How to be a perfect church (and yes, it’s possible)

Finding a perfect church is hard.

Being a perfect church is even harder. 

You know all the things everyone is looking for in a church:

  • Incredible worship gatherings
  • Awesome community
  • Insightful and inspiring teaching
  • Fantastic programming for every niche, age and inclination
  • Deep Biblical study, combined with laughter, love and care
  • Discipleship happening everywhere, with no one left behind
  • New people coming to faith in Jesus every week
  • Ample finances, with very little pressure to give
  • Pastors who are theological geniuses, caring counselors, compelling communicators, excellent fund-raisers, phenomenal parents, and wonderful visionaries, all the while maintaining a healthy work-life balance as an example for everyone else
  • And all this as a church which asks only just enough to keep everyone engaged but not overworked and burning out

Well, you know what they say about a perfect church. If you ever do find one, don’t join it–you might ruin it! 🙂

But what if a perfect church was possible? And what if being perfect was measured by a different standard?

I’ve got a surprise for you: Jesus himself told us to be perfect–perfect kids of our perfect Father, which by my definition, means being a perfect church.

Where did he say that? Right here, in his Sermon on the Mount:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (‭‭Matthew‬ ‭5:43-48‬ ‭NIV‬‬)

Yep. Jesus told us to be perfect. And he’s not looking for a certain quality of worship music or a community of super-saints.

How Jesus qualifies perfection challenges our cultural or religious definitions. Because being a perfect church has little do with looking great or doing everything right.

How can we be perfect? Well, Jesus said it: By loving the people we most want NOT to love. Loving people we dislike or disregard–or worse, loving people who dislike us and disregard us, who even hurt us or despise us–that, my friends, is the MOST VIVID sign that we are being the perfect kids of our perfect Father.

To these early followers of Jesus, this meant loving people who overtly persecuted, ridiculed and rejected them because they have decided to follow Jesus. For us, it may mean loving people who don’t agree with us, or who don’t like us, or who are really difficult to be around.

But that’s a very different way of thinking about perfection, isn’t it? 

We’ve often thought of perfection as meeting some external standard of achievement, about staying out of trouble, keeping our noses clean and our shoes shined up.

We’ve defined perfection as not messing up. But that’s not what Jesus said. Being perfect is not about never having a family issue or never struggling with relationships.  And it’s certainly not about no nasty feedback from the sound system (or parishioner) on a Sunday–not about no misprinted lyrics, no screaming kids and no weak coffee. Perfect doesn’t mean we’re always smiling, never awkward, and super comfortable.

That’s not how Jesus defined perfection for us. No. Being perfect kids of our perfect Father is about LOVING difficult people in the same generous ways our Father loves everyone. In fact, as we can see, being perfect involves getting into the mess. In this teaching, we can’t actually be perfect without difficult people to love. We can’t demonstrate our perfect Father’s “rain and shine” love without the folks in our lives who are a struggle to care for.  The Father “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”  God is indiscriminate with his grace, and Jesus calls us to be the same. We are to love generously, to love like the sun and the rain–without discrimination, without reservation, without judgment on who will use the “rain” properly or really appreciate the “sun” for the gift it is.

A “rain and shine” kind of love, indiscriminate in grace.

When we love across the lines, when we include those who are frequently ignored (by us and others), when we reach out a hand to someone who’s hard to help–that’s perfection.

When we open up our mouths to invite someone to sit down, when welcome new people into our cozy friendship circles, when we overcome prejudice toward others through hospitality, we are being perfect as our Father is perfect.

Jesus applies this two ways within this passage:

First, To Generously Provide Care for those who might actively seek our harm.

“If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?” To his first followers (and for many followers of Jesus today), this is a sacrificial call. Love those who are hurting you. This is Egyptian Coptic Christians offering forgiveness to terrorists.

For most of us reading this, Jesus is calling us to generously provide care, seeking the benefit of people we might deem an “enemy” of our faith or a person we don’t agree with. But the implication is clear: Jesus calls us to mirror the grace of our perfect Father in our love for others most unlike us.

Second, To Openly Include Others who we’d rather not associate with

“And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” To give a greeting in a public place, back in the first century, was an act of association and friendship. You were willing to be seen as somehow connected. Here Jesus is calling his followers to be like him, willing to associate with people they might otherwise ignore. Like Jesus who hung out with sinners, we are to associate with people far away from the Father, in order to show them his love.

In our day, the application of this is astonishingly easy to understand, though it can be hard to do. We must overcome our cozy cliques and reach across the social, ethnic, religious and ideological lines to befriend people who are very different than us. We need to stick out our hands, and welcome people into friendship who others may deem beyond hope or interest.

That’s how we can be a perfect church. And you know what? It’s just us doing for others what the Father has already done for us in Jesus. Our perfect Father loved us when we were his enemies, generously providing care for us when we had no interest in relationship. Jesus, as I already mentioned, was constantly associating with “sinners”, so much so that religious people rejected him.  He ruined his reputation to love us. Will we ruin our reputations to love others?

If you are looking for sinless humans and flawless communities, then you will continue to search for a perfect church and will never find it.

But if you are willing to be part of Jesus’ mission, loving others who are easier to reject, welcoming into friendship people far away from God and far away from us, then you just might find you’ve discovered a perfect church after all. In fact, you might already be part of one. 

This post was adapted from an unrecorded message I gave at our Erickson Covenant Church Father’s Day BBQ on June 18, 2017. 

Love is Political

It seems like love has become more political these days. 

When I talk about God’s call to love refugees, I’m making a political statement. When I express my love for God’s creation, complete with a desire for protection and conservation, I’m labeled by certain political terms. Declare my love for an unwanted, unborn child and the mother who carries it, and another political statement has been made.

Love has become even more political in a climate of hate and fear. Political rhetoric mounts even when discussing God’s command to love the refugee, the foreigner, the disenfranchised and the dehumanized.

Love my enemy? Political.

Pray fervently for the hated political leader? Political.

Deeply desire the welfare of a person fostering and advocating very different ideals than I? Political.

Proclaim our commitment to love and support immigrants? Political. 

Stand up for the concerns of those being oppressed or negated by corporate expansion? Very political, indeed.

And with that love comes labels, arguments, misunderstandings, rejection, heat.

PC: Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times
But I guess that’s what we should expect. Because love is political. It always has been, at least any love that moves people beyond the realm of the normal, natural “love-for-my-own-kind” kind of love. Love is political when it begins to be shaped by the love of Jesus, who called his followers to love those everyone traditionally hated. Enemies, competitors, the other. 

And Jesus, when he lived out his words by loving the outsider, loving the less-thans, loving the despised and the cruel and the rich and the religious–Jesus was labeled a political threat, a political nightmare, a man who must be silenced. His love was dangerous to the status quo of power and comfort, both religious and political.

How easy is to forget that Jesus died a political death because of his love–love for people his peers considered unworthy, less than, dangerous and damned. Jesus loved his enemies so much he died for them (and that included me). And that love even included those who were killing him.

Love is political.

I admit, I don’t like confrontation. I hate being labeled “political.” I don’t want to bear the brunt of misunderstanding, of rejection, of dismissal. And while I do think how we express our love must be loving in and of itself, we must express it–I must express it.

I must be willing to be labeled “a bit too political”, if that charge comes from my obedience to the explicit command of Jesus to love my enemy, love the voiceless, love his world, love the lost.

Time to get loving.