Archives For Church

In my previous post, which initiated this series on the mystery of the church, I opened up a potentially deep and painful wound about how the church seems to be dysfunctional. It seems best to explore this a bit more before we take our exploration tour of various expressions of the Bride of Christ.

Why is the church so dysfunctional? (Let me be clear—that is a broad generalization. There are many healthy churches, as I will demonstrate in this series of blog posts!) At the risk of gross oversimplification, let me suggest a few thoughts:

First of all, the church is made up of sinful, dysfunctional people in relationship. We are all sinners saved by grace and are in process. Growth is painful, messy, and uneven. There are bound to be mistakes made along the way, which inevitably will hurt someone. What married person has not hurt their spouse? What parent has not disappointed and hurt their child? Where there is love and relationship, there will be pain. Period.

Secondly, and quite frankly, much of the pain we experience within the context of the church is at least partly of our own doing. We were deeply hurt just a few years into full time ministry. My leadership was rejected and we were told we shouldn’t even be in the pastorate. It hurt. Deeply. We nearly lost our house to foreclosure. There were physical ailments within our family because of the intense emotion. And so on. But in hindsight, I recognize that my leadership was pretty lousy—it was taking the church in the wrong direction, and the elders knew it. Granted, they handled it poorly. But don’t we all handle things poorly at one time or another? I handled leading the church poorly; they handled addressing the situation poorly. People got hurt. But Christ-like character developed in many lives. We were all the richer for it, and today my wife and I consider ourselves blessed to have suffered in this way early in ministry.

But even if the source of hurt is not of our doing, God has a purpose. The church by definition consists of followers of Jesus, and Jesus is in the business of making us more and more like Him. Scripture is clear that the process of spiritual growth includes pain and suffering—a lot of pain and suffering (see James 1:2-4; Hebrews 12:3-11; 2 Corinthians 11:16-12:10. Seriously, read these passages!). I am a better person, more mature, more ‘seasoned’, more Christlike, because of the hurts I have endured. And you are too, if you have allowed these seasons to train you in righteousness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it (Hebrews 12:11). We need to be reminded that Jesus was misunderstood, rejected, betrayed, abandoned—all of which eventually led to His undeserved execution. He deserved none of it. Christlikeness, by definition, requires undeserved rejection and suffering.

But what of those churches that grieve us because they are missing the point. They are in-grown with a fortress mentality. Their entire existence is about sustaining their comfortable institution and familiar practices, rather than making disciples of all the world. Their battles are over music style and what color to paint the nursery, rather than fighting the good fight of faith. What of them? I don’t have a great answer to that one, except to reiterate: the church is made up of sinful, dysfunctional people. And sin and dysfunction rears its ugly head in many different forms, including self-serving fortress thinking.

So where do we land? These are a lot of random, rambling thoughts that hopefully strike a chord with some of you. But let’s get beyond the negative and quit viewing the glass as half-empty. Let’s change our perspective and see the glass as half-full. We acknowledge that the church is not perfect. But you know what? The church is the glorious bride of Christ, the bride for whom He died, shed His blood, offered salvation by grace, and loves unconditionally. God has entrusted to the church the task of taking the Good News to every ethnic group. The church is the only institution that God has ordained. He has given New Testament instruction to the church. We must see the church as primary to the plan of God. I can’t wait to show you some pretty cool ways that God is at work in the church—yes, churches that are imperfect and dysfunctional in some ways, but still infused with the Holy Spirit and doing good things for the Kingdom! Here we go!!

I am a pastor. My dad is a pastor. My brother-in-law is a pastor. My great-great-grandfather on my dad’s mother’s side was a pastor. I have gone to church my whole life—literally. I have attended a lot of churches, and been the pastor of a few more. Some of those churches I didn’t like. Some of them were good; some not so good. But what makes a church “good” or “not so good”? What does that even mean? I have been hurt by the church, and I have no doubt hurt some people in the church. Does that mean a church is not so good if people get hurt in it?

I talk to a lot of people who have been hurt by the church, and it grieves me. Many of these people claim they still love Jesus, but just want nothing to do with “organized church.” I know more than a few people who have rejected Jesus and His gift of salvation, arguably because they have been so hurt by the church and the hypocrisy therein. So we see a huge upswing in the “house church” movement where there are no elders, or pastors, or constitution, or business meetings, or buildings to maintain. The goal is noble—let’s return to the church doing what the church is supposed to be doing and forget all the politics. But is that the best answer? Is not every genuine local church an expression of the glorious Bride of Christ?

So what is going on here? The church is, after all, the glorious bride of Christ, the bride for whom He died, shed His blood, offered salvation by grace, and loves unconditionally. The whole institution of marriage is to picture the incredible relationship between Christ and His bride, the Church (Eph 5:32: This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.) Why is it so dysfunctional?

After many years of full-time pastoring, I have shifted gears. I now serve as Director of Church Relations for Eternity Bible College. A huge part of Eternity’s ethos is centered in the local church. Every student needs to be part of a local church, have a ministry in that local church, and be mentored by someone from that local church. A big part of my job is making that stick.

So my wife and I attend a different church every weekend, or at least, most weekends. That allows us to learn about these churches and therefore allows us to better pair up a student and a church. It struck me what a unique opportunity had been handed to us: I get to travel around and witness firsthand this mysterious thing called church, body of Christ, ekklesia, in many different places and expressions. It is an opportunity I don’t want to waste. I want to share it with you.

I have slowly realized that this is part of God’s prescription for me to heal, to recover from my cynicism about the church. For I too have been hurt by the church and been pretty cynical about ‘organized church.’ This journey is helping me recover, and maybe it will help you too.

I’ll be posting my thoughts somewhat regularly on this blog under the heading of “The Church Is a Mystery” so that you can journey with me through many different houses of worship and see how God shows up at church. Most of them will be in Southern California, but there may be an occasional odd location thrown in here and there. My guess is that God will show up in some pretty mysterious ways in some pretty unexpected places! After all, this is His Body we are talking about!

A few weeks ago, I said that the church needs to study the Bible corporately more than it should be studying the Bible as individuals. This sparked in my mind, and in the mind a several respondents, the relationship between the corporate and the private. In this post, I’d like to push the envelope a bit (that’s a shocker, eh?) regarding how we encounter the presence of God. So here’s the question: do we experience the presence of God more fully as individuals (on the proverbial mountain top by ourselves) or in community?

Psychologically, I can build a pretty good case that we need to get away to experience God. Because when we are alone, there are no noises, no distractions, no one to interrupt our raw communion with God. But biblically? Well, it’s quite shocking how the Bible speaks of the vitality and intensity of the presence of God that is manifested in the community of believers. Here’s a few observations:

Ephesians clearly says that the full, life-giving, vibrant presence of God dwells in the church, the community of believers. Ephesians 1:22-23 says that God “put all things under his [Jesus] feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” Notice, the church as the body of Christ is “the fullness of God.” And your local church as the localized manifestation of the universal church is “the fullness of God.” Crazy. But that’s what Paul says. So if you want to experience that life-giving, soul-transforming presence of God, go hang out with that messed, high maintenance group of needy believers that constitute your local church, or a manifestation of it. The irony is comical!

Ephesians 1:22-23, by the way, is one of many passages in Ephesians that speak of the presence of God manifested in community. Ephesians 2:19-22 says that the church is a “temple” (metaphorically speaking) that is “a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (2:22). You want to go visit God? Well, He ain’t on the mountaintop; he’s down the street where believers are gathered together. Ephesians 4:11-16 says that the Spirit has given gifts to the church so that we may be built up and therefore attain maturity “to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (4:13). Attaining the “fullness of Christ” is a “we” thing not an “I” thing. In fact, 4:16 talks about Christian “growth,” but this growth refers to the church growing together as a body. You want to grow as a Christian? According to 4:16, you can’t do this by yourself; it’s a “we” thing not an “I” thing.

And let’s step back and look at this theme with a wide-angle lens. Without spelling out all the details, it goes something like this. God first dwelt in EDEN. After Adam and Eve sinned, they were banned from the garden and therefore from the full presence of God. God’s presence returned when Israel constructed the TABERNACLE (Exod 25:8; 40:34-38) and it was filled with the glory/presence of God. The glory then dwelt in the TEMPLE (1 Kings 8), but after piles and piles of sin, the glory departed (Ezek 8-11) and didn’t return until JESUS came on the scene. “And the Word become flesh and tabernacle among us” (John 1:14)—a clear connection with the Tabernacle/Temple theme of God’s presence. But Jesus Himself said that a greater manifestation will come when Jesus leaves and sends the Spirit to dwell in…

…not just individuals, but the CHURCH. The gathering of believers. This is why Paul often refers to the CHURCH as the temple of the living God (1 Cor 3:16-17; 2 Cor 6:16; Eph 2:19-22). Jesus passes the baton on to the corporate gathering of believers, who now house the presence of God. It’s a clear line: Eden, Tabernacle, Temple, Jesus, and then the Church. You want to visit Eden? You want to walk with God (Gen 3:8)? You want to bust through the veil and gaze upon the glory of God in the holy of holies? You want to commune with God in a way that David only longed to have (Ps. 63)? You want to hang out with Jesus? Then go be a part of your local gathering and then—and only then—will you experience the rich, surprising, counter-intuitive, dangerous, powerful presence of God.

The presence of God is experienced more fully when you engage the corporate body and not when you isolate yourself from the body.

One anticipated push-back. Didn’t Jesus model for us meeting God in isolation by getting away from the crowds to meet with this Father (e.g. Luke 4:42)? Well, perhaps. And maybe this would be one piece of evidence that it is ok at times to have an individual encounter with the presence of God. But my good friend and stellar student David Seehusen has pointed out in a recent email exchange that Jesus’ ministry is “pre-Pentecost.” In other words, Jesus Himself said that it is to your benefit that I go so that the Spirit will come (John 16:7). There will be something new, something greater that we will happen when He leaves; namely, the presence of the Spirit who will indwell the gathering of believers (Eph 2:19-22). In a weird way, but according to His own words, Jesus’ situation on earth does not give us the complete picture of our relationship with God. Our relationship is made greater, more intimate, when the Spirit comes to dwell in us. Jesus’ pre-Pentecost communion with God may not necessarily be a model for us living in a post-Pentecost—more glorious—situation.

So how do we experience the presence of God? Primarily, we experience Him as we dive into the community of believers where God has placed us. And this has endless ramifications for how we do church.