The older I become the more I realize that much of my life has been built upon unrealistic expectations. I’ve lived under the delusion that life and the world owe me much. As Philip Gulley puts it, “Many of us believe the world owes us a great deal, are disappointed when it fails to deliver, and think ourselves deprived.” Wow, isn’t that the truth?
I’m convinced the same thing applies to the church. We have expected a great deal, only to be disappointed. We’ve idealized what the church is and should be. We expect the church to “meet our needs” and make us happy. We expect the church to be free from any kind of deformity or defect. But as long as the church is comprised of redeemed, yet fallen people, the church will be imperfect and will continue to suffer her fair share of trials. We believe the church “owes us a great deal” and “are disappointed when it fails to deliver.”
Unfortunately, this idealization of the church is driving people away. With utopian expectations people are disappointed with their church experience. They thought people would be more loving and caring, the Spirit would work in greater power, and there would be “more to it” than there often is. And these unmet expectations often cause people to leave in anger and frustration thinking, “Church? It just didn’t work for me.”
In his book, Practice Resurrection, Eugene Peterson tackles some of these problems. He writes:
“Many Christians find church to be the most difficult aspect of being a Christian. And many drop out – there may be more Christians who don’t go to church or go only occasionally than who embrace it, warts and all. And there are certainly plenty of warts. It is no easier for pastors. The attrition rate among pastors leaving their congregations is alarming (11).”
He goes on to say:
“Sometimes we hear our friends talk in moony, romantic terms of the early church. “We need to get back to being just like the early church.” Heaven help us. These churches were a mess, and Paul wrote his letters to them to try to clean up the mess… [But] what comes clear is that church is not what we do; it is what God does, although we participate in it (16-17).”
The answer here is to abandon our “romantic, it’s-going-to-be-utopia versions of the church,” recognizing that even the early churches lacked perfection. It is my conviction that our utopian version of the church has been placed on “steroids” by the rampant consumerism that has swept across North America. It really is more about what’s in it for me than what God is doing and the way he wants to do it.
Interestingly enough, Peterson suggests that the church is not a:
“…humanly managed popular provider of religious goods and services, but a congregation of embarrassingly ordinary people in and through whom God chooses to be present to the world.
“This is not what the church looks like to outsiders; in fact, this is not even what it seems to be most of the time to insiders. But this is what it is. God does not work apart from sinful and flawed (forgiven, to be sure) men and women who are mostly without credentials.
“Romantic, crusader, and consumer representations of the church get in the way of recognizing the church for what it actually is. If we permit – or worse, promote – dreamy or deceptive distortions of the Holy Spirit creation, we interfere with participation in the real thing. The church we want becomes the enemy of the church we have (28-29).”
So away with our utopian idealism! We must see ourselves and those around us as “embarrassingly ordinary people” through whom God chooses to work. Sometimes we can be embarrassingly sinful, but God still works. Sometimes we can be embarrassingly incompetent, but God still works. Sometimes we can be embarrassingly simple, but God still works. Are we content to participate in the work God is doing, in his church, the way he is doing it?
Sometimes it is hard to see God at work through this embarrassingly ordinary community of sinner saints. At other times being part of the church of Jesus Christ can be terribly frustrating. But the church is the creation of the Holy Spirit, the Bride of Christ, and an “outpost colony of heaven in a country of death.” As Peterson puts it, the “church is the core element in the strategy of the Holy Spirit for providing human witness and physical presence to the Jesus-inaugurated kingdom of God in the world. It is not that kingdom complete, but it is a witness to that kingdom.”
Beloved, abandon your utopian expectations of the church, but do not abandon the church. Why? God is at work in and through his church. Jesus promised that the very gates of hell would not prevail against it. As a spiritual discipline, continue to commit yourself to participation in the life of the church. Pray for the church. Because as imperfect as she is, the church really is the dearest place on earth.
– Scott Eaton, Senior Pastor