The Unperfect Church
It's two minutes before church is supposed to begin the space is empty. The musicians are getting ready and my elderly mother is sitting in one of the chairs looking at the bulletin she just folded. I walk up to the pulpit dejected. It will probably be a church service with just the musicians and Mom, I think to myself.
As the opening hymn starts up, the people start to show up. Slowly, but surely it starts to feel like church and the dejection I had earlier melts away as the stragglers start to participate in worship.
My church is a small gathering, which isn't unusual- this has always been a very small congregation at least since I started serving here 9 years ago. But in the before times (which means before COVID) there were always people that were at church getting things ready for the worship service. But not meeting in person for 14 months changes things dramatically. We've had a few people who left the congregation. Others ended up worshipping from home for health reasons.
But others have started worshipping with us as well and I'm thankful for the gifts and perspectives they give to the community.
Another nature of the post-COVID church is something that was already happening before we had to go online: people aren't there every Sunday. I remember reading somewhere that the average person attends a little over 1 Sunday a month. As a pastor, I wish I could see more people per month, but I also know that's not going to happen. I'm going to have to accept that this is what church will be right now and probably for the foreseeable future.
I think this is a hard thing for pastors to accept. It's hard because pastors have this vision of the perfect. Odd, I know, since we are supposed to be the ones that help people understand grace. It's not that we expect perfect churches in the aggregate; but we do expect our particular church to have perfect members. In one way or another we are told in seminary and in books, that the current church is messed up with members that aren't so devoted. We are called to come in and whip people into shape to become exceptional followers of Jesus.
This happens especially for those who worry that their congregation isn't focused enough on justice issues, but I also think it can affect those of us who are more orthodox as well. Whether you are progressive, orthodox or evangelical, pastors get it in their heads that something is wrong with the church and they have to get it back on track.
No messiah complex there.
But pastors are also running into this challenge where the perfect church meets reality with a bit of COVID mixed in for good measure.
This is why this blog post by theologian Brad East is in some ways a godsend. He talks about how he used to be Hauerwasian (after theologian Stanley Hauerwas) in his belief, but has cooled over time in favor of what he calls "a church for normies." East doesn't really go after Hauerwas as much as his followers who see the church as the following:
...a small band of deeply committed disciples whose life together is aptly described as an “intentional community.” These are people who know their Bibles, who have strong and well-informed theological opinions, who are readers and thinkers, who have college degrees, who are white collar and/or middle-/upper-middle class, who make common cause to found or form or join a local community defined by a Rule of Life and thick expectations and rich, shared daily practices. Often as not they meet in homes or move into the same neighborhood or even purchase a plot of land for all to live on together.
It is a tempting vision, and it's one that I've wished for my faith community. But there is a problem with thinking this is the real church...
My disagreement is with the view that this vision of church just is what any and every church ought to be, as though all other versions of church must therefore be (1) pale imitations of the real thing, (2) tolerable but incomplete attempts at church, or even simply (3) failed churches. That’s wrong. It’s wrong for many reasons, including exegetical, historical, and theological reasons. But let me give one closer to the ground, rooted in human experience.
We pastors want this church that is perfect. And in our desire for the perfect, we miss what is going on right in front of us. I'm learning how to really see God working in these imperfect people who show up late to service.
But it's not easy. It's not easy because we want and expect so much from our members. I remember years ago reading this book that had what I thought was a wise saying for regular church folk. I made the mistake of sharing it during a meeting and one member blurted out, "I'm tired of being told that I'm a failure!"
I was a little taken aback by his tirade. At the time, I really didn't understand what bothered him. Now I do. Over the years, book after book has been written about the modern church, especially the mainline Protestant church and what can be done to turn things around. Time after time some writer says something that the average person in the pews believes is aimed at them for not being perfect.
Of course, the fear is that if we don't expect more from our members then chaos will ensue. But is East really saying we should expect less from our members? I'll let him give you the answer:
Does this mean our churches should expect less of their members? Does it mean our churches should restructure their common life? Does it mean churches should function to permit and even welcome the straggler, the good-for-nothing, the failed disciple, the I’m-just-here-to-take-the-Eucharist-and-run type?
Yes. That is exactly what I’m saying.
East then talks about how in medieval times the sacraments were considered pure grace for the common folk. Not everyone can do the stringent calls to radical discipleship, but everyone can receive communion.
I'm reminded of Jesus' parable of the laborers in the vineyard, the one where the boss calls the first batch of people at the crack of dawn and then keeps looking for people until he finds a group of workers at 5:00 PM that was never called. He invites them to work for an hour. The guys who were there since 6:00 AM thought they were going to get a big payout compared to the ones that worked an hour, but everyone got the same pay.
And the early bird workers were pissed.
But the parable was an example of God's grace. Some of us are going to be the ones who know the Bible six ways from Sunday, but other members of the congregation are just trying to live their lives the best they can. What they need to hear is the good news of the gospel and not why they haven't got their act together. Because, none of us have our act together- not even the ones who say they got their act together.
Over the last few years, I've had a feeling that tugs at my emotions. Everyone talks about how our congregation needs to have a ministry. Maybe we learn food is our ministry. Maybe it's that we care about homelessness. But I keep wondering: do we have to have a ministry? Is this about having a "hook," something that gets us noticed? What if we spent time doing the things churches are supposed to do- preaching the word, coming together for Bible Study and prayer, taking communion, and doing acts of mercy and justice? I'm not saying that we shouldn't think about mission and ministry, but can we innovate and get wrapped up in works and not grace?
I'm learning little by little, to settle for an unperfect church. Come Christmas Eve, I welcome the people, including the ones that only show up on Christmas and maybe Easter; the family that is over-scheduled six ways from Sunday; the elderly couple that can't make it in person anymore, and try to join us online and the visitor that might just come to church once and never return. I will try to give up hoping for a perfect church, allow God to work through me to show grace and instead live with this unperfect church. If God can come to an imperfect world and show grace and bring salvation, then I can learn to show grace as well.