Tag Archives: the Church

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3 ways I’d fix the Church if I could

We left our church over a year ago, and we have a new church home we love, but I still often find myself heartbroken over the old one. I wanted to fix the church. I loved those people, I think they genuinely loved God and others, but we had to leave because they were missing three things—transparency, freedom, and grace. Without those, you can have a very nice religion, be pious and do good. But you will always have the danger of hypocrisy, legalism, and destruction, and you will never have the gospel of Christ.

Transparency/Hypocrisy

A church has to be honest about who they are. If you’re legalistic, OK: be legalistic. If, bottom line, a church holds that there are a set of inviolable rules, and the ultimate expectation is that you will agree with their definition of the rules and follow all of their rules, then put the rules on your website.

We saw this over and over again when we were church shopping last year, and I think it comes from a sincere place. Everyone knows Christian faith is not supposed to be about introducing division over trivial matters, and so they really want to be their best selves and put the important tenants of the faith out there as who they are. The danger, though, is when it crosses over from “aspiring toward our best nature” into “appearing as something we’re not”, which is very near to the type of hypocrisy that Christ condemned in the most scathing possible terms.

Better to just own our prejudices and be forthcoming about the ways we know we’re missing the mark.

Freedom/Legalism

I’ve written before about Christian freedom, which means freedom from Hebrew law. Not just parts of Hebrew law, scripture doesn’t support that. It’s all or nothing. And yet, our modern American Church often preaches the need for certain people to obey certain parts of the law, while we ourselves enjoy Christian freedom from those other parts of Hebrew law that would have affected us. This, again, Christ unequivocally condemned.

Legalism and freedom are opposites. If we must live under some law, we must live under all of it. I think most of us would prefer freedom. And if we assert that obeying law is essential to pleasing God, then we throw in our lot with the hypocritical religious leaders of Christ’s day, rather than with Christ himself.

Grace/Destruction

And yet in all of this— important though transparency and freedom are— it is the factual absence of grace that is the death knell of a church. Oh, churches know the word “grace”. Thousands of them even name themselves after it. But in today’s Church, many of us have lost the real import of the word.

How often have we heard it preached that grace means second chances? The notion that no one is too far gone? That we always have room for the return of a sinner who repents? Certainly it’s easy to imagine the opposite world, in which a one-time sinner is never welcomed back, however much they amend their ways. So the principle of second chances is real and good and correct.

But it’s not the same as grace.

Because if grace is only second chances, then Christ didn’t accomplish anything and notion of a “Christian grace” is meaningless. See, they had second chances already. Even the Pharisees had them. Christ’s words: “You teachers of the law and Pharisees… you travel over land and sea to win a single convert…” Who were those converts going to be, if not people who weren’t Pharisees already? “Just clean up your act, make some changes, start living like us…” That is the Pharisee notion of second chances: acceptance because you deserve it now. What Christ sacrificed to buy us is something different: acceptance in the knowledge that none of us “deserves it”.

This kind of grace only has one restriction:

  • Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?
  • This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.
  • Do not judge, or you too will be judged.
  • With the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

Simple as that. Grace means, a way is open to God in spite of all shortcomings—ours, theirs, anyone’s— if we will only offer that chance to others too, as if our lives depended on it. Cleaning up your act is great, but it has nothing to do with grace. In tying the two together, many of today’s churches set a bushel basket over the true light of God’s transforming redemption, tying up burdens and placing obstacles, in a way that destroys others and themselves.

If I had to choose just one way to fix the Church today, it would be that.

Ideal Church

All I want in a church is…

My wife and I broke up with our church in January. We had been there for three years, and it’s not what you think. We have never been church “attenders”. We have never been the people who demand that we be served with a product that is to our liking, or we will take our business elsewhere. We invest.

This was our second church in the past ten years. During that time, my wife started a MOPS group and served for two years as its director. I did a yearlong pastoral ministries internship. We both started and led small groups.

Here’s the problem. You have to believe in your church.

You have to believe in the gospel that they preach.

For me, there are two “must haves” that I used to assume all churches had: room for the Holy Spirit, and grace for one another.

Room for the Holy Spirit

We live in a secular age, and through the power of human effort we have accomplished a lot. It is tempting to “do church” the same way. We make a plan, we set a budget, we track our progress, we achieve our goal! God’s kingdom is advanced.

Here is the problem. In none of this are we experiencing God. Some religions work fine that way, because they consist of a list of dos and don’ts, principles to observe, rules to follow. Some people treat Christianity as one of those religions. But it is not.

“I am the vine and you are the branches,” says Christ, “so long as you remain in me, and I in you, you will bear much fruit. Apart from me, you can do nothing.” Christian faith is not a system, it is a relationship, a window into a larger world, and like Luke Skywalker vs. the training droid, you cannot connect to that larger world while remaining fully in control.

Grace for one another

All churches claim to have grace. Some even name themselves after it: a Google search for “grace church” comes back with over 100 million hits. It all sounds good, and you can go to those churches for a long time before you realize where the grace is limited.

Maybe grace is available to you…

To my mind, limited grace is no grace; it smacks strongly of loving only those who love you.

My dream

Last week at Starbucks, my wife and I ran into a dear old friend from two churches ago. We were delighted to see her, and all of us nearly made ourselves late catching up. Since we are “between churches” right now, we asked her where she is going. Turns out, she is also “between churches”, and I spent a few minutes sharing my vision of a Spirit-filled, grace-filled church. “I know, right?” she agreed, “I’m just not sure that a church like that exists anymore.”

Deep down in my heart, I believe it does. The word of God assures me that out there, somewhere, there are former pharisees and former “sinners” who have found true redemption. Somewhere there is a church of all of them.

Somewhere, meeting together, are those who have recognized their own imperfections too deeply to ever exclude others for languishing in imperfection; whose faith in their own power is limited by the memory of a time that only a power greater than themselves was able to restore them to sanity.

Somewhere on Earth, there is an echo of that great church, a multitude from every nation, tribe, people and language, praising God together.

I am praying to find that church. All I want in a church… is that.