I was raised in the church from the moment of my birth, and I have nothing but deep appreciation for that heritage. It was in the church that my relationship with Jesus began, where the stories of the Bible became embedded in my memory, and I learned to pray by listening to godly women and men pour their heart out to God. The church was family, providing spiritual grandparents that I did not have in my own dysfunctional family tree. I am, to this day, grateful. But even as a child, I also recognized the inconsistencies and imperfections of the church. The faith community I first remember was not exactly a healthy one. There existed a sort of cabal of difficult people, those who saw it as their divine calling to make pastors wither under their criticism. (One went even further, actually punching a pastor in the parking lot.) Outsiders were often viewed with judgment in the name of keeping the church holy, and those who questioned or challenged the status quo were quickly subdued for being out of line. Looking back, I’m not glad that this shadow side of the church existed, but strangely enough, I am glad that I saw it. Why? Because I learned early in my faith development that if we are truly going to love the church, we have to love it as it is, and if we are ever going to move the church forward toward greater community and Christlikeness, we have to be honest about what it is.
The church, as a gathering of frail and damaged human beings, is a place of tension and paradox. It is the body of Christ, where the presence of God is at work transforming lives, where caring for one another and serving our communities reveals the hope of the kingdom. It is also a space where people are joined together not by their common strength but in their common weakness and need for grace. In the same moment, it is a place where both the all-surpassing power of God is at work and the frailty of broken human vessels is on display. To love the church is to recognize both, living in the tension of honesty and hope. Becoming blind to the presence and work of the Spirit in the life of the church will lead us to a disconnected cynicism, one that may ultimately lead to abandonment of the church altogether. Many of us can immediately think of someone we know who has succumbed to the crushing weight of cynicism. As Christian people, however, we must remember there is as much danger on the other end of the spectrum. No matter how well-meaning it might be, to deny or hide the brokenness and failures of the church will lead us to an unrealistic idealism, or at the very least, the disingenuous appearance of it. While we might think that this is protecting the church, somehow preserving its witness, it eventually falters and collapses.
In the end, the failure to acknowledge and confess the broken aspects of the church is a failure of discipleship. Discipleship should lead us to a deeper love for the church, and genuine love requires honesty. We cannot truly love the church if what we love is an illusion, something that does not reflect the whole of reality. And the thing about illusions is that eventually they will shatter. While we might think that hiding the imperfections of the church will protect people’s faith, we could actually be setting them up for a disappointment or disillusionment down the road they are not able to process. When we disciple people in such a way that they see both the presence of God in our midst and the present reality of our human faults and failures, those inevitable disappointments and frustrations with the church are less likely to do damage to their faith. I continue to love the church after all these years, despite episodes of disappointment, because I learned early in my journey that the presence of God and the presence of human weakness are not mutually exclusive.
If the church practices deflection and denial in regard to its own faults, it will also hinder the development of personal authenticity and confession. If we cannot confess openly and corporately the failures of the church, then those within the church will likely struggle to admit their own. In our efforts to protect the church, we end up creating a culture in which confession is not valued, and image is what matters. Rather than confession and repentance being elevated as a means of experiencing grace, we prioritize the preservation of our appearance. The pressures of an image-preserving culture will cause some to walk away, feeling deficient and incapable of living up to the required perfection, while others carefully cultivate the appropriate mask, often slipping into self-righteousness, compulsively judging others in order to feel adequate. Healthy and effective discipleship produces a community where authenticity, confession, and repentance are valued and celebrated as a means of grace. If the church does not model that as a corporate body, we cannot be surprised if people fail to practice it individually.
While a failure to keep sight of the presence and work of God in the church will most certainly lead to a destructive cynicism, the unwillingness to openly confess the frailties and weaknesses of the church will keep us from producing mature disciples. And, contrary to our self-protective impulse, it will not protect the witness of the church. If we think that those outside of the church are not aware of our failures, we are not listening or paying attention. Living in denial and trying to cover up reality will not enhance our witness in their eyes; it will only lead them to question our authenticity and integrity. The witness of the church, the message of good news and grace, shines in our transparency, confession, repentance, and desire to look more like the Jesus we follow. This is the kind of church many are longing for, not one with a glossy image of self-promotion and carefully managed appearance.
If we care about making disciples, if we truly want to be an authentic witness to those around us, then we must acknowledge the full reality of the church, with all of its inherent inconsistencies and tensions. To truly love the church demands that we love the church as it truly is. As a part of the body of Christ, I am called to live in a place of both honesty and hope, recognizing that the church is both broken and beloved, a place where the presence of the Spirit is at work in the midst of our mess, believing that despite the weaknesses we all bring to the table, this community is worth it and can be more like Jesus by the grace of God.