Why I haven’t quit the church (and why you shouldn’t either)

The church of Jesus is a marvelous mess, filled right up to overflowing with sinners and saints.  As a pastor, I hear my share of criticism about this mad collection of the Jesus-bought. Maybe you’ve heard it, too.

The church is . . . too inward-focused,  too liberal, too conservative, too spiritual, not spiritual enough, too performance-oriented, too shoddy and backward. Hypocritical, fake, needy, imperfect. Sinful. Broken.

Sigh. 

It’s all true. And believe me when I say that I ache over the mess.  The mess that eats away at people’s lives, the mess that happens when sinners forget their dearly won sainthood, and the saints forget their status as grace-covered sinners. But it’s in the midst of the mess of the church that I also worship Jesus. It’s in this messy, beautiful mix that I pray and give and serve and love and learn. It’s among these people I experience forgiveness, joining in wonder and worship, bearing for each other the burdens of life.

 

Why don’t I give up on the church? Why don’t I just quit?

Because Jesus refuses to give up on the church. Jesus loves his church — broken, sinful, beautiful and alive. Blood-won, Spirit-filled, lurching in grace toward God’s good future.

At the beginning of the book of Revelation, we receive a compelling vision of Jesus.  With vivid imagery, Jesus our High Priest stands with the white hair of wisdom and the bronze feet of strength, face shining like the sun and a voice like a waterfall. The focus is all on him, standing in splendor and wisdom and strength and love.

But, if you can stand back for just a moment, ask yourself: where is Jesus, when he first reveals himself to John in this vision? Where is he located, exactly?

I’m very struck by this fact: Jesus, in all of his brilliance and grace, is standing right in the middle of his church.  He’s not standing off to the side, he’s not somewhere in the distance, not on the outside looking in. Jesus is standing right in the middle of the church, depicted here as lampstands. And he’s not standing in the middle of some generic “church universal” either. Jesus is standing in the midst of the local church–seven local churches to be precise–churches with an identifiable address, meeting in a house just across the way, embedded within a city with a history, a mix of cultures, steeped in idolatry, with a story of where they’ve been and where they are going. A church made up of an odd menagerie of real and imperfect people, sinners and saints, people like you and I.

Lister Fun
Photo credit: Meme Prier

As the Revelation unfolds, Jesus has some challenging and comforting words for these particular churches, each message crafted for each unique congregation. Some of these churches are severely compromised; others are barely holding on. Some are affluent; some, poor. Some are well-known; some, backward and unfamiliar. And as Jesus speaks to his church words that are sometimes difficult to hear, let us not forget where he’s located when he speaks: right in the middle of the mess.  He speaks from the centre, not the periphery, of his people.

Jesus knows his church, situated in each community, each city, each block in the world. He knows my church; he knows yours. And he loves his church, and when he speaks to his church, he speaks right from the middle.

Jesus hasn’t quit his church.

I’m not either.

I love you, but I can’t stand your wife

Do you think you can love me and hate my wife?

Yeah . . . right.

Our friendship stands little chance if I hear you’ve been trash talking the love of my life.  If I hear things like:

“Tom’s a great guy, but why does he insist on bringing her?”

“I love hanging out with Tom, but his wife just bugs me.”

“I like Tom, but I can’t stand his wife.”

If I knew you were saying (or even thinking) that about her, do you think our friendship would grow? Do you think trust would develop between us? Do you think I’d invite you into my inner circle and allow you to influence my life?

Fat chance.

Lady Mary from Downton Abbey
Mary may be “damaged goods,” but Matthew’s love for her covers that as he plans to build the future of Downton Abbey with her as his wife. Matthew’s love for Mary is an image of Jesus’ love for his bride, the church.

But lots of supposed Jesus followers do exactly that when it comes to the church, the bride of the Jesus they claim to love.

You’ve heard it. Heck, maybe you’ve said it.

“I love Jesus, but I can’t stand the church.”

“I follow Jesus, but I don’t do the organized church thing.”

“I like you, Jesus, but I despise your wife.”

Good luck with that.

Let me be clear. I know many of you have been hurt by churches. I am truly sorry for the ways the bride of Jesus may have mistreated you or disregarded you or made you feel awkward or ashamed. The church has much to repent of, and I’ll be the first one to tell you that and line up to join the confessional booth.

But here’s the deal: As nasty and unlovable and wrong as we’ve been, Jesus hasn’t divorced the church. The church is still his, and he’s got a plan that involves the church in the restoration of the world. It may be hard to believe, but that wife you can’t stand is the very means through which God is restoring relationships and renewing righteousness in his creation (Ephesians 3:7-11).

Don’t dis the church if you want to hang out with Jesus. They come as a package deal.