A Cynical, Old Preacher on the Church
OCTOBER 13, 2021
Augustine once said, “The church is a whore, but she is my mother.”
If you’ve been a part of the church, not even for very long, you get that. Church is always messy and sometimes difficult.
Unbelievers often tell me what they don’t like about the church and why they aren’t a part of it. Most of the time, I reply, “You don’t know anything. I could tell you stories that would keep you up at night.” When I was a pastor, I often said, “There’s nothing wrong with my church that I couldn’t fix with a few funerals.” The congregation thought it was a joke . . . it was sort-of. And just so you know, most of the time the church would have been better with my funeral.
So, if you’re a churchgoer, I have some advice for you: leave before you get hurt. We aren’t very nice people, we aren’t good examples of who Christians ought to be, we have a tendency to hang out in cliques that are hard to break into, you’ll get slighted, you won’t like some of our decisions, and the list goes on. Leave before you get hurt.
But, if you can get over that and decide to stay, you’ll find a family unlike any you’ve ever experienced. In fact, it will probably be one of the most important associations in your life.
I wish I had the time and space here to tell you about the Corinthian Church. They are so like us. (One of the silliest things I’ve ever heard is that we need to return to the early church. They were as messed up as we are . . . sometimes even worse.)
The Corinthian Church started on Paul’s second missionary journey and became one of the most prominent churches in early Christian circles. Not only that, because of Paul’s extensive correspondence to the church, we probably know more about this church than any church mentioned in the Bible.
The Corinthian Church was not, by and large, made up of wealthy or famous people; but they were incredibly successful in evangelism, church growth, and doctrinal orthodoxy.
The Corinthian Church was also filled with sinners. It was marked by division, fighting about food and money, jealousy, pride, and even immorality. It reminds me of every church I’ve ever set foot in.
That brings me to a theological and biblical principle from 2 Corinthians 4:7, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.”
The principle: The church is not a showcase for faithfulness . . . but a hospital for sinners.
I once spoke at Immanuel Church in Nashville. The founding pastor there and my friend, Ray Ortlund, quietly opened the service with, “If you’re a sinner, if you’re an outsider, if you’re marginalized, if you’re a failure, if you’re broken, if you’re needy, if you’re wounded . . . Jesus says, Welcome!”
The truth is, I’m a cynical, old preacher, and frankly, I’m not surprised when the church goes through dark times . . . but when it doesn’t.
So, when struggles in the church come (and they will), I want you to be prepared ahead of time.
Remember who you are.
“Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16).
Now, this isn’t a text you can use to get your husband or wife to quit smoking and exercise more. In Greek, the “you” here is plural. Paul isn’t saying that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. He is saying that the church is the temple.
One other thing. The word Paul uses for “temple” is interesting. He could have used a variety of words for “temple,” but he chose the particular word for the “Holy of Holies,” the most sacred place in the temple.
So this should properly read, “You all are the resident place of the God of the universe.”
My friend, Reggie Kidd, is the author of one of the best books ever written on worship, With One Voice. Reggie says that when a good quartet sings close harmony, there often appears a fifth voice.
That is true in the church. There is always another voice. Don’t miss that voice—the soft sound of Jesus’ sandaled feet—even when you’re going through troubled times.
There are people in the church right now who are being drawn to God’s love and grace, and will never be the same. They have sinned really badly and are afraid that maybe God has said, “I’ve had it with you.” There are people in the church who are hurting . . . and have been hugged. There are people in the church who have lost loved ones and are lonely . . . who have been touched with food, prayer, and love. There are people in the church with broken hearts . . . who have found a “balm in Gilead.”
That sound of sandaled feet defines the church.
Remember who he is.
“For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building” (1 Corinthians 3:9).
“If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple” (1 Corinthians 3:17).
I know the quote, “It’s not about you; it’s about God.” But it’s about me and you, too. A sovereign God focuses on us. God decides everything, loves us, and shows his grace and mercy on people who don’t deserve it.
But, with that being said, it really is about God.
“So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:7).
Henri Nouwen wrote this: “I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self. The leaders of the future will be those who dare to claim their irrelevance in the contemporary world as a divine vocation.”
My friend, Bruce Fogerty, writes some great poems. This is one of my favorites:
I pushed my little plastic mower around the yard of my universe, trying to help God mow.
God didn’t need my help, but he let me tag along feeling important.
Back and forth I labored in neat little rows wasting the years, oblivious to the absence of any real motor or cutting blade in my machine.
I made rumbling sounds to heighten the sense of my own importance and occasionally emptied my press clippings bag of imaginary accomplishments.
Lawn finished, I attacked the hard edges of my life with my toy weed-eater, hacking at perceived problems that had spouted on my landscape.
The great “I Am” softly chuckled. I finally ceased struggling as at last I realized he had long ago installed AstroTurf.
The Church is God’s church. It’s not yours or mine . . . and, frankly, we’re sort of irrelevant.
God does as he pleases and he does it right well.
So remember the AstroTurf. God is in charge of the mess. You aren’t. And when things are way above our pay grade, it is good news and a relief.
Remember your value.
Remember the value God has ascribed to you.
“So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours” (1 Corinthians 3:21).
Before God hung the stars, he thought about you and knew all that was to come. It’s what the cross is about and why the world was created for the meek (that would be you and me) who would “inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5).
So everything will be okay.
My friend, Ken Smith, told me about a pastor friend of his (all three of us are old). Ken asked his friend what he was looking forward to in heaven. His friend said, “It’s not the golden streets I’m looking forward to. I’m looking forward to the time when Jesus and the devil meet, and Jesus will take the church, his beloved church, and shake her in front of old slew foot. That’s when Jesus will say, ‘That’s all I had, that bunch, and I still kicked your butt.’”
Go on loving because you’ve been loved.
Go on forgiving because you’ve been forgiven.
Go on walking with Christ because he’s in charge . . . and all will be okay.