I’m reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together for a coming class. Bonhoeffer wrote this book while leading an underground seminary in Nazi Germany. I remember starting to read this book either in seminary or in my early days of ministry and quickly setting it aside because I didn’t get it. Now after 30 years of sharing life with God’s people, I think I’m finally starting to get it.
One of the things Bonhoeffer says in chapter one is that Christian community is not an ideal, but a divine reality. What he means is that when we come into the church (which can take many different forms), we often have an idealized picture of what our life together should look like. But before long we run headlong into disillusionment. People don’t always act the way we think Christians should. Spiritual leaders don’t always live up to their high calling. Surely this isn’t what Jesus intended for his church to be!
But Bonhoeffer goes right after this notion of idealized Christian community:
By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world. … Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it. The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community the better for both.
I remember how I experienced this disillusionment soon after I accepted Christ as a teen. Within the first year the pastor committed some indiscretions and was forced out of the church. Within two years the youth leader (who I almost worshiped) took me aside and told me he was leaving his wife and baby daughter as well as the church. Sometime in there I played on the church basketball team and got my feelings deeply hurt when I had to sit the bench nearly the whole game because I was such a poor player. Somehow I imagined a church basketball team would be different. Somehow I thought church as a whole would be different. I was disheartened enough to leave, until a wise older pastor told me the church was filled with imperfect people and I needed to keep my eyes on Jesus. I took his advice and stuck with the church.
Over the years I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly of Christian fellowship. That’s what happens when you have long pastoral tenures like I have. You stay past the honeymoon and it’s not long until the warts start to show. Some people are critical. Some of them gossip. Some of them are control freaks. Some of them are shallow. Some of them have a commitment level that never rises above personal convenience. It’s enough to make me want to shake the dust off my feet and look for greener pastures, until the Lord reminds me that my warts are starting to show too. We are all wearing tarnished halos.
I’ve noticed a common trend in church life. On a fairly regular basis, people have come to the churches I pastor from another church. They are unhappy or wounded by something that happened at the other church and they have decided to find a new one. At first they are excited about what they experience in our services and our ministries. The people, they often say, are so much friendlier than at the other church. I’m such a better preacher, they sometimes say. I’m a better shepherd of the flock — that other pastor didn’t care about people. Believe me, my ego soaks up those positive strokes.
But then it often happens that those happy newcomers start to see the flaws, both in me and the congregation. Suddenly this church starts to look an awful lot like that last church they left. At this point some of those people realize that there is no such thing as an ideal church and stick it out through the disillusionment. Others leave unhappy and continue their search for the church that matches their expectations. Some people make this search for the church-as-Jesus-meant-it-to-be a lifelong quest.
Now I know that some church problems can’t be ignored, and sometimes there are legitimate reasons to leave a church. I’m thinking of problems like pastoral abuse, a toxic spiritual environment, or serious doctrinal differences. It’s kind of like marriage. Serious problems in a marriage shouldn’t be ignored, and sometimes there are legitimate reasons to leave a marriage. But those legitimate reasons, wouldn’t you agree, are few? Most of the problems in marriage aren’t intended to be run from, but to be worked through. Isn’t it the same with the church?
Here’s what Bonhoeffer says to me. Church community is messy. That’s because we all carry around this treasure of Christ’s transforming presence in cracked pots (see II Corinthians 4:7). We are all flawed. Every last one of God’s saints wears a tarnished halo. But (again, as in marriage) we don’t grow by abandoning our relationships with imperfect people, but by learning how to live and love our way through the warts. This is my concern for the American church. We don’t know how to work our way through our disillusionment. We don’t know how to “bear with each other in love” (Ephesians 4:2). So often we would rather go looking for the church as we want it to be.
One final warning by Bonhoeffer: “He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter.“ Father, help me to love your people as they are, not as I wish they would be.