The Fragile Church Community

churchesI can’t tell you how many people I’ve met who don’t go to church for some reason or another, who stay away because the church is “hypocritical,” or who disdain those lofty cathedrals because churches have been places of spiritual or emotional abuse rather than places of healing.

I’ve served Christ’s Church for nearly 16 years, and I can’t say that I blame people for having those sentiments.  Church is indeed a messy, often conflict-ridden community.  But for those who are willing to give the church a second (or third, or more) chance, I’d like to outline some things to keep in mind when it comes to participating in a fellowship of believers.

First, church is nothing more than a fragile human community hanging on by the thread of God’s grace.

Sometimes we Christians let go of that thread and try to do things on our own.  When we do, things go awry.  We go down paths God never intended for us to go, and we say and do things that are hurtful.

People say that they don’t go to church because of some pastor who was unfaithful with money or with another person, but in most cases, the entire community loses its way and turns from God.

I had a professor who once said that people not only like to sin, but they like to sin together.

Yet, in a healthy community in which people are trying their best to following God’s will, it is a fellowship filled with just as much joy and reconciliation as it is with failure and hurt feelings.

Throughout the Bible, Jesus never cast out his disciples for failing; he did, however, rebuke them for lack of persistence in staying the course.  Just read Revelation, and see how many times Jesus encouraged the churches to “endure.”

Second, churches don’t like change, so it is hard to get anything done with efficiency and expedience.

Consider our world today and the rate of change taking place.  There are changes in healthcare, neighborhoods, schools and families, and in the economy.  Uncertainty creates a culture of paranoia and fear, and our fears often breed depression and soul-sickness.

We expect the church to be the one place where we can feel at home in a sacred space that is consistent, dependable, and safe.  Any change, even if it is positive, intimidates a community who has lived into a certain comfort zone.

Some churches have stopped trying to change altogether.  These are often stale places that look more like social clubs than communities who are called by God to reach their neighborhood for Christ.

Most churches, however, do change, but at a snail’s pace.  This may lead to impatience, miscommunication, and bureaucratic ballyhoo.  But it’s worth the wait, I assure you.

Third, churches work best when everyone is participating in the life of Christian discipleship.  If you go to church only to analyze, critique and observe–without understanding that you are a part of the church–then you will be disappointed along the way.

Each person is the very vessel through whom God works in community.  Each person must try to resolve issues in the church rather than run from them.  We are all responsible for our churches, and all of us must make the effort to grow.

With all of the things that happen in church life, many have given up and asked why its even worth their time to be a part of a community.  That is a valid question.

Yet, for all of the things I’ve seen and experienced in church life, I can’t find a more beautiful, holy, and hope-filled community that welcomes me as family and is always there when I fail or fall.

Without my church family, I would have grieved alone after my father’s death.  Without them, I would not grow in maturity in Christ because I need the mentoring and friendship of others to help me find my way.

Without the church, I would not have a song to sing or a story to tell.  I would not have the means to hear the stories of others who know this faith better than I.

Blessed is the church, the very womb of the Holy Spirit–for it is a sacred place in which the Risen Christ still walks, works, dwells, and commissions.

Being a pastor has its unique…disadvantages

A pastor's face only a mother could love...

A pastor’s face only a mother could love…

When I heard the call to ministry in my teenage years, I wanted everyone to know that I wanted to be a pastor.  I went to school, got experience, landed a great ministry at a great church, and have done fairly well in living out my calling thus far.

It’s odd, then, that years later, I am hesitant to tell people I am a pastor when they ask what I do for a living.

Why am I now so shy to tell people I’m a pastor?  Its probably because when I do get around to that (only after a person asks, of course), I always get some sort of apology that goes something like this: “Oh, I’m sorry I used bad language in front of you,” or “Gee, I hope I didn’t offend you when I told you I liked that movie.”

And my favorite: “Oh my, I wouldn’t have ordered that drink if I knew you were a pastor.”

It’s funny how people change their behavior when they are in the company of clergy.  I’m confident the only other people who feel like that are lawyers (“You’re a lawyer?  May I ask a question?”) and doctors (“Oh, Doctor! I’ve had this pain for the past month…”).

To be honest, I’ve become quite used to that shift in body language, verbal fanfare, and sudden guardedness strangers portray in my company, but it’s still very discomforting.

I guess if I were to give advice to anyone meeting a pastor for the first time, I’d say this: Just be yourself.  Besides, if you have to change how you act, speak, and behave in front of a pastor, you probably shouldn’t act, speak, and behave like that in the first place.

We pastors are normal human beings, too, and we simply want to fellowship with other normal human beings.  I watch all kinds of movies like everyone else.  I have an occasional glass of wine with my meal (I am Italian, after all).  Don’t be surprised if I get grumpy when things don’t go my way.

Nor do I part my hair or wear a tie whenever I leave the house. And I’m certainly not going to quote you the Bible for no good reason in the deli line if you’re acting a fool because the grocer didn’t cut the cheese right.

I prefer authentic people.  I like people who have rough edges and lousy manners and really rotten opinions.  I like people who act strange and get attitudes.  It all makes me feel at home; it reminds me of my family, who also gave up trying to act differently around me a long time ago.

I’m not naive, though.  There will always be people who quickly throw on a mask when I tell them I’m a pastor.  Our hypocrisy knows no bounds, as one crusty movie character once uttered, and we all become white-washed tombs now and then.

Maybe that is why Jesus never got along with the pious crowd.  He knew they were putting on airs, and he spent more time with people who were sinners and knew as much.  “This fellow,” it was once said of Jesus, “welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2).  How repulsive.  My type of guy.

That is why Jesus told some folks who were throwing a dinner not to waste time with those who bandied about their so-called honor, but instead invite the folks who didn’t have enough change to dress the part (Luke 14).

That is why Jesus meets us where we are, offers himself to us without asking much in return, and simply calls us disciples as long as we put one foot in front of the other.

On second thought, maybe Jesus gets along great with people because when they ask him what he does for a living, he still says, “Carpenter.”  And who doesn’t like a carpenter?