She’s Still Beautiful
Dear Church Family,
I hope you’re experiencing the joy of the Lord today. My prayer for you this week has been that God would give you the grace to rest completely in Christ and His finished work on the cross.
Several years ago, my family and I took a vacation to Myrtle Beach (South Carolina). And after one long day in the sand and sun, we ventured into a little Italian restaurant north of the main strip. The dim lights and old-world accents created a certain mood. Nino Rota’s Speak Softly Love played through the ceiling-mounted speakers (I only remember this because that was the theme song to the movie The Godfather). Servers wore t-shirts that read: When you’re here, you’re family. Got it?
I loved the point, even if it was tongue-in-cheek: “Whether you like it or not, we’re all family here. You have no choice but to accept it.”
I’ve been thinking about that tagline this week. By God’s providence, I’ve met with or talked to several people recently who have shared with me that they are fed up with the church. Not Northpoint, necessarily, but the church as an institution. The hypocrisy, judgmentalism, argumentative tone, they’ve told me, has turned them away. And they have no intention of returning anytime soon.
And, look, I get it. I’ve been around the church for three-quarters of my life, in various roles and capacities, and I have seen the good, bad, and the ugly.
I’ve seen the church fail miserably. I’ve seen women who were marginalized; I’ve seen men unfairly condemned. I’ve seen legalism destroy congregations. I’ve seen people who were broken over their sin, rejected even after they repented. I’ve seen couples have volatile spats in front of everyone; and I’ve seen elders fight behind closed doors.
I’ve seen churches split over the most ridiculous things (I even saw one church torn in half because of a conflict over the starting lineup on the men’s softball team); I’ve seen pastors fall into sexual sin. Multiple times. One such pastor was one of my closest friends. Without a doubt, I’ve seen the church at her worst.
But I’ve also seen the church at her best. I’ve seen people who were hard to love embraced without conditions. I’ve seen abused and abandoned mothers moved into apartments with their furniture and food supplied by their church. I’ve seen an adulterer formally disciplined from the church and then restored as he sought forgiveness and demonstrated repentance. I’ve seen the church rally around and share the grief of a woman whose husband was gunned down in Wal-Mart by a strung-out drug addict (in front of her 12-year-old son). I’ve seen teenagers come to the aid of other students who were being mocked and ridiculed. I’ve seen people come to faith in Christ and get baptized—people who seemed altogether unlikely to ever turn to Jesus.
I’ve seen men in the church confront a newly-married, 23-year-old man, who was consumed with golf, basketball, and softball, and doing a terrible job of leading his young wife. I was that man. And I’m grateful godly men came around me and “showed me my fault” (Mt. 18:15).
In 34 years of being part of the church, and nearly 15 as a pastor, it seems like I’ve seen everything. I realize that the church is not perfect. But I love the church. I can’t imagine life without the church.
Of course, what’s most important is not that I love the church, but that God loves the church and still calls her His bride. God delights in the church. Despite her shortcomings, she is still beautiful to Him. In fact, God sent His Son to die for the church. And the church is still the vehicle through which God has determined to make known the mystery of Christ, which is the gospel.
When God saved us, He rescued us not only from sin and hell, but also from our own independence. From our spiritual wanderlust. From our lofty notions of self, and our jaded views of our own goodness and self-righteousness. When God made us alive in Christ, He placed us into a family of believers, to share our burdens, speak to us grace and truth, accept us, pray for us, love us and forgive us, and walk alongside us on this journey of sanctification.
Sure, those siblings are going to hurt us sometimes. And they will never love us perfectly, on this side of heaven. Nor will we love them perfectly. But let’s not allow our dreams of how church should be cause us to reject the church as she is. Glorious and splendid to God.
In his classic book, Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer says this: “Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it has sprung from a wish dream … a Christian who brings with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be. But by sheer grace, God will not permit us to live in a dream world. Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished. He who loves his dream of community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.”
Instead, Bonhoeffer implores: “In the Christian community thankfulness is just what it is anywhere else in the Christian life. Only he who gives thanks for the little things receives big things. If we do not give thanks daily for the Christian fellowship in which we have been placed, even where there is no great experience, no discoverable riches, but much weakness; if on the contrary we keep complaining to God that everything is paltry and petty, so far from what we expected, then we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow according to the measure and riches where are there for us all in Jesus Christ.”
Yes, the church is messed up. Let’s all agree. But this group of misfits, former rebels, and sinners-turned-struggling-saints, of which you and I are a part, is the family into which God has adopted us. A family that God deeply loves. And a collection of siblings through whom God will keep us, protect us, bless us, and mold us into the image of His Son.
So let’s love one another, and thank God for His great gift, the church. Got it?
For the glory of God in all things,