If you can’t be with the one you love…
One of the odd and lamentable features of church life is the tendency toward grumbling and complaining about church life. It’s nothing new. Our Israelite forbears fell under some hefty discipline from the Lord because they grumbled and complained (see Numbers 14:1-38, cf. Philippians 2:14). I guess it is inevitable that there will always be a degree of grumbling and complaining from within church communities, because (as Eugene Peterson continually points out) church communities are sinful- it kind 0f goes with the territory (cf. Acts 6:1). What makes me sad is generalised pot-shots at the church in general from those who are leaders of the church. For example, in this past couple of years I have heard a fair bit of cynical waffling about the state of the church in the UK from voices that are regarded as “prophetic” (NB the “scare quotes”). I confess that I find it difficult to regard anything as prophetic that spends more time lambasting the church’s failure than speaking to the church about her true identity and destiny. Prophetic voices ought to reflect the concerns of the divine bridegroom, not the voice of the demonic accuser, after all.
Here’s a lengthy quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who perhaps more than anyone may have had reason to offer a “prophetic” take on the church in the early-mid 20th Century.
If we do not give thanks daily for the Christian Fellowship in which we have been placed, even when there is no great experience, no discoverable riches, but much weakness, small faith, and difficulty; if on the contrary, we only keep complaining to God that everything is so paltry and petty, so far from what we expected, then we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow according to the measure and riches which are there for us all in Christ.
This applies in a special way to the complaints often heard from pastors and zealous members about their congregations. A pastor should not complain about his congregation, certainly not to other people, but also not to God. A congregation has not been entrusted to him in order that he should become its accuser before God and men…What may appear weak and trifling to us may be great and glorious to God…The more thankfully we daily receive what is given to us, the more surely and steadily will fellowship increase and grow from day to day as God pleases.
Yikes. That certainly has a convicting edge to it.
Bonhoeffer also though that the church was ‘a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.’ That is a vital piece to keep in mind lest we fall into the trap of thinking that the church is our project- our creation- that we must get right at all costs. Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus, telling them that ‘through the church, the manifold wisdom of God [is] made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places’ (Eph 3:10). I think it’s really important to recognise that it is the existence or presence of the church, not the relative “success” of the church, that makes the wisdom of God know to rulers and authorities in the heavenly places (there’s a great post on the church by my friend Matt Hosier over at Think Theology that expresses a really positive view of the church).
Nobody wants church to be a damp squib. Yet as much as pastors and congregations may disagree about what exactly a decent expression or experience of church might look like, let’s hear Bonhoeffer’s exhortation and aim our hearts (and mouths!) at thanksgiving. To take a Crosby, Stills & Nash song dreadfully out of context, ‘If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.’