Jesus once said: “where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” (Matthew 18:20, NIV) Cue the strumming of harps. Jesus’ words are a beautiful reality, but here is another reality. Where two or three gather in Jesus’ name, they are still partly wrong. When partly wrong people gather together as a church, their wrongs don’t cancel each other out. Sometimes, the partly wrongs multiply. Churches—like people—and because they are made up of people, are partly wrong.
Wrong beliefs. Wrong motives. Wrong methods. Wrong attitudes.
I was part of a church with a strong sense of mission to love a neglected and forgotten neighborhood. Following that lead, we began meeting in the community center in an area that people in passing cars would call “the projects.” From the parking lot of our community center, you could see the rows and rows of dingy red brick buildings surrounded by sagging clotheslines and green plastic trash cans.
One Sunday morning, I stood in that parking lot and watched as a trickle of vans and buses with faded church names edged their way among the brick buildings, providing rides for residents to church buildings far away. And I thought to myself: “those churches come into our neighborhood to bring people out, but we actually have church right here in their neighborhood.” I was immediately seized by the arrogance and judgmentalism of my thoughts. I proved anew the reality of the partly wrong church. Partly wrong attitudes. Partly wrong practices. Partly wrong ideas.
Some churches meet in “the projects,” and some meet in the suburbs. Some churches send people out to knock on doors, and some go out and wash people’s cars. Some churches sing quiet, classical hymns carried along by organ bellows, and some churches make a joyful noise with guitars and drums. Some churches invite people to the altar to receive the bread and the cup of the Lord’s Table, and some churches take the bread and cup to people where they sit. Some churches meet weekly on Sundays, some weekly on Saturdays, and some daily in homes. Church practices are different.
Church beliefs are different. Some churches believe that God enables people to do miraculous things—like healing sick people—while other churches don’t. Some churches believe that people enter God’s kingdom by their choice, and some churches believe people enter by God’s choice. Some churches believe that women can be pastors, and some believe that role is only for men. Some churches believe you shouldn’t drink alcoholic beverages, and others believe you may drink in moderation. The list of things churches disagree about feels unending.
Does that concern you? Well, for the longest time, it bothered me. I thought: “If the Holy Spirit is at work in all believers and all churches, wouldn’t they all believe the same things? Wouldn’t they agree on everything? Wouldn’t God simply show all of us exactly what is right?
My question made sense, but it did not account for growth and learning and interdependence—core to God’s plan for the world. My assumption would require Him to give all of us instantaneous perfect knowledge. That sounds awesome, but it is not God’s plan. Instead He says through the Apostle Peter:
“But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen. (2 Peter 3:18, NIV)
Every church has the need to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus. And how do we grow? In community with God and other Christians. No single church or denomination has everything right. There is no church that does not need to keep growing and re-evaluating and learning. There is no church that does not need other churches. There is no such thing as the perfect church. So pastors should stop striving to be the perfect church, people should stop looking for the perfect church, and churches should stop acting like they are the perfect church..
A few weeks ago, I heard a young pastor talk about wanting to help build a “New Testament” church. I smiled. It took me back three decades to when I was planning to launch a new church in a quaint corner of Massachusetts. I too used that term “New Testament” church. I had actually read A New Testament Blueprint for the Church, a helpful book by John Moore and Kenneth Neff.
I realize now what I was looking for in the “New Testament” church was the perfect church—that church that was doing everything right, just like the very first church described in the book of Acts. With the best of motive, I wanted to build a church that got it all right. It was a misguided quest, now comical to me, since the New Testament church was a mess, marred by racism, lying, division and pride. Further, there wasn’t this single template for the practice of every church in the New Testament.
My quest for the perfect church led me through a steady stream of books and conferences, each offering another promise of the church that finally got things right. The options were endless. We could be the purpose-driven church, the seeker-sensitive church, the missional community church, the home church, the liturgical church, the charismatic church, the congregational-led church, the fivefold gifts church, the lifestyle evangelism church, the simple church, the vision-driven church, the elder-led church, the multi-ethnic church, the homogeneous church, the victorious life church, the community development church, the full gospel church, the reformed church…(pause for air).
To the pastors reading my words. Relax. Seek God as to how to best lead your church. Read books and go to conferences and get counsel from others, but stop trying to get your church just right. The “just right” church does not exist. You are always going to pastor a church that is partly wrong. I am not advocating complacency or laziness. I am advocating trust in a God who has only ever used partly wrong pastors and partly wrong churches, including the famed “New Testament” church. We must trust that God is guiding us and also that He is redeeming and salvaging what we are getting wrong.
It follows that the rest of us Jesus-followers can also stop looking for the perfect church. Someone has wryly advised: If you ever find the perfect church, for heaven’s sake, don’t join it because you’ll ruin it. The search for the perfect church is an impossible quest that will leave in its wake a discarded stream of partly wrong churches that needed you as much as you needed them.
I am not saying there is never a healthy reason for leaving one church to move to another. But finding the perfect church is not a healthy reason. For one, it is not possible. And second, the “perfect church” is often code for “church just the way I like it.” Since you are partly wrong, the last thing you need is “church just the way you like it.” You and I need to be stretched and disturbed and challenged to think differently. We need to persistently work through problems and misunderstandings and inconsistencies. We need to hang together to help each other become a bit less wrong.
And speaking of hanging together, church members and communities need to do more of that as well. Maybe instead of people leaving churches trying to find a better church, they could stay and help their current church get better. Perhaps church communities could be spending more time together helping each other become better churches.
Just as partly wrong people need other partly wrong people to help them become more like Jesus, partly wrong church communities need other partly wrong church communities to help them become more like the kingdom of heaven. Churches and denominations need each other.
I love watching how various streams of the Christian church balance and challenge and complement each other. I love the deep faith in God that the Charismatics splash on God’s church mural. I love the Catholic’s deep respect for God, the reformed reverence for God’s holiness, the activism of the Methodists, the simplicity of the Quakers, the evangelistic fervor of the baptists, the worship of the Anglicans, and the Adventist’s love for God’s Word.
I wish I had recognized the beauty and wisdom of the larger church much earlier. The church denomination in which I grew up, for all of its graces, viewed other denominations, at best, with suspicion, and at worst with outright condemnation. Worship with Charismatics was discouraged, and it was questionable whether Catholics were Christians at all. Ours was a posture of isolation. The isolation was meant to keep us from compromise. What it actually kept us from was balance. From growth. From community.
I recall the first time I had lunch with a Charismatic pastor. He exuded a love for God, and the stories from his church sounded an awful lot like the stories from my Baptist Church. I discovered that we were a lot more similar than different. I would learn, further, that there were verses in the Bible that I had only seen from one angle. I had things to learn from my Charismatic brother. I have had similar stretching and growth talking and worshiping with Episcopalian, Church of Christ, and Seventh Day Adventist friends.
I am closer to the heart of God for these interactions. Time with others has surfaced the misconceptions, blind spots, and places where I was missing something of the heart of God. I am still partly wrong, of course, but the broader Christian church has helped me to grow far more than I would have, had I remained in my Baptist incubator.
There is no perfect church. Every church has some flawed practices and ideas and attitudes.
If I could go back and talk to my 29-year old self preparing to start a church, I would tell him. “Roger, you can’t build the perfect church, but if you will work and worship and talk with Christians from different churches, you will get the next best thing: The learning church.”
[Feature photo by padeena at Pixabay.com]
For each weekday of the month of July (and Aug. 1-3), I am blogging a chapter from my book, Partly Wrong, to be published this fall. This blog is chapter ten. I welcome any feedback that will help to make it a better chapter.