Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in Life Together, talks about looking at our churches through critical lenses:
If we do not give thanks daily for the Christian fellowship in which we have been placed, even where 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 Jesus Christ.
In a tremendous and much needed post, titled On Constantly Taking Your Church’s Temperature, Jared Wilson expands upon Bonhoeffer’s insights, applying them to the contemporary church. Rather, Wilson applies them to ambitious pastors and zealous church members who are overly critical about their own local congregations.
As Wilson relays, Bonhoeffer also said:
When a person becomes alienated from a Christian community in which he has been placed and begins to raise complaints about it, he had better examine himself first to see whether the trouble is not due to his wish dream that should be shattered by God; and if this be the case, let him thank God for leading him into this predicament.
If this advice was followed not only would the Church be better off, but so would the very ones who put themselves above it. If we followed Bonhoeffer’s perspective we would be regularly reminded:
- that God is in control of all things, including where we participate in church life;
- that God loves the church – in all sizes and forms, and various denominations – even with all the obvious flaws and shortcomings.
- that God works out all things for his glory and the good of those called according to his purposes (Romans 8.28);
- and that even being part of a congregation with flaws and weaknesses; one that has a long way to go before it even approaches impressiveness… God can use even a church like that both for his glory and for the spiritual maturation of those who love others and participate in the life of such a congregation.
This does NOT mean that the local church is beyond criticism. But it does mean that the same principles that apply to interpersonal relationships should be applied to our churches. “Speak truth in love”, would be one important example. (See Ephesians 4.15; 1 John 3.18) In other words, if (when) criticism is warranted it MUST be compelled by love for others involved and/or by love for the church corporate. Criticisms should not be leveled simply because the church is not measuring up to our preferences or supplying us the status/identity we desire.
Somehow that has been forgotten or ignored. From stories I hear, and the statistics I see, about the prevalence of church hopping, it seems we have somehow elevated fickleness and selfishness to being spiritual virtues. That’s a sad thing.
When the urge to criticize seems too strong to resist, whether valid or petty, consider these questions for reflection that Wilson offers :
1. Am I disappointed my church isn’t more like Jesus, or that it isn’t more like me?
In the diversity of the body is a diversity of callings and passions. It is not fair, nor gracious, to expect the other members of a body to carry the same individual callings or passions as others. If the problem is disobedience to a clear biblical command, that is one thing. If the problem is disinterest in your interest, that is another.
2. Is the problem a matter for church discipline? Is it an issue of gospel-denial?
Rebukes are for sin, not for disappointment. If your church affirms the gospel but denies emphasis on your area of concern, don’t make a federal case out of it.
3. Can you rehearse the blessings and benefits of your local body as easily as their flaws and failings?
If you are constantly unhappy there and cannot shake envy for the wish-dream, it is better for you to leave in peace than to stay and grumble.
4. Do you see others’ faults more readily than your own?
The answer to this question, for nearly all of us, is yes. So it is with great caution and great desire for grace that we ought to make the faults of others our business. Your church has a long, long way to go, no doubt. Every church does. But so do you.
Let me conclude by admitting I understand the temptations to be critical of the local church. I was once one of those pastors who was easily irked by the inadequacy of the congregation God had entrusted to my care. While I would not admit it aloud, I viewed the weaknesses and lackings of that church as hindrances to my aspirations to do great things for God. But what was even more true, and what I wouldn’t admit even to myself, was that deep down I really viewed the church as an obstacle to my own glory. In short, I despised what Christ loved – and gave his life to claim. (NOTE: Despise does not mean “hate”; it means “not feeling something is worthy of affection”.) God prospered the ministry in that church, but something greater was lacking.
In his grace, and in time, God revealed to me the ungodliness of my perspective. He showed me that the love of Christ is demonstrated in giving oneself to something that is unlovely, inadequate, and even often unappreciative. He reminded me that this is how he has loved me – and continues to love me. He also taught me that to be godly is to love whatever God loves, and that to be Christ-like requires giving myself to what might to others seem unworthy. But while God delivered me from myself, I can at times sense the old me – the one who desperately wants to gain glory for self – thinking about making a comeback. I hear him talking at times, often through the words of others unimpressed with the people I serve. Fortunately, I have learned to ask myself questions like those Jared Wilson poses. In fact, such questions provide me a means of progress toward Christ-likeness.
I hope many will take a few moments to read Jared Wilson’s post. He offers a much needed corrective to a Christian culture more infected by consumerism than many of us want to admit. In it’s place Wilson shows us the essence of gospel-driven ministry and church membership.