Europeans came to the American wilderness looking for Eden, and Americans have been looking for it ever since. John Winthrop, one of the founding Puritans, framed it in terms of community. In his famous "City on a hill" speech, he describes the "city" he and his fellow voyagers are hoping to establish this way:
We must entertain each other in brotherly affection; we much be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others necessities; we must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience, and liberality. We must delight in each other, make others' conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together: always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body.
This lovely vision became clouded within a generation, and Puritan preachers soon lamented the "great and visible decay of the power of Godliness amongst many" (from "The Result of the 1679 General Synod"). Many an American preacher and writer since have repeated the lament, right up to our day. We mock the angry revivalist for his self-righteous condemnation of backslidden believers, but beneath the jeremiad, huddled in the corner of his breast, is a weeping child, wounded and weary with the church, that community in which he had put so much hope and only found disappointment.
Many wax eloquent about disappointment with God, just as many lament their disappointment with the church. At least one major book a year rehearses the lament. In 2007, there was unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity … and Why It Matters, by Dave Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons. The following year, Washington Times writer Julia Duin gave us Quitting Church: Why the Faithful Are Fleeing and What to Do about It. Coming out shortly is Larry Crabb's Real Church: Does It Exist? Can I Find It?
These books detail the reasons why so many find the church disappointing, to the point that they are leaving in proverbial droves. While Puritan preachers castigated those departing the church, these modern jeremiads defend the departing and point an angry finger at the church. And with good reason: Anyone who has imbibed the New Testament's compelling vision of a Spirit-led church resonates deeply with Winthrop's description of Christian community. Such a vision gets planted deep in our breasts. So attracted are we to it that some are willing to leave a secure homeland and risk a hazardous journey across the face of the deep to be a part of it.
And so we enter door after church door, hoping to find a community where we can, in Winthop's apt phrase, "delight in each other." What we bump into time and again is just a building full of people. Some delight in each other all right, but to the point of excluding us. In other places, Winthop's words about "meekness, gentleness, patience, and liberality" are but antonyms of what we experience. There is "labor and suffering," though not "together" but instead against each other. The church, we discover too soon for our liking, is nothing but a house of sinners, a great and visible display of the "decay of the power of Godliness."
So we empathize with many who wander into the wilderness of faith without community. Some write about these lonely sojourners, while most of us just long for, in the words of Crabb, a church that stands out "as an alternative community that offers what everyone was created to enjoy." Or, as his title suggests, a "real church."
I wonder, though, if in our search for a "real church," we fail to see the actual church Jesus Christ calls us into. This church he created; it is also the church that, from the beginning, has proven to be a problem — for example, the church of Corinth, with its incest; the church of Galatia, with its legalism; and the church of Laodicea, with its lukewarm faith.
Time has hardly healed all. Through the ages, this church has proven itself incapable of living up to its own ideals. If we face the facts, we have to say that this is the real church in history. And that's a good thing, because this is the church that Jesus is crazy in love with. The one he died for. The one he still — even after the Inquisition and the Crusades and the Salem Witch Trials — puts his name on, like a father who, as he dresses to attend his son's basketball game, proudly dons the school sweatshirt, even though his son has done much to disappoint him as of late.
This should tell us something about the God we serve. And about the type of company he has chosen to keep. And the type of company he wants us to keep, if we want to be with him.
I sometimes wonder if God (the sly one) is up to something, something we can hardly imagine this most days. I wonder if he calls us into the church not because it represents "the people of God" at our best but at our worst. I wonder if he calls those of us frustrated with church, those of us who think the church is not good enough for our godly aspirations, to become embedded in this wretched institution precisely because it is wretched. And calls us to be a part of it not to reform it or save it, but to remind ourselves week in and week out that, truth be told, we're just like these sinners.
I wonder if he calls us to join a particular church precisely because, well, as the body of Christ, it remains a stumbling block and an offense (1 Cor. 1). Are we really following the Crucified One if there is nothing about him that scandalizes us? Perhaps life in a local church, an institution despised by many, can teach us like no other the ways of humility, forbearance, and mercy.
Maybe once we learn those things — and thus begin, finally, to look a little bit like the Crucified One — that's when we will learn to delight in and with the very people we've been tempted to despise.
Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today. This column is cross-posted on his blog. His newest book has just been released: A Great and Terrible Love: A Spiritual Journey into the Attributes of God (Baker).
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