It is easy to grow discouraged at the state of the church. As a person who invests quite a lot of time and attention to studying the church, her health and what Jesus requires of her, I often find myself lamenting her state. Writers from all backgrounds and denominations have written about the church, and I have read many of these books and publications. The standard book begins with a few chapters outlining all the ways the church has failed with the rest of the book providing the solution. If only we did this or that or the other thing, we would make the church what she was intended to be. I haven’t read too many books that give the church a pat on the back and said “good job!” Maybe for good reason. Maybe not. When I wrote The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment I was deliberate in not doing that, in not giving a long list of all the ways the church has failed. In a sense I don’t need to as her failing are evident to anyone who seeks to look for them; but I also did not wish to spread a spirit of discouragement.
Here are just a couple of examples of people who have taken on the church in recent years. Rick Warren wrote the mega-seller The Purpose Driven Church wherein he proclaimed that the church had lost sight of her purpose and had to rediscover it. Millions of pastors bought and read this book and began what Warren refers to as the Second Reformation – a Reformation of purpose. A couple of years ago I counted six or seven books in the Christian bookstore heralding “the next Reformation,” yet all of them pointed towards a different basis for this Reformation. The men and women of the Emergent community continually write indictments of the church, showing how, in their view, she has failed in the modern world and is primed to be an even greater failure in the postmodern world. A person who is fully immersed in the Emergent church sent me an email once and wrote about “denominational distinctives that strive to keep us divided” as if churches are purposely focusing on the distinctives in order to drive wedges between them and other believers. There are any number of other authors that identify problems and tell us how to fix them. Many people are proud to be believers, yet are ashamed to be part of the church – the visible body of Christ. They portray the church as being purposeless, intellectual and ancient, knowingly and joyfully trapped in the past, snickering as we watch our neighbors fall into the abyss.
Yet the church is not a failure; the church—the remnant of those who are faithful, who compose only a fraction of the wider, visible church, remain true to Christ and continue to do God’s work in the world. Jesus Himself told us that the road to salvation is narrow and only a few enter, so we should not be surprised when there are far more who turn their backs than respond with joy. We mourn their loss but trust in God’s sovereignty in saving His people. This I can guarantee: 100% of God’s elect have been (or will be!) ministered to and changed by the Word of God. Every one of them has heard the preaching of a minister of the Word or has read a Bible lovingly and obediently translated which was delivered to someone who needed it most. Why do we dwell so often and sometimes exclusively on our failures and shortcomings? Does this honor God and glorify Him for the battles that have been won and the lives He has changed through us?
Despite these victories we too often see the church as a failure. I used to get a lot of emails from a friend who has a high view of his own sin. He tends to sign his emails as “your sinful, spiteful, hell-deserving sinner of a friend” or something like that. He never hides from his own sin, and I admire that. And while it is fully true that he is a sinner and no doubt feels spite and malice and does deserve hell, this is only half the story. In his view of his sin I think he often loses sight of the fact that in God’s eyes he is now a beautiful new creation, restored to the image of God. He has been bought with precious blood and adopted into the family of the king! I continually have to remind him that he is focusing on only half of the battle. His emphasis on his sin does not allow him to see the beauty of what he has become. And I think this is how the church often sees itself – it sees the bad and loses track of all the good things that the church has done through Christ.
The church, despite sin and failings and shortcomings and imperfections of all sorts is a glorious body and one that I know Christ is proud of. He has promised that the church will prevail and we can take refuge in that promise. If we were not such a sinful mess we would not need him at all! But because we are sinful and constantly go astray, we need Him to lead and guide us as we act as His representatives on earth. I know that there is so much more we could do, and must do. I know the church is not all that God wants it to be. Yet I am confident that it brings Him glory and makes Him proud. So if you are part of this body, allow yourself a moment of gratitude and awe for what God has done in and through His body; thank God that you can be part of something so awesome, so glorious, so godly. And then put your hand to the plow and continue the work He has entrusted to us.