Like dunking a nerf basketball into one of those kiddie-size hoops, it’s way too easy to bash the church. You don’t have to be insightful or poetic or even smart to do it. Anybody can see an average congregation has problems. John Ortberg wrote a book called Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them. He compared people to porcupines. From a comfortable distance they all look ordinary. Get close to them, though, and you start bumping into quills.
Marriage, roommates, best friends, and office environments all count as places of painful contact—any situation, in fact, that brings folks together in sustained proximity. You’ll discover the person you initially connected with so well is a germaphobe who wipes everything. Barely noticeable at first, it becomes a weirdness you can’t stand later on. Or the one guy in the office you picked to be your buddy is so frugal it’s impossible to choose a place for lunch unless he has a coupon. At first you were bemused. As his close friend though, you’ve become irritated.
The church especially counts as one of those places where the quills come out. Believers have an entire range of control issues, hot tempers, social handicaps, secret weaknesses, depressions, dark backgrounds we want to hide, lusts for more than what we need, tragic mistakes, legalism in the name of God, identity crises, sexual shame, disappointments, eating disorders, procrastination, laziness, and addictions to everything from tobacco to chocolate. Okay. It’s out there. Real Christians have problems, including those who are serious about following Jesus.
That sets the stage for trouble, because people with problems cause problems. Ex-church folk roam the countryside like wounded warriors, decrying the failures of their past fellowships. If you pull up a chair they’ll tell you plenty. Based on what I’ve been through, I’ve got some tales of woe myself.
Church is lousy when discipleship isn’t happening. And I’m not talking about workbook discipleship when a mentor and disciple get together for coffee and do the fill-in-the-blank stuff. By discipleship I mean the gritty reality of growing into the image of Jesus, of becoming more like Him. Wherever people religiously gather without pursuing the transformative presence of God, the whole experience will begin to smell like a dirty laundry hamper.
“That’s right!” say the embittered, “Which is exactly why I dropped out!” But such attitudes themselves betray a poverty similar to the person who had unhappy experiences at work and then decided never to work again.
Even when the church claims only twenty percent of its attendants as being in any sense “disciples,” it’s probably going to be a place you’ll want to stay. Nothing is better than having Jesus around, living again through the lives of moms and plumbers, realtors, and students. Add to the mix rich men, poor men, artists, and engineers. A scene like that will produce plenty of eternal moments. But nobody in it except the Lord Himself will be perfect—nobody.
That’s the matrix of discipleship—where people haven’t arrived, but they’re on the way. They’re learning. Remember—the Greek word for disciple is mathetes, or, learner. And wherever heavy-duty learning happens, equal or greater amounts of grace go with it. Paul wrote, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age” (Titus 2:11-12). In the school of Christ, education and grace are inseparable.
The people of a Christian congregation are, in fact, the living embodiment of lessons learned and being learned. I’m part of that scene, too. I’m not some dude at a keyboard pontificating on theory. I’ve spent a lot of time in the porcupine pen (Yes, the Bible calls the church a flock of sheep, but most of us would agree it doesn’t always feel that way).
I’m grateful for the outcome. I’ve been nicely forced to learn about relating to God on an intensely personal level. Granted, some of my growth has been the result of my own initiation—praying regularly and reading the Bible. Most of it was through situations outside my control, things divinely assigned me that I never would have assigned myself. Yet all of it was within the scaffolding of church fellowship.
I’m going to go out on a limb here, and say this won’t be my testimony alone. Although we’re not cookie cutter replicas of one another, God seems to use a similar dynamic to reproduce His Son’s image in us.
You need others. He says so.