:
The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God Himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dreams bind men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.
So, what is the takeaway?
1. Accept that your church will never be the ideal church – partly because you are part of it! :-)
2. Accept that your church is meant to challenge you, shape you, change you for God’s glory. That process is not always enjoyable, and it almost always feels lonely. Embrace that reality.
3. Accept the fact that even though your church will never be your ideal church, it is still a beautiful picture of God’s love, mercy, grace, and kindness. Rejoice that you get to be part of that breathtaking illustration of God’s glory.
4. Accept the reality that while your church is not ideal, it is most likely better than you think – partly because you are a part of it! :-) But mostly because Jesus is the head of it!