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ruleBackground

Gospels

John 21:17

The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?"

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you."

Jesus said, "Feed my sheep."

November 16, 2006

Are we doing this right?

About 10 years ago, I asked a friend of mine what percent of time spent in church leadership he felt was awful, and what percent was OK or better.

I wasn't trying to be a smart aleck. Growing up in the church, I'd watched the leaders get beat up over and over again by various people and circumstances—and sometimes, each other. As a kid and then a young adult, I'd believed this was a local problem, that I'd just grown up in a church that was having a very long run of extremely bad luck. But now, here I was, older, living in a different state and a church leader myself, and darned if things weren't looking pretty much the same as I'd remembered from my past.

I was beginning to think there was something to this.

So I asked my friend the question. "Do you think it's maybe 90 percent crap and 10 percent decent?" Now, we'd been going through (yet another) tough time at the church, and that was sure how it seemed to me. But in the back of my mind I thought I was being a little over dramatic.

"No," my friend said, in all seriousness. "I think that's a little generous. It's more like about 95 percent bad and 5 percent good."

"Or maybe only 3 percent good," he revised thoughtfully.

It wasn't what I wanted to hear. I was hoping he'd say, "Oh no, it's at least 50-50." But that wasn't the answer I got. My suspicions were confirmed: it's always this way, everywhere, when you're serving Christ in his church .

*****

In the days before I realized Things Are Tough All Over, I used to believe there were some churches that did have it all together. But when I got to see them up close, there was that darned pattern again.

I once had a conversation with a leader at a 3,000-member church in Ohio. "What people don't realize," he said, "is that when folks get angry about something here, we don't just lose a couple of people. We lose hundreds. It's exactly the same as in a smaller church, only magnified."

One Sunday I had the privilege to be in Illinois and visited Willow Creek Community Church, famous for its growth and success, and a model church to many. I was excited to be there; I'd be able to see firsthand what church could become when everyone pulled together and God's blessing was apparent. But instead, what I saw was The Pattern. A politicized incident had occurred during the week, and because of the church's prominence, had made the national news. In its aftermath a number of folks at the church had behaved very, very badly towards their leadership. So instead of being able to soak in the atmosphere of a "perfect" church, that Sunday I instead witnessed a congregation-wide rebuke by then-Teaching Pastor John Ortberg. He could hardly contain his anger as he reprimanded the huge audience for the way they had treated their brothers and sisters.

Wow , I thought. Even at Willow Creek.

*****

Surprisingly, this understanding has stood me in good stead over the years, and helped me to endure and persevere in leadership during some rough times. Still, it has raised a question that I keep asking God, over and over again: Are we doing this right—I mean, isn't this church thing supposed to work a little better?

Recently I've been reflecting on something. Pretty much all of the broken relationships and enemies I have in my life, I have because I am a church leader. In my private life I have a stable family, stable friends, and hardly any conflicts. My private life is my refuge. Had I never become a church leader, I would have had a pretty peaceful, placid life.

Even though on paper the church is a haven and where we can in safety find sanctuary from the stresses of life, for me, church is the tough place. Things are radically different in my church life from the way they are in my private life. My friendships have gone sour. I've been involved in conflicting visions, generational battles, failed accountability relationships. I've seen people abusing power and watched trusted people succumb to sin. I've watched gossip and malice and backstabbing and dirty politics tear congregations apart. The sum of the behavior so beyond the pale, you just have to ask God, Are we doing this right? Because it sure doesn't seem like it.

In a recent conversation another friend and I reflected in a general way about people we'd come alongside over the years in tough personal situations: family problems, hospital visits, deaths, sin issues, and other rough times. We recalled hours spent in visitation, in prayer, in negotiation, in consultation and counseling. "You know," I said, "I'm not sure that, aside from physical recovery, I've seen many results—I mean people actually being healed, going on to live changed lives, or even being grateful for the help they've received from the church." That had been my friend's experience too.

A lot of times, after the immediate crisis is over, people actually leave the church. They move on, and you never know if you've done any good. I've come to wonder if the healing then takes place elsewhere, or if they just keep moving around, avoiding their issues. It's something we usually don't figure out, at least not on this Earth. And again I wonder, Are we doing this right?

*****

Instead of being a place where people come, are healed, and in turn help others, church as I know it is a place perpetually warding off internal conflict, where a good number of people refuse to be healed, cause trouble and leave. Contrary to what we're supposed to be—a light to the world, a city shining on a hill—we're instead a battleground.

Perhaps that is an important point.

Matthew has always been my favorite gospel, perhaps because the Jesus I see there is so tough-minded about the cost of discipleship. In Matthew 10:34-39, to those who would follow him, he says,

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to
"set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one's foes will be members of one's own household."

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

I always thought Jesus was speaking to what life would be like out in the world for his followers. But I know in my case, those verse are more true within the church . Lately I have been pondering them anew. I know what I have seen, both in the churches I have helped to lead and in the church at large. I know the trouble Paul had with people in so many of the churches he founded. And I think to myself, maybe what's really going on is that the church really is a battleground in that greater war in which we Christians have been enlisted to fight. What if church is the place where people, in the power of the Holy Spirit, do their best as foot soldiers in God's fight against Satan? What if that's the main, unseen, unspoken task in which the church is engaged?

It would help explain why church leadership is 95 percent bad and 5 percent good. Or maybe only 3 percent good. It would explain the perpetual conflict we experience. It would explain why people are so loathe to be healed. It would explain why this church thing doesn't work a little better.

Now here's the particularly sobering part for me. It looks like in this war, the people who need to know Jesus, the people who need healing and who need to live new lives, are the ones that often end up as the casualties. They're the displaced refugees, wandering, Jesus would say, like sheep without a shepherd. I look around the church, and I can't help thinking that if people aren't being helped, or the church doesn't look or act like it's supposed to—could it be because the soldiers on God's side aren't prepared for the battle they're in? Maybe they don't even realize they're in one.

I think our real enemy is smart and crafty. He knows our weaknesses as individuals, and he knows our weaknesses as the church. When we don't get Christianity right, when we're not serious enough, when we fall to our own personal sins, when we allow our self-centeredness and ego and pride to cloud our vision—when all of these things are going on, then our enemy smiles.

Don't get me wrong. Our enemy can't win in the long run. He's going down to defeat at the end, that much we know. But when Christians are asleep at the wheel in their personal lives and corporately as Christ's body, we sure make for an ill-equipped army.

It's time we asked ourselves, Lord, are we doing this right?

.


Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to
"set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one's foes will be members of one's own household."

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

—Matthew 10:34–39