In the first part of this article we were introduced to Sal, a fictional character whose recent experiences led to her becoming deeply disaffected with the local church. We also saw how many Christians have shared her pain and at times wondered whether it might be easier to leave rather than love the imperfect Church. We went on to suggest a few things it would be useful for people like Sal to hear as they come to terms with life in the imperfect church. Amongst other things we saw that the local church is a work in progress – a gathering of redeemed sinners who are all at varying levels of maturity. Yet we also saw that despite all its imperfections the church is still central to God's plans and purposes for our world. Most importantly we were reminded that God is often more patient with his people than we are. With these things in mind we now look at some practical steps we can take as we seek to love rather than leave the imperfect church.
[i] Always hold the church in high esteem
A good starting point would be to be careful how we think and talk about the church. In an age when it is considered a virtue to be cynical and outspokenly critical toward institutions we must relearn the art of thinking and speaking generously of the body of Christ. Wouldn't we be upset if a friend or colleague spoke disparagingly about the appearance of our children or the character of our loved one? How much more is Christ offended when believers excessively put down and despise his body? We must think and speak in such a way that the church of Christ is honoured in public. There are literally millions of critics in the world who delight in attacking God's people so as to discredit the gospel. What is sad is that many Christians are quick to join their ranks. Would we do this if these individuals were vilifying our family name? The church needs more big hearted believers who are quick to leap to the defence of Christ's body and speak enthusiastically about it: those who see and rejoice in its positive qualities. No matter how lacklustre it may seem and be it is precious to Jesus and will one day shine with him in glory (Revelation 7:4-10).
[ii] Get to know your church well
This may seem like a strange thing to say but actually it is because many people don't do this that they often feel so dissatisfied within God’s family. For them church life 'just happens' like getting caught in an April shower or developing a cold. But if we want our fellowship to be a rich experience then we need to be positively pro-active. We must get to know our church. Learn about its history, get to know its members, avoid a tendency to split into cliques and then only see fellowship life through one set of spectacles. Take an interest in individuals you might not naturally incline toward, visit them, pray with them. Learn about their world - their hopes, fears, failures and triumphs in the Christian life. In doing this not only will you fulfill the command to love but you may find yourself being loved in return.
[iii] Remember that you need the church and it needs you
No matter how superficially idealistic and unrealistic this may seem, the Scriptures say its true (1 Corinthians 12:12). My personal conviction is that God calls us into his universal church and then calls us to specific local churches. He gives each believer a unique gifting that is suitable to the immediate pressing needs of a specific local fellowship. That means that the church thrives on a culture of interdependency where each Christian is indispensable to those around him or her for their ongoing growth and maturing (1 Corinthians 12:20-26). While there may come a point where biblical principles constrain us to leave a church (the call to withdraw from unrepentant apostasy, for example), disappointment and difficulty alone are rarely adequate reasons. "But if you only knew how hard it is here you wouldn't say that!" Maybe, but perhaps the Lord has assigned you to a challenging situation either for your own personal sanctification and development or to be a gradual catalyst for change (or both).
[iv] Use your disappointment positively
Let your disappointment drive you to prayer not bitterness. Jesus understands your times of pain and frustration and he can give you the comfort and grace you need to fight Satan's temptation to bail out or jump ship (Hebrews 4:15-16). Of course prayer may also need to be accompanied by lovingly speaking with those you feel let down by or meeting with the leadership to ask for understanding and help. But in all this make Jesus the central source of comfort and strength in your church life. Not only this, try to use whatever negative experiences God has sovereignly permitted in your life for spiritual gain. For example, church life may have been a lonely experience for you at times. You know what it feels like to be ignored or frozen out of conversation by those who should know better. Sadly the law of averages says you probably won't be alone. Take that knowledge and instead of letting it crush your morale use it to make you sensitive to others who may feel the same way. Make it a facet of your personal ministry to welcome visitors, befriend the lonely, and get alongside those who dwell at the margins of church life.
[v] Cultivate the art of forgiveness
We have to keep reminding ourselves that one of the indispensable ingredients to being an effective church member is the ability to be forgiving toward others (Matthew 6:12). A forgiving spirit is a fundamental need in any gathering of redeemed sinners if their witness for Christ is to be effective. After all we would not be in the church at all if it wasn't for the extravagant forgiveness of God toward us. If we then go on to live lives that are quick to be critical of other's faults and slow to let go of perceived hurts then we become living contradictions of the gospel we proclaim. How then will the watching world take us seriously? Coupled with this, a closer look at ourselves can also be humbling. Perhaps our lives are not as perfect as we've convinced ourselves they are. We need to remember Jesus' warning against 'speck spotting' (Matthew 7:1-5)!
[vi] Keep the big picture in mind
Finally let's remember that to be a part of the body of Christ is to be a part of the most exciting building project of all time. The small, sometimes struggling fellowship, the large thriving congregation, the year old church-plant barely gasping for breath, the series of house churches smarting under the persecution of a communist state. All these gatherings are individual building blocks that are being fitted together to make up a glorious whole. At times our involvement in the life of the local church feels pedestrian and culturally irrelevant. It seems it might be more profitable to pour our time and energies into some other noble cause that draws satisfying accolades from the world. Sometimes the building process is painfully slow, it suffers setbacks and builders get hurt, even killed, on site. But let's not lose sight of the bigger picture when the immediate appearance of things gets us down. One day Jesus will return to gather his church from the four corners of the earth. On that day we will see the full importance of our local imperfect fellowship in the eternal plans and purposes of God. What presently seems to us at times small and uninspiring will then be seen to be epic in its significance. And on that day it won't be hard to love the Church anymore because the imperfect will have been replaced by the perfect (Ephesians 1:7-10). But until then we live by faith.