The other day, one of my pastoral students came to me after class. “A few of us have been talking, and we have a question for you. Are you trying to discourage us?” It is not the first time I’ve heard this question. Discouragement is not my intention. I am aiming for disillusionment. I want to shatter my students’ romanticized notion of church life and replace it with one that is more realistic.
In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer warns of the damage caused by unrealistic expectations of life in the church. “Certainly, serious Christians who are put in a community for the first time will often bring with them a very definite image of what Christian communal life should be, and they will be anxious to realize it,” Bonhoeffer explains. “But God’s grace quickly frustrates all such dreams. A great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and if we are fortunate, with ourselves is bound to overwhelm us, as surely as God desires to lead us to an understanding of Christian community.”
This gift of disillusionment is not an easy one to accept. We tend to be idealists when it comes to the church. We would rather hold on to our dreams. But instead of an ideal community, what we get is the church as it really is. Not our delicate airbrushed fantasy of those who always act in love and speak kindly to one another, but a loutish, clumsy-tongued, rabble with dirty feet. God allows this, not to make us cynical, but for our own good. Disillusionment with the church and even with ourselves is a gift. Bonhoeffer cautions, “Only that community which enters into the experience of this great disillusionment with all its unpleasant and evil appearances begins ...1