Friday, November 30, 2007

The Ever-Elusive Problem-Free Church

In response to my latest blog at Today's Christian Woman, a reader asks:

“[At two churches I attended], there was so much backbiting and slandering the pastors that it split both churches. We were really bothered by this behavior and regretfully, we left the church and have not attended for about 3 years. … I have thought of visiting another denomination, but my husband says that this type of problem is in most churches. Is this true?”

I replied:

I do believe there are problems in every church for a couple reasons. First, the ideal church should be a place where the broken go for healing and comfort. So church is set up to be a place where people bring their problems.

Second, even when life is treating us well, we still carry the problem of sin. Try as we might to be Christlike, we Christians still have the choice to sin. We can choose to be jealous, prideful, arrogant, bitter, selfish and intolerant at any time we like. Unfortunately, we all make that bad choice sometimes. We expect church to be a safe place where we can be loved exactly as we are ... yet sometimes, we don't treat others how we'd like to be treated.

Third, we tend to develop close relationships in church, so inevitably, we'll be let down or we'll let someone else down. And that's true of all relationships--even with our closest family and friends, there are days when we just don't like them.

I've had two distinct church experiences: "plugged in" and "disconnected." I attended one church for more than two years, and managed to never connect with one person! It didn't seem like a friendly church, and when I made attempts to meet others, I always felt disappointed. I never developed enough trust to be in community there.

At my current church, I made a decision to plug in and stay connected, no matter what. The environment of friendliness and transparency (modeled by the pastor) initially made it easier to be friendly and transparent myself. But I soon found that, even in a great church, people are people. Many people at my church have disappointed me at some point, and I know I've let many down myself. Sometimes I get so mad, I'm tempted to leave--the idea of anonymity at a new church becomes mighty attractive. Somehow, I've stuck with my decision to stay plugged in.

To complete my lil' analogy: I now know how it feels to be disconnected. It's like I'm dead: I can't grow, I can't move, and I'm just stuck in the same place. Conversely, when I'm plugged in, I'm connected to an energizing source. Sometimes my output exceeds what's being put into me. Sometimes I blow a fuse. But if I stay put, I trust God's going to fix it--he's the one at the fuse box. He always flicks the switch before I pull my plug, and I figure he's probably using problems and conflict to built perseverance into me.

When I get angry at someone, I pray as honestly as I'm able, "God, I really hate this person. I can't stand being around them, and I hate going to church because they're there. But I figure you've got them at this church and in my life for a reason. Please help me see them in a new way, and give me some way to love them. Help me to see the faults and sin in myself that are preventing me from loving them like you do." It's probably the most difficult prayer for me to pray, but I've seen God do mind-blowing stuff when I pray it. I've had people approach me immediately after I prayed and say, "I have this character flaw, and I think I might have hurt you because of it. Would you pray with me about it?"

Honestly, even if there was a perfect, perpetually happy church, I wouldn't want to go there. I'm neither perfect nor perpetually happy, so I wouldn't fit in very well! The hardest part about being in community is acknowledging that we're equal--our own flaws are just as bad as everyone else's, and we all hold the same sinfulness.

To ponder:
1) How would you respond if someone asked you this?

2) I love the word "perseverance" because I see the word "sever" in the center of it. I imagine "sever" would like to separate itself, but it is bookended by two other pieces that press in on it and hold it in place.

What is it that presses in on you and holds your relationships together when you feel like giving up on others and going it alone?

3) Consider this portion of the definition of perseverance: "to maintain a purpose in spite of difficulty, obstacles, or discouragement."

Read Hebrews 12:1-3 and 1 Timothy 4:15-16. In regard to these passages, why is it important that we persevere? Where should our focus be? How does perseverance affect both ourselves and others?

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