The church is messed up. We don’t need to get defensive about that. It is made up of messed up people, and it is led and shepherded by messed up people. You don’t need to look far to find real stories of how the church has hurt people through hypocrisy, failed nations through inactivity and betrayed the cause of Christ through lovelessness and power mongering. It’s messed up. In fact, that shouldn’t even be an accusation against her in some ways. What other way could it be? If it is going to be a safe place for sinners, then it is going to be full of sinners, and so it shouldn’t surprise us in any way that this community struggles to get its act together. It is by the very nature of the gospel a place for people who can’t get their act together. But, that can’t and mustn’t be an excuse for passivity. We must do better as ambassadors for Christ, and recipients of the gospel of grace that is supposed to drive us towards greater Christlikeness.
No one feels this tension more than pastors. We get front-row seats to the failings of Christ’s bride. To make matters worse, we know how sinful we are as we sit in those seats, and so we find ourselves (or should find ourselves) unable to cast stones at our struggling people because we are them, and they are us.
With all that said, pastors also get front row seats to the times when the church acts as the church should, and when that happens there is literally nothing like it in this world. Yesterday I got to see some of that. It wasn’t in a worship gathering, or a baptismal service or anything public. I got to make a new member phone call (which is one of the great privileges of my job). On these calls we get to hear people’s stories of faith, and life, and we give people opportunity to ask questions, to make observations, and to speak about their brief experience of journeying with our little community of faith. One of yesterday’s calls had me in tears.
It was with a new member in our church who is living in South Africa, but like so many here, he is from a neighboring country. He is here with his wife and one of his kids, but he has three kids that he had to leave behind, even though they are between the ages of 9 and 16. He works as a gardener so that he can send money back to them for their survival.
He is one of my heroes.
We so easily speak of a widely held narrative of African fathers who abandon their families, but often what is actually going on is that heroes are making the toughest decision of their lives to leave the ones they love so that they can provide for their children.
As we spoke, I wondered what it must be like for him to be part of a community in one of the most affluent suburbs on our continent. A community where many of the people who gather are more like his employers than his peers. I suspected that he was going to say how hard it had been, but he said something that left me floored and grateful.
He said: “Ross, what I have loved most about BBC has been my Gospel Community (small group). They have treated me like an equal from day one, and so now I believe you when you say that we are all image bearers of our God, and all saved by His same grace.”
What a thought! In our deeply divided society, sits a gardener in the lounge of a business leader. They read the Scriptures together. They eat together. They pray together. They rejoice together. They mourn together. They repent together. They extend grace together. They are like family. It’s messed up.
This is the church being what only the church can be. It isn’t fancy and won’t be rewarded and it won’t be as publicly celebrated as our failings are publicly paraded, but it matters. This is what the Kingdom of God is like. Seemingly small, and apparently insignificant, but completely counter-cultural, and able to turn people’s worlds upside down (or right side up) as a result.
The church is messed up.
But she is Christ’s.
He is going to continue to use her to turn the world upside down.
Keep being the church. It matters.