"Be shepherds of the church of God, which He bought with His own blood." (Acts 20:28, NIV)
Over the last several weeks I have been reminded of a trend that I have been observing for the last decade or so. During my time in the US, and also now that I am back in Kenya, quite a few people have talked to me about their intense disillusionment with church. I will not pretend that I am an impartial spectator. I feel it too. (Please note - in this post I am not speaking of any one church. It is a reflection on things I have heard people say on multiple continents and about multiple church bodies).
This morning as I thought about the chief concerns that have been voiced (including my own) I saw that I could break them down into three major categories:
There is a sixth sense that things in the church are not well due to being modernized, or Westernized (or Africanized for that matter). The church leadership is itself sick. It is not functioning in the way that it was intended. The church, and its people, are broken. Listening to the sermons and/or trying to engage with the worship actually disrupts a sense of spiritual well-being.
There is a lack of true community at church. Even small group meetings (intended to build fellowship) are frustratingly shallow. There is no actually deep, human connection taking place. Moreover, service done on behalf of the church (even service done intended to help others in the church) feels trite and lacks meaning.
The church has lost its purpose. It is not doing what it was meant to do in the world.
Today I only want to address the first of these concerns. This morning I meditated on Paul's exhortation to the Ephesian elders. What struck me was that Paul was no idealist when it came to the church. Almost 2,000 years ago he was disturbed over what he knew was surely about to happen, even in a congregation that he had started. According to Acts, Paul was in Ephesus for three years, and he taught daily there for two of those years. What church could be safer than one that the Apostle Paul had planted and taught daily for two years? And yet Paul did not see it as safe.
Oh - Paul affirmed a high view of the church. For, Paul believed the church belonged to God. He believed She was precious to Him. He said, "Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which He bought with His own blood" (Acts 20:28, NIV). What higher value could Paul have placed on the Church? He believed that the Spirit Himself had ordained Her ministers and had enacted a system of vigilant care for Her. He taught that God had purchased the Church with His own blood!
But in the next breath Paul warned, "I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them" (Acts 20:29-30, NIV). Paul knew that those who had been appointed to care for the Church (at least some of them) would devour Her. He knew that the Church would have many ordained ministers who would seek their own ends and would sacrifice the Church to their own appetites.
I think that our sense of uneasiness in a local church is oftentimes justified. Perhaps we feel like the church is sick? Very likely it is. We should not adopt a posture of idealism when it comes to the church. Rather, we should see that very probably the church is in fact under great duress.
Where we go wrong is to think that this is a new phenomenon having to do with cultural influences. We are wrong to think it is due to "the West" or "modernization" or even "Africanization." I am reminded of the Jews in Acts 15 who were shocked at the "Hellenization" (the Greco-Roman tendencies) of the church in Gentile regions in the first century. These Jews were greatly offended at the notion that whole reams of Scripture (the teachings of Moses) were being jettisoned (in their view) by Gentile churches. To these Jews, the great sickness in the Church was that it had departed from its biblical, Old Testament, roots. I think that when we chime in with those who are concerned about Western or Modern or African tendencies in the church we are in fact failing to understand the beauty that Acts envisioned: A church that can adapt to a host of Jewish and Gentile cultures and contexts.
But - often we are concerned at true sickness in the local church. Yet, here we must remember that this is also as old as the Church Herself. This is clear from Acts 20. It is also clear from the Pauline epistles and from the words of Jesus to the churches of Asia Minor (Revelation 2-3). Are we disheartened at the gross immorality in the local church? So was Paul with the church in Corinth (I Corinthians 5) and so was Jesus with the church of Thyatira (Revelation 2). Are we upset over legalistic tendencies in the church? So was Paul with the church in Galatia (Galatians 3). And if we are violated by syncretism with other religions (even to the point of idolatry) - well - so was Jesus when it came to the church in Pergamum (Revelation 2). Are we disheartened with schisms in the church - the inability to get along even among church leaders? So was Paul with the church in Philippi (Philippians 4). And if we are distraught over the church seeming to be dead in its slumber - well - that was on Jesus' radar with the church in Sardis long ago (Revelation 3).
So, it is very possible that our intuitions do us justice. We draw back for a reason. Many local churches are quite ill, and they have been for a long time. Nonetheless, we must remember this: All of the churches mentioned above were true churches. They belonged to Jesus. He was still their Lord, in-spite of their immorality, legalism, syncretism, idolatry, schisms, and spiritual apathy. The churches from Revelation still had a candlestick before Him (i.e. Jesus had not yet written them off but was continuing to work with them, exhort them, rebuke them, and urge them to return fully to Himself).
Here is where we must be careful. If we run from church to church because we are distressed over the first point being entertained in this post (not to mention the other two which have not yet been considered) we will actually find that we are increasingly disillusioned. For we will be seeking in a local church something it cannot give us.
Here I wish to apply to our perspective on the local church something that C.S. Lewis says about "Hope" in Mere Christianity. Let us be careful that we do not take "The Fool's Way." (I will change Lewis' wording to "church" and "churches" where he originally had other words). Lewis says that the fool "puts the blame on the churches themselves. He goes on all his life thinking that if he only tried another church (...) then, this time, he would really catch the mysterious something we are all after." He says of fools, "They spend their whole lives trotting from church to church, (...) from continent to continent, always thinking the latest is 'the Real Thing' at last, and always disappointed."
Let us also be careful we are not taking what Lewis calls "The Way of the Disillusioned 'Sensible Man.'" About such a man Lewis writes: "He soon decides the whole thing was moonshine. 'Of course,' he says, 'one feels like that when one's young. But by the time you get to be my age you've given up chasing the rainbow's end.' And so he settles down and learns not to expect too much and represses the part of himself which used, as he would say, 'to cry for the moon.' This is, of course, a much better way than the first, and makes a man much happier, and less of a nuisance to churches. It tends to make him a prig (he is apt to be rather superior towards what he calls 'adolescents'), but, on the whole, he rubs along fairly comfortably." (Again, I have substituted "church" and "churches" where appropriate.)
No - I think that instead we must take the way of "the Christian." This way acknowledges that the local church points to a Platonic version of itself - that has not yet been fully realized. Each of us who belongs to Christ are a part of His Church. Yet, all earthly, local manifestations of this Heavenly Reality are at many times immoral, legalistic, syncretistic, idolatrous, schismatic, and apathetic. It has always been this way. Until we have been glorified - as a Bride - it will continue to be this way.
Therefore, we must "keep guard" over ourselves and over the church that God bought with His own blood. We must go on, praying that we shall be sanctified ourselves and a part of the sanctification of the local church. We must do so knowing that what we ultimately long for cannot be satisfied until it is achieved in the full consummation of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Now, whether this means that we should stay in or leave our particular local church is not possible to answer in this post. That is a matter for individual spiritual discernment and wise counsel. It is a topic that must balance out the exhortation to "keep watch over (...) the flock" (something that was addressed to elders) with the mandate to "keep watch over ourselves" (something I think could be applied to all). It is something that must acknowledge churches really can lose their candlesticks. But these are topics for a different time.