The Church: A Place Where Things Can Be Messy

John ArmstrongThe Christian Minister/Ministry, The Church, Unity of the Church

I am a devoted churchman. I serve the church broadly through ACT 3. I also serve specific churches locally. I am the member of a local church and a minister in the Reformed Church in America. I am committed to the church as the visible expression of Christ's bride and as a sinful people who have found grace in Jesus Christ.

Perhaps the most frequent question that I am asked, from almost every church background that I know, is this: "Why does it seem that so many churches are in a state of personal crisis and conflict these days?" (It was not always this bad. I have lived long enough to see the level of church problems increase rather dramatically over my six decades.)

I could offer many observations and responses to this question based upon my experience as a pastor and a consultant. I can also offer some answers based on my understanding of the church in the New Testament. For starters, we all know that no church is "perfect." No system or government is without flaws, whether secular or sacred. The reason for this is simple: in all forms of government people are involved and people are sinful. When we put too much confidence in princes or pastors we fail to see that Jesus is Lord. He does not share that Lordship with any human authority. Many evangelicals believe that if they get a system of government that is closely aligned with what they believe the New Testament teaches then the problems will end. I have seen this kind of thinking tried again and again. No system of government works without (often serious) flaws because all such systems involve people. There are many mistakes that pastors and people make but none is more common, from what I've seen, than the myth that by getting the right form of church structure and leadership we can solve the problems. Even the pope confesses his personal sins on a regular basis. We could all follow his model and the church would be better for it.

Another reason for so much of this present chaos in the church is that modern Americans have increasingly treated the church like a corporation and the pastor like a CEO. The idea of a family, albeit a large one in some cases, has been all but lost. The church is a building, but one made up of living stones, not just bricks and mortar. It is family with brothers and sisters, albeit brothers and sisters who sometimes disagree. The church is also a political body, in the sense that it has form to follow with rules and procedures. But the dominant image should be a family.

Further, the church today seems to be suffering under the weight of numerous cultural and spiritual sins that cripple its effectiveness. One such sin is clearly prayerlessness. Another is the misuse of power by our leaders. Then there are people with all their own problems that they bring into the church and expect the church to conform to them. The list could be stretched to include a whole host of similar issues. All I know is that the church in America is seeing one congregation after another turn inward and then divide over this issue and that. The facts are plain. In the era of the great mega-churches Christianity is in serious decline in America.  

I thought about this problem recently because I heard about another church that I deeply love going through a pastor/elder/congregational debate about the future of the pastor's call. (There are no moral charges in this instance, just a disagreement about the effectiveness and appropriateness of the pastor's ministry.) After some back and forth the elders sent a letter to the congregation last week. In the final paragraph the elders encouraged their people to be honest with their neighbors about the trials that their church has endured in recent months. I love the way the elders finished this report with these words:

[When people ask about our church] candidly tell them the truth. Tell them that it is messy. Tell them it is not fixed yet and tell them that we are hurting. Ask them to pray for us. Tell them we need it and then tell them this: if you were ever looking for a place where you could go to church with a messy marriage, kids who weren’t fixed and problems that hadn’t been neatly solved, then we have just the place for them; it is called ________. This is the perfect time to join us. We’re accepting new sinners daily. Jesus told us that there is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety- nine righteous men who have no need of repentance. That is true of churches, too! We have great need of repentance and a Savior who rejoices in a people who will do so. God is at work. Please be in prayer for [our Sunday] meeting, our leadership, our congregation, our staff, our missionaries and our community.