A friend handed me a book. “We’re studying this at our church,” he said. I was struck by the incongruity of that, because the title was, “I Love My Church, But–”
He said, “We all have this love/hate relationship with the Lord’s church, don’t we? We love it for a thousand reasons, but hate what it tends to become when we’re not careful or the wrong people sit in the driver’s seat.”
That started me thinking. I do love the church when it’s loving and strong and good, and I hate it when it’s bickering and splintered and selfish.
I love the church when it’s like Jesus and hate it when it’s too much like me.
I love the church when it’s into giving and hate it when it’s all about getting.
I love the church when it’s serving the community and hate it when it’s complaining about its neighbors and throwing its weight around.
I have devoted all my adult life–literally, I was 22 when I began pastoring and will be 70 my next birthday–to serving the Lord’s church. In fact, you could say Jesus and I have in common that we both love the church, for we read that “Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her.” (Ephesians 5:25)
I have not “given myself up for her” in the sense the Lord did, of course. I do carry a few scars on my soul from my years of fighting for the church, but they are nothing compared to His sacrifice of love.
I sat down one day and made a list of my wishes for the church. You might be interested in reading it, and perhaps in adding your own items to it. In doing so, let us both remember that the church is the Lord’s however, and what we want more than anything is for His will to be done and not ours.
One: I wish the church were less of a business and more of a family.
A business exists for the bottom line, to turn out a product, to seek out what the market wants and to fill that need. I can’t count the times I’ve heard some well-intentioned layman say, “Well, the church is a business, you know.” To the best of my recollection, I’ve never argued with them. It seemed pointless.
But I do now.
What business do you know that is run by faith and prayer and love? What business do you know does not care a whiff if it’s making a profit financially so long as lives are being changed and God is well-pleased?
A church is a family. The people who make it up are always there, making a big deal of your big moments, putting others first and emphasizing the individual. Churches are about loving relationships.
“Behold, my mothers and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:33-35) If we are Jesus’ family, we certainly are that for each other.
Families–the ones I know–have fun. They laugh and play together, they work together, then they enjoy a good meal and give each other a little space. They kid each other and once in a while, they argue. But they always get back together because they are all they have. But woe to the outsider who picks on a member of the family. He has to deal with them all, because they are a unity.
It was Robert Frost who said, “Home is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
You can always go home to the family. (See Mark 5:19 on this subject.)
Two: I wish the church were less like the world and more like Heaven.
The churches of my acquaintance have often reflected the standards of the world far more than the desires of the Heavenly Father, to our deep shame and His disappointment. We have built our castles and called them cathedrals, shunned the outcasts and called it high standards, turned a blind eye to corruption in local politics and greed in business and called it “staying with our message.”
I wish our values were more of Heaven than of earth. Gold? They pave Heaven’s streets with it; it’s almost worthless. People? They are the gold coin of Heaven; let’s get as many as possible in.
I wish our ethics were less of earth and more of God. Truth, integrity, fairness, honesty, and righteousness.
I wish we were less race-conscious and more color-blind, less critical of how others worship and more accepting.
I wish we were more joyful and less somber. And when we do make an effort to be joyful, I wish it were less artificial and forced and more spontaneous and heartfelt.
I wish we in the church were praising God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and not ignoring God.
I wish we were a light into this world and not a mirror of the world.
Three: I wish the church were less like a club and more like a ministry.
It’s not enough to like each other, greet one another, and take ourselves out to lunch. As the Lord said, “Even sinners do that.” (Luke 6:32)
“You are to love those who are strangers,” God told Israel in Deuteronomy 10:19. Why? “Because you yourselves were strangers in Egypt.”
If you know what it’s like to be a newcomer, an oddball, the alien, you will be more likely to reach out to welcome the next outsider who walks in.
I read once of a monk who entered the monastery with his countenance sad and his face drooping. When called to account for his long face, he explained that he had found no one to rescue that day.
Our purpose is to bear fruit, Jesus said in John 15:16.
I suspect most of us have dropped in on churches and Sunday School classes that have not received a new member in ages, and likes things that way. They tend to freeze out newcomers and treat them with disdain, guaranteeing they will not make the mistake of returning.
I once attended a college sorority meeting. The president of Phi Mu at Mississippi State was Ann Ross, now married to an outstanding pastor. I was in town to speak at the Baptist Student Union on campus, so Ann invited me to a late-night session of their sorority. Prior to addressing the young women–there must have been fifty or more crowded into that small room–I sat back and observed their meeting, something I expect very few men have had the privilege of doing.
These beautiful young women oohed and ahhed over this one or that one who was announcing her engagement and celebrated other achievements of the group. I was their guest, but I was not a member. I was different (i.e., not a college student and most importantly of all, not a female!).
I was not invited back.
It was a club and I didn’t fit.
We smile at that, but we must never, ever let the Lord’s church become a club made up of people we have chosen because they are like us and limited to those we like.
A church is about ministry, about giving ourselves a ransom for many.
Chuck Swindoll’s mother saw a young woman weeping in a cemetery near a marble tombstone. She went over and told the grieving woman about Jesus. Her heart was tender and open to the Lord. As a result, that young widow who came to Jesus that day began a graveyard ministry, searching out the grieving among the tombstones to tell them of Jesus. In time, Swindoll said, the woman led hundreds to Christ.
I wish the church were more like that.
Four: I wish the church were less like a police force and more like a hospital.
People tense up when a policeman enters the room. Yesterday as I write, I was having lunch in a local restaurant. I’d taken a seat in the far rear and was engrossed in my book when I looked up and saw a blue-clad cop standing five feet away. Now, I’m a preacher and law-abiding and respectful of these men and women in blue, but I confess my first reaction was to tense up. Then I noticed others entering. Soon the table to my left was filled with a half-dozen young macho males wearing the uniforms of the local police force.
Had I looked up from my book and seen leaders from a local church setting their trays down on the table, I would not have given it a second thought.
I once heard a highway patrolman admit that when he’s off-duty and driving the family vehicle, he also feels guilty when a blue light approaches his car from the rear. Human nature, I suppose.
The church is not the enforcer of anyone’s laws, not even God’s.
Show me one place in the Scripture where the Lord Jesus instructed His disciples to make unbelievers conform to God’s law, and I’ll retract that. I don’t think you’ll find one.
The church ought to be more like a hospital.
In its purest form, a hospital is a place for healing without regard to ability to pay or race or anything else I can think of. It provides an emergency room for urgent needs, intensive care for critical situations, and nurseries for babies.
We who make up the church are its nurses and aides and doctors and maids and orderlies and technicians and staff.
The Lord Jesus saw Himself as the Physician who had come to minister to the sick.
When the Lord’s people function as policemen, we find our greatest pleasure in catching someone doing wrong.
I wish we were not like that, but found our highest pleasure in helping someone get well and then do well.
The churches I have known over these decades of ministry tend to drift downward….
…away from being like a family to becoming more of a business.
…away from ministry to being a club.
…away from resembling Heaven to mirroring the world.
…away from being a hospital to becoming more of a law enforcement agency.
Those who lead and love the Lord’s churches must always work at staying alive and fresh and responsive to the Holy Spirit. The “new wine” requires “new wineskins,” Jesus said in Matthew 9:17. Whatever else that means, it calls for God’s people to be flexible and adaptable to the Spirit.
We must be always willing to try new things, to walk away from outdated and outmoded things and events and programs no longer working.
We must be aggressive in reaching out to help others and stern with our own membership when tempted to give in to putting our own needs ahead of others.
We must be ever discipling ourselves. We must work to achieve our “fighting weight” and keep our “game shape,” as someone has said.
Paul instructed Timothy to “stir up the gift within you.” (II Timothy 1:6)
Everything settles, every fire dies down, every new experience becomes commonplace eventually. What was revolutionary this morning becomes old hat by nightfall. This morning’s cutting edge is tonight’s stale bread. (Hey, I can mix metaphors with the best of them!)
The Lord’s church must never attach itself to the spirit of this age, the customs of the world or the convictions of a strong leader.
We must lift up our heads and look in the distance where the Lord stands, overseeing His people. The prayer on our lips–always on our lips, ever the desire of our hearts–is, “Lord, what will you have us to do?”
Help your church, Dear Lord.
Forgive us for trying to make it “the way we wish it were.” What do you want it to become? Help us to work in that direction. Amen.