As our church makes the slow but intentional shift toward Missional Communities, I found this illustration to be a good picture of the contrast between common perception and ideal reality of what such communities, or small groups, and even church is like.
On the left side, “What People Think It Looks Like“, we see the idea that the Christian life is one that should be free of ugliness. It makes sense, right? If all the people in the group are saved by Jesus, forgiven of sin, and empowered to overcome their sin, then a gathering of Christians should be pretty clean, and always leading us upaward. Isn’t this what Paul calls for in Ephesians 4?
I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called,2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (v. 1-3 ESV)
11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (v. 11-13 NIV)
It is the picture God calls for, through Paul, in these verses. But it is the ideal; the objective. It is not the complete picture, at least not at present. It is sort of a Norman Rockwell version of the Christian life lived in community. It is true. But it does not show the complexity, and the brokenness that is all around us, nor the baggage that we all carry in varying degree.
But we have hope to experience it. Afterall, God has promised it. He has said that he is at work in us, and he would finish what he started. (Philippians 1.6) And we get a taste of it, if we have the privilege of engaging in a genuine Christian community.
The picture on the right, however, “What It Really Looks Like“, is a reflection of the present reality of Christian community. It is often messy. And if it is done right, it should get messier. This is OK, though, because this is God’s means of achieving the picturesque image we may have in our minds when reading Ephesians 4. It is the sharing of life, the freedom and safety to unload our baggage in the presence of others who, rather than judging and comdeming, help us to sort through it, to own our part, and to see ourselves – and our messes – as God sees: through the lenses of the gospel.
Because each of us has our own mess, it only makes sense that a collection of people would look like a bigger mess. But there is a beauty in that mess! Because in the midst of that mess, love is shown. Love leads to freedom and honesty. Honesty leads us to the gospel, the power of which transforms us, cleanses us, and frees us from the bondage of all that is aweful and ugly.
Neil Cole has rightly said:
“Life is messy. If someone doesn’t break your heart, you’re not doing it right.”
Likewise, if we are living in community with other Christians, and it never gets messier, it may be a sign that we are not doing it right. Thank God for the messes! Thank God that he cares about our messes! Thanks to God, he has promised to clean our messes, and use other messed up people in the process.
Please note that while the picture on the right is messy, it does go up. It is not that there is no evidence of change, of improvement. There certainly is! It is just not always a pretty picture on the way. But it is beautiful – to God and to us – both in process and as a result. This is the beautiful reality of the Christian community – the church.