Sunday, August 29, 2010

In Search of the Perfect Church

My friend Kathy had just finished recounting to me the myriad insufferable problems with our church.  The theology was impure, the congregation was insufficiently devoted, the leadership was distracted and divided ... in short, the church was hopelessly off-course.  She and her husband were thinking of leaving for another church that promised better everything:  from the pastor to the laity to the doctrine.  It was time to go find a congregation more pure, united, and Christ-like ... well, you know, like those wonderful first-century churches.

"Okay, Kathy", I said.  "I completely understand.  I just ask you one favor.  Call me when you find the perfect church."

I didn't want to quibble with Kathy's complaints.  There was at least some merit in many of them.  Rather, I wanted her to see the danger that comes with church shopping.  In many ways, it's like shopping for a car.  This year's model looks perfect on the showroom floor.  When you first bring it home you're thrilled with the "new-car smell", the shiny paint, and all the things it does that your old car didn't do.  And yet over time the flaws start to manifest.  After each one the thrill wears off a little more, until pretty soon it doesn't feel new anymore.  Inevitably, you start staring longingly at car commercials and in showroom windows again.

And yet, in another way a relationship with the local church is less like a car than it is a spouse.  At first everything is full of hope and promise--for better or worse, till death do you part!  That is, until you realize that it's not everything you dreamed ... it has serious flaws ... irreconcilable differences even!  Everything's changed--if only you'd known before you said "I do"!

But like in marriage, the glory of committing yourself to a particular body of believers is in actually honoring the commitmentIf loving one another was easy, we wouldn't have to be commanded to do it.  Every church has problems, many of them severe.  Every church struggles, changes, has bad apples, and goes through ugly trials.  It is the nature of a congregation of sinners that they will, in fact, sin, and that will be unpleasant for all involved.

Just as it was unpleasant for those wonderful first-century churches.  Just as it was in the immature, divided, sexually immoral, gluttonous church in Corinth; or the foolishly legalistic, "bewitched" church in Galatia; or the "lukewarm" church in Laodicea; or ... well you get the idea.

Is separation ever called for?  Certainly, as in marriage, infidelity to God's truth may be cause for divorce.  Yet this is and must be a very high bar, not mere differences over peripheral, disputable matters.  How high?  Well, even that great Protestant reformer Martin Luther persevered within the Roman Catholic church for nearly 3 years from the time he posted his provocative "95 theses" until he was separated by excommunication.  Even so, it was not he who severed the tie with Rome, but rather Rome which cut him off when he continued to preach the truth from within, until the corrupt church leadership could no longer stomach his insistence on the centrality of salvation by faith in Christ alone.

In relationship to my local church, as in my marriage, fidelity must be my first and overwhelming inclination, my consuming passion, and my ultimate objective.  As long as there is still love for Jesus present, there is still work for me to do in the place where God has planted me.

Oh, and Kathy?  I'm happy to say that she and her husband remained and served that church well and faithfully for as long as we knew them, and the church was richer for their ministry.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Ministry Burn-Out

Disillusionment ... frustration ... burn-out.  They proceed as naturally from a life of ministry as weeds in a garden.  Left untended, they overrun the flowers as we lay down our tools in despair over the fruit we cannot see.

The great Elijah, alone, exhausted and overwhelmed despite his impressive victory over the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel, could not muster the fortitude to respond to either God's mighty signs or his gentle voice at Mount Horeb.  His earthly walk ended abruptly, if spectacularly, as a passenger in God's fiery chariot.  It was a testament to his life of obedience in ministry, but a stark contrast to its ignominious final weeks spent largely in fear and despondency.

Elijah's bleak end serves as a warning to all ministers of the gospel--which is to say to all Christians, for all who are saved by grace are called to give our lives to ministry in His name.  The nature of ministry is to give to those who will not give back in equal measure, or respond to our satisfaction.  Contrary to our wishes and dreams, a life of ministry is not one of unending excitement over the visible fruits of our labors, but rather one in which we must believe God that He will ultimately bless, honor and value our sacrifices for His name.

Therefore, if we seek to gain the strength to continue from those visible fruits, we are setting ourselves up for failure.  We are, in fact, committing idolatry, insofar as we are attempting to squeeze from earthly labors such nourishment as can come only from our Lord Himself.  Ultimately, our strength must come from the eternal hope we share in Christ, and from the internal ministry of the Holy Spirit.

The writer of Hebrews makes this clear in the starkest of terms, when he reminds us of the example of those who have passed before us:
Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.
These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
The Apostle Paul knew all about this.  Languishing in a Roman prison near the end of his life, he experienced the full measure of earthly disillusionment:  alone, betrayed and virtually abandoned by those for whom he'd been "poured out like a drink offering," he discovered anew how his hope lay not in seeing the earthly fruits of his ministry, but in the knowledge that he had a "crown of righteousness" awaiting him in glory.

"Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees," but know that such strength does not ultimately lie in seeing our labors bear fruit, but in knowing that the Master Gardener is alive and working through us in ways we cannot yet see.  We shall one day stand in wonder at His feet as we gaze on all that He has done.