I’ve been reading and hearing a lot about the death of the church. People are citing statistics about children growing and leaving the church in waves. College students are recanting liturgy. Folks are disillusioned, and it’s disheartening. I’ve done a lot of soul-searching over the church in my lifetime. As a child, I remember praying to God that it must be more than any other system: it must be more than getting out what we put in. I struggled with my place in the church, especially as a young woman. In these later years, I struggle with comprehending her function, structure, and beauty.
I’ve wounded her, and she’s wounded me. I’ve treated church staff as The Church. I’ve accepted human reasoning, attitudes, and actions, as necessary evils to keep the machine functioning. I’ve encouraged her harlotry to bring in new faces, which seemed cheaper still than actually and selflessly loving my neighbor as myself. I’ve even used the Bible against itself (much like the devil’s efforts to tempt Jesus) to justify whatever seemed right in my own eyes. And the church? She’s focused on her appearance above her health. She’s focused on her growing out more than growing together. She’s chosen the strong over the weak, the rich over the poor, the healthy over the sick, maintaining sitting rulers over making new disciples, and sometimes her earthly power over her earthly purpose. Or has she?
I’ve read about church corruption through the ages. Ours isn’t the first age where the church has settled into an authority she wasn’t meant to thus wield. I believe that; I also believe the church is the highest human authority on earth. We humans love laws. (In a perfect world, we had only one law. We couldn’t let that be. Ten? We can do better than that.) We love agendas. We love hierarchies. I’ve participated in groups that publicly rebelled against hierarchy, but in reality only traded it for a more fluid version like popularity, or wealth, or charisma. We instinctively, compulsively build hierarchies, and we sacrifice people to them all the time.
And the Church is meant to be a hierarchy, too, just an inverted one. The weakest members are the greatest ones. The poorest are the wealthiest. The broken are the valued. The plain-spoken are given ear over persuasive speakers. The camp won’t move on until even the repentant sinner is brought back in. Where these conditions exist, the true Church thrives, though she often lives quietly in the mouseholes of the visible church.
It seems to me, at least in the States, we’ve inflated our numbers over the years by bowing to human customs and sensibilities. We’ve watered down our distinctive potency. We’ve intentionally added distance between the shepherds and the sheep, instead of crucifying celebrity-mentalities. We’ve painstakingly set our foundations here on earth, sinking untold resources into buildings, programs, and paid staff: resources we once gave to the poor and each other as there was need. Years ago we suffered public humiliations with pastors engaging in illicit affairs, so we built and rebuilt inappropriate distances between the sexes under the guise of separate but equal. We’ve overcompensated in our retaliation against those overcompensations. We given ourselves just enough to lose that the risk ensures we stay just inside our own boxes. And the crowds come, they drink coffee and sing, they teach our children, and they go home pleased with their work.
I can’t help but consider Jesus as the crowds followed Him. He healed them, fed them, and taught them in riddles. He preached to the crowds, but He didn’t preach for the crowds. He spoke in parables, in riddles. He explained to His disciples, “You are permitted to understand the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven, but others are not. To those who listen to my teaching, more understanding will be given, and they will have an abundance of knowledge. But for those who are not listening, even what little understanding they have will be taken away from them.” (Matthew 13:11-12 NLT) He also said it wasn’t even the miracles that brought the crowds, but the full bellies.
Maybe there are three kinds of people leaving the church right now:
- People who will come back, much like the prodigal son.
- People who have found a way to express the Church without the dilution.
- People who never belonged in the church in the first place.
I know the last one sounds harsh. God doesn’t desire that any should perish, but we know that they will. There are hearts that will remain hardened and deceived, no matter how they hear the gospel presented. If those people want to leave the church, we need to let them. I think Jesus did.
He prayed to God the Father, “I have revealed you to the ones you gave me from this world. They were always yours. You gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything I have is a gift from you, for I have passed on to them the message you gave me. They accepted it and know that I came from you, and they believe you sent me. My prayer is not for the world, but for those you have given me, because they belong to you.” John 17, NLT
The Church isn’t intended for the whole world. Our claim to being the Church comes from the Father to the Son. The Father has given us to the Son. We know that everything we have, everything we are, is a gift from God the Father to God the Son. We were purchased in As-Is condition.
And there’s some assembly required.
And He is doing that work.
I believe the church in the States, at this moment in history, has been somewhat hijacked again. What began in authenticity and devotion was diverted by our intention to protect the church, and defend God’s name from our own sinful impulses. We forgot only open confession guards us against the exposure of sin. We forgot that His name is always unimpeachable before man, regardless of our behavior (which has always been touched by sin). We forgot that the Church is indestructible. We are now forgetting the Church cannot die or fall impotent, because the source of all life and power has bound the church up in Himself. The question isn’t whether the church is dying, but where she’s going. What is she going to look like now?
We have sinned. We have toiled at our sin. I believe our corporate sin is being addressed now. Should we tremble? Yes. Should we despair? No.
Because as is our soul, our corporate sin, the sins we’ve woven together with each other, are covered in the grace of Jesus. We will be disciplined, and we must repent and change, but this is nothing new to His people. He disciplines whom He loves. We should rejoice at His discipline, uncomfortable and uncertain as it might feel, because it means He tarries with us. He loves us. His discipline isn’t wrathful punishment; it is delicate purification. He will continue the work He began until He completes it, and that work is unstoppable.
And nothing is wasted. God redeems even our broken efforts. He will not break the bent reed. He will not extinguish the smoldering wick. Where there is life, there is mess. Where there is effort, there is failure. Where there is law, there is sin. Where there is the Church, there is forgiveness. One day, not here, we will see the fullness of His redemption of our lives after He has sponged off the layers of sin from the surface of our activity.
We should tremble; we should always feel out our salvation in fear and trembling. Our expression of church may be taken out of our hands. We cannot choose what the Church will be. God will guide that. We can choose to submit to Him in humility and say, “Thy Will Be Done.” We can pray, examine our own hearts, and decide if the cost of following Christ is something we can lay down joyfully. We can choose to forgive each other, and slow down. We can choose to sit more, to listen better, to love each other in word and deed. We can choose to look for those He loves still caught on the outside. We can choose to tremble in awe and reverence before the One who holds all these epochs in His capable hands.
We don’t get to decide what the Church is; she doesn’t belong to us. By God’s grace, we may watch Him flesh it out through our humble, grateful obedience. We don’t get to pursue the advancement each of our tiny kingdoms. By God’s grace, we may be part of His great and timeless one. The Church is always His; she always was, and always will be. She is a bride in waiting. She cannot die in His hands. She cannot fade in beauty before her wedding day, nor can she fade after. Imposters may die, and fade away, but their absence will only make her face shine brighter. I don’t know what the church will look like for my children’s children. I only know that when she is tested, as gold in a refiner’s fire, she will be brilliant. I pray, regardless of when and how my children’s children worship together, their expression of church is even purer than mine.
And I love her now, as-is.