*I first read about this topic on another blog post here. For my own church and context I have shared those ideas in my own way. I always want to give credit where it is due.
Let me simply state the truth: church can be a pain. As joyous, loving, and wonderful as the church can be there are times it is painful to be the church. In my years as a pastor I have come across many people who are in pain because of their experience with the church. It may not have been my church or it may have been long before I came to the church, yet they are in pain and weeks, months, or even years later the pain has not subsided.
We need not look far for others to share those things that make them unhappy. From time to time I have heard the complaints. “The music is too _____.” “The preacher is _____.” “_______ said _____ to me and it was rude/selfish/offensive.” “No one cares about me.” “There are too many cliques.” “We need more _____ in the church.” I expect that if you thought about it a bit you may find that you have said similar things yourself.
The pain of being the church is real. There are those who have hurt and some still hurting. I have myself, even as a pastor, wondered if others really cared, felt like an outsider, and been hurt by those who I have trusted. I have grown up in the church. One reality I know is that hurting people hurt people. We lash out at those we love the most because they are closest to us. As a pastor I have been in the crosshairs of comments that have hurt me, even comments said in passing or passed along almost as gossip. These are the comments that do not build up, encourage, or lovingly correct.
For all the problems with opinions, styles, feelings, or needs, there is one theme that runs through all these problems and pains in the church: they are about me, not God. The church is not our building. We are the church. You are the church. The people are the church. All of us are also struggling every day with our sin. The sinful nature does not want to follow God’s plan. The sinful nature is consumed with one theme: me.
When I sin it is because I want what I want. It makes my relationships about me. Sin is selfish. Sin does not care about the other. It does not care about how a comment may affect another. Sin does not care about another’s needs. Sin is focused on me. We can look far and wide for the perfect church and I can promise you will not find it on this side of heaven.
There is hope. First we must face the reality that we have all been hurting and broken. Before Christ makes us whole, we all have hurt and pain. We come to the cross on the same level. There is no one in the church who is greater than another. God loves us all, so we come in that reality understanding that with differing gifts, callings, and plans for our lives that we are all on this journey to grow in our relationship with God together and be more like God. To be more like God is to be holy. We need each other to grow. We cannot do it alone. So how do we grow?
That is simple. First, love God. It sounds easy but it isn’t. Love God first. Love him first in the morning and all through the day. Before you love yourself (and how often are we told in our culture how much we need to love who we are however we are) love God first. Love God so your feelings, opinions, and priorities no longer are your main focus. Love God so much that his priorities, his love, and his grace abound from you in such a way that all others see in you is Jesus. Love God first. That means he is your first priority. Make God happy. Bring God glory. When you start to wonder how someone else is loving God, remember the only one you need to make happy is Jesus. Keep your focus wholly on him.
Second, love your neighbor. Who is your neighbor? Everyone. Love everyone. That includes the annoying neighbor, the rude parishioner, the selfish coworker, and the disloyal former friend. Loving others means forgiving them. Loving others means seeing them as God sees them. Loving those we like is easy. Loving those that have harmed us, those who have turned on us, those who have misunderstood us, and those who annoy us is hard. Love everyone. Love the new and the old people. And by love, God really does mean love. That does not mean treat those who you have known as close friends and newcomers as different. Show love to all. That means that those new members of our community should be accepted and loved just as much as those who have been part of our congregation for generations. Love does not know age, race, sex, ability, gifts, or preferences. Love simply loves others. It is radical, selfless, and God focused. Love gives until it hurts and sacrifices for those who have not earned our sacrifice. Love endures pain. Love does not wait for others to conform to our standards. Love gives first to others no matter how they are, what they have done, or what they can do. How do we love others in such a way as this?
We love as Christ first loved us. When we hurt, we go to God. We have pain, we leave it at the foot of the cross. When we are beat up, shamed, and grieving, know that Christ on the cross is there with us and understands our pain. The church should be the place where we can be in pain. The church should be a beacon to the shamed. The church with the cross should be the center of those who are grieving.
We, the church, are not perfect, but God is perfecting us. He is finishing us. He is working out our salvation each day if we let him. What if our focus each day was wholly on loving God and loving people? What if the music, the preaching, or who else was in the pew really did not matter? What if the length of the service was the last thing on our mind because we are here for Christ and not a schedule? What if we are not so focused on fitting in or our preferences? What if we are here to love God and love people and the rest really did not matter?
The church really can be a pain. We serve a God of transformation. We serve a God who makes the lame walk, deaf hear, sick healed, and the dead alive. God can take all of our pain and transform it into a love for Him and a love for others. This Sunday my focus is not on me. My focus is on God. I will do all I can to love God and to love you. Will you join me?