Attending the local evangelical church had been a revelation to Sal. Brought up in a one-parent home with an agnostic mother, and brothers who were self-confessed atheists, it had been a new world to her. What struck her first - before anything the preacher said - was the people's warmth. Unlike other people she'd known, these Christians were unconditionally kind and accepting. At first this made her suspicious: what were they after? Eventually she realised their love was sincere and then she started listening to the preacher. Each Sunday his unexceptional preaching conveyed an exceptional message about the love of Christ. Soon she saw herself as never before: a sinner under God's anger, a sinner under conviction, then at 3am one morning - on her knees before a tear stained Bible – a saint saved by God's grace! Soon Sal was baptised and welcomed into fellowship at a moving service. Her mother came, her brothers didn't – but their jibes about taking religion too seriously didn't matter She was now a child of God!
Weeks ran into months and every fellowship meeting was pure joy. But this wasn't to last forever. Suddenly it was as if a filter was removed from Sal's eyes that had previously stopped her seeing church life clearly. Then it hit her with devastating force – the church she had joined wasn't perfect. There were still some inspiring people around, but others less so. Recently a rumour had surfaced that two Sunday school teachers hadn't been speaking for years. She noticed that as she became friendly with one group of people, another group pulled away and became harder to integrate with. One Sunday she was invited to lunch by a couple. Two other prominent members came and over a hot roast meal proceeded to verbally carve up the fellowship and grumble about the direction the church was going in. What did Sal think?
Attending a Summer conference was a welcome break. On returning she tried to be more positive but now there seemed to be even more to be critical of. Why couldn't pastor preach like the conference speaker? Why so many old hymns and not more contemporary ones? Why doesn't Mr Brown see a specialist about that hacking cough? Still, Sal consoled herself, her mother had recently promised to come to church in a few weeks. It was then that the scandal broke.
One evening after church a special members meeting was called. A pale faced pastor stood before the congregation to announce that one of the deacons had been arrested for stealing large sums of money from the company he worked for. What made matters worse was that this was likely to make the headlines of this week’s local paper. Sal couldn't believe it. How could this happen to a member of the church? As the meeting broke up she started to leave quickly. Moving toward the door she overheard someone mutter that they were resigning from membership out of fear of being associated with this man. Maybe she should too? How could she bring her mother to church now? Suddenly her brothers' taunts came back to terrorise her: "Christians are hypocrites! People in the world live better lives than people in church!" Maybe they were right. Perhaps it was time to cut and run. With all that had happened how could she continue here? How could she love this imperfect church?
A familiar story
The above story is fictional yet many Christians will identify with it. Our backgrounds may not be the same as Sal's and the details of her experience different to ours. But most of us have at times been deeply disappointed with the church. Whether it be because of relationship difficulties, moral failure in leadership, or just the sustained frustration incurred from being in an insular fellowship that, against the odds, we still deeply love – there have been times when we have thought it might be easier to leave rather than love the imperfect Church.
In what follows I want to mention a few things it would be useful for people like Sal to hear as they come to terms with life in the imperfect church. Of course it goes without saying that the imperfect church I have in mind here is still a true church – one where the Word of God is faithfully taught, baptism and the Lord's Supper administered, and church discipline lovingly applied when necessary.
A sympathetic Saviour
The first thing to realise is that Jesus sympathises with our disappointment. While on earth Jesus was surrounded by imperfect disciples. They bickered over power (Luke 9:46), had wavering faith (Mark 4:36-41), misunderstood his teaching (Matthew 16:5-11), were channels of temptation (Matthew 16:23), they even denied and deserted Him (Mark 14:50,67-68). There is also evidence that some disciples were more spiritual than others (John 13:23). This may at times have caused tensions as some seemed to move too quickly for the rest, while others seemed to hold the whole discipleship programme back. Finally, it was a 'disciple' who colluded with Jesus' enemies and accelerated His arrest and death (John 18:1-5). So Jesus knew what it was to live with an imperfect church. He understands our pain when fellowship life disappoints and discourages. He knows that believers can be a paradoxical mixture of faith and unbelief.
A work in progress
The second thing to realise is that the local church is a work in progress. Much frustration comes when we forget this! Of course it is important that we take God's Word seriously when it portrays the high calling of the church. Yet just a glance at 1 Corinthians should leave us in no doubt that even in a thriving fellowship, believers can drastically fall short of the ideal. At Corinth Paul had to address personality cults (1 Corinthians 1:11-12), division (1 Corinthians 11:18), immorality (1 Corinthians 5:1), spiritual insensitivity (1 Corinthians 8:12), and Christians suing each other (1 Corinthians 6:1) – all in one congregation! If this was so in the first century Church we ought not to be blown away when similar sins surface in the twenty-first century Church.
Coupled to this is the fact that every fellowship is a mixed community containing Christians of varying degrees of maturity. Some will be recent converts with lots of rough edges while others will be 'old hands' who hopefully carry a greater weight of spiritual stability. Sadly the latter isn't always so and some believers who once burned brightly for Christ have grown cold and backslidden. Others who are in the church physically are not so spiritually. They are attenders but not believers. If we keep these things in mind it will make us balanced in our expectations of church life. Every Christian, and therefore every church, is a work in progress.
Amid these observations there is something else to remember. Despite all its imperfections the church is still central to God's plans and purposes for our world. Paul says in 1 Timothy 3:15 that God's church is the pillar and foundation of the truth'. It carries the unique responsibility of supporting and lifting up the gospel in a dying world. Without its presence, society would be thrown into an unprecedented dark age of spiritual ignorance. The church is also 'salt and light' that flavours, disinfects and dispels spiritual corruption in peoples' lives (Matthew 5:13-14). Perhaps we think modern society stinks. But imagine what it would be like if the church was completely withdrawn from circulation! We may wonder if this really would make a difference, but remember that usually something isn't missed until it's gone.
A patient God
In our more negative moments it is a healthy thing to also remind ourselves that God's attitude toward the imperfect church is always more generous than ours. While there may be times when false teaching, sin and spiritual apathy so corrupt a fellowship that the Holy Spirit withdraws his blessing, nonetheless God suffers longer than we might expect. Just look at his dealings with Israel in the Old Testament. Again and again we see the Lord protecting and nourishing a people who were set on sin. Even when the Lord did eventually hand his people over to exile it was with the long term goal of refining, retrieving and restoring. Ought we not to let God's patience and mercy with his ancient people inform our attitude toward his people today?
We also see this divine mercy in Jesus' dealings with his church. He was patient with its early members while he physically shared their company on earth. He is patient with its ongoing membership as he oversees its growth and development from heaven. Just look at the sobering warnings given to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3. These letters could easily have been messages of irreversible spiritual destruction. Yet despite the failings of these fellowships Jesus writes with the aim of repairing not demolishing. By keeping this in mind we won't rush to write the Church off when it seems to hit difficult days.