While Carolyn and I were in London to participate in the International Congress of Preaching, we were walking near Buckingham Palace and noticed a church; actually, it was the shell of a church building that was being rebuilt. There was nothing standing but the four walls - no windows, doors or pews. Scaffolding was up on the inside of the walls and the craftsmen were eating their lunch in the nave.
Around the church was a chain link fence with barbed wire across the top. Near the opening that served as a door was a large sign and these words were written for all to see: "Danger! Enter at your own risk." Those words were designed to protect the general public from construction accidents. I could not resist thinking of the many church people, both clergy and laymen, who had been chewed up by the institutional church and would testify to the truth of that sign.
There is a scene early in Margaret Mitchell's classic novel of the Old South, Gone with the Wind, of the barbecue at Twelve Oaks plantation. Many young people were there, dressed in their best party attire, flirting, bragging and having a genuinely good time. During the barbecue, word came that the "War Between the States" had started. The young men donned their uniforms, mounted their horses, and rode off to fight for the Confederacy. They fully believed the war would soon be over, and they would come home victorious and heroes. Not so! Four years later they came home wounded, hungry, disillusioned, and defeated. They came home to a South that had been burned and looted; all was gone.
This was much like my experience ten to fifteen years after seminary graduation. My phone started ringing with classmates who had entered church ministry with high energy and strong idealism. They were full of Niebuhr, Barth, Brunner and Tillich, not to mention Greek and Hebrew. They believed that once they explained these theologians to their churches, all would be right in the Kingdom. They thought that there was nothing in the church or denomination that would not be better once they were in control.
These same young men, now older and wiser, called and told me about their brokenness; of churches that would not do the right thing about the race issue, organizational change or community involvement; of deacons who were masters of political intrigue; of families who were selfish in their demands; of old men and women who excelled in controlling the church and the pastor with gossip and innuendo. They told me of their families being harassed by these same people and of the unfair demands placed upon them and their families. They also recited incidents when the denomination and seminaries had abandoned them. The recurrent refrain was "the church is the only army that shoots its wounded." One pastor lamented that being a pastor is to be abandoned by the denomination. I asked myself, "Is the church worth the effort?"
The apostle Paul does remind us that "we have this treasure in earthen jars." We are: (1) hard pressed on every side - but not crushed; (2) perplexed but not in despair; (3) persecuted but not abandoned; (4) struck down but not destroyed. "We carry His death so that His life may be revealed in our body" (2 Cor. 4).
These words may provide help if they are exegeted but they also may be understood from another perspective. They are words of feeling. Let them roll over you. These are not words of glory but of struggle. This reality did not start with the modern church; it has always been with us. I had to remember that they crucified Jesus; they didn't elect Him Chairman of the Board. Kingdom work, church work, is tough, demanding and frustrating. It does have its rewards but it is not for the faint of heart. We are educated to understand and preach the treasure but in reality we spend most of our time on the earthen vessel.
One reason for this is that all the noise is at the shallow end of the pool. While taking our grandchildren swimming one summer, I noticed that in a crowded pool all the noise was coming from the shallow end. The deep end was also occupied but the skilled swimmers were there improving their skills, respectful of others and of the rules that guarantee everyone a good experience. The shallow end was dominated by young, inexperienced swimmers who made strong demands on the lifeguard by breaking or challenging the rules made for their safety and the safety of a larger group of swimmers. This is like a church where the immature Christians, regardless of age, are usually the most demanding and the most manipulative. They are constantly challenging or threatening the authority of the lifeguard and dominating the entire pool.
The church as it is has difficulty with leadership and contrary to the New Testament, the pastor is at the bottom, or on the bottom, of the religious food chain. However, the pastorate is the normative profession for the Christian community. All else is only a part of what the pastor does. It takes special gifts to become a pastor (Eph. 4:11).
Like the canary in the mine shaft, the church is the early warning system for our culture. Most pastors were making hospital visits and conducting funerals for young men who had strange and mysterious illnesses long before the general public was informed by the media of HIV and AIDS. The struggle over Vietnam, fundamentalism, the rise of the Religious Right, the rising divorce rate, and women's leadership all were issues most churches faced before they were ever acknowledged by the general public.
However, in spite of these issues, I still love the church. I love the church universal, as well as the church local (red brick, white-columned with deacons smoking in the parking lot). With all of its dysfunction and flesh marks, with all of its confusion and humanity, it is still the best thing God has going for Him in this world. We do have a treasure in earthen vessels.
A close reading of history will show that when God does anything in this world, it is done through the church. Most of us have been formed spiritually by our childhood churches.
Like the tree that Zacchaeus was in when he met Jesus - the church holds us so that Jesus can find us. We must remember that Christ loved the church and gave Himself for it. Most of the New Testament was addressed to churches, not individuals. It is pivotal to God's plan for the world (Ephesians), and is the bride of Christ.
It is easy to get people saved, but it takes a church to keep them saved. Let us not forget that the church was in the ghettos before the current crop of activists - note William Booth and the Salvation Army. The church was into education before the government. Note the large number of universities, i.e., Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, that were begun with the express purpose of educating clergy. The church has been feeding the hungry and providing community while the general culture was debating political agendas and power. It was the church that broke down the Berlin Wall, that led the March on Selma, produced Martin Luther King, Jr., the Civil Rights Movement, and it was the church that led the War on Poverty.
The church is a solid oak tree, not a fragile tea cup. It has withstood Roman Imperialism, Jewish legalism, pagan optimism, medieval institutionalism, the excesses of the reformers, wars and rumors of wars, a youth quake, modern skepticism, southern provincialism, resurgent fundamentalism, and heresies in each generation that seem never to die. It can withstand anything our generation can throw at it.
It has been victimized by unprepared and selfish clergy, tone-deaf musicians, manipulative members, argumentative deacons, demanding denominations, unloving reformers, and greedy politicians. Still it continues to provide love, affirmation and community to the fallen in the face of alienation.
Serving through the church is a matter of the call and claims of God on your life. The only way one survives and thrives in the church is to know that God has called you to serve this way, and that the church is the bride of Christ.
To those who are believers and have given up on the church and those on the outside who do not understand it, I offer this final word. While taking a short vacation to St. Simons Island on the Georgia coast after a very stressful period of ministry, Carolyn and I had an experience that made it very clear for us. We were tired and in need of rest. Preaching, fund-raising, a building program and the usual daily responsibilities of church leadership had taken its toll on us. We were staying at a small motel on the island and spending our time reading, walking on the beach, and visiting the abundant historical sites on the island.
We had made a reservation for an early dinner one evening and were driving along the marshes on the island made famous by the noted Georgia poet, Sidney Lanier, in his famous poem, "The Marshes of Glenn." We passed Christ Church, a picturesque white church located on the north end of the island. There is an oak tree standing in a spot near where Charles Wesley had preached. It bears a marker placed there by the State of Georgia. Carolyn insisted that we stop and look at the church. "I've seen a dozen churches like this, and besides, I'm hungry and we have a dinner reservation. If we stop, we'll be late." Carolyn insisted, and so we stopped.
As we walked up to the church door, I was like a pouting child being forced to do something he did not want to do. We opened the door and the entire atmosphere changed. The sun was setting and the evening light was coming through the beautiful stained-glass windows at just the right angle. The colors in the ancient wooden pews were deep and mellow and the reflection on the antique silver communion service at the altar was stunning. We sat on the front pew for a while in total silence, captivated by the entire experience inside this church. As we drove to the restaurant for dinner, neither of us spoke for several minutes. My attitude had changed and I apologized for the way I had acted. We both concluded from that chance experience that you really cannot understand the church from the outside. To know its real meaning you must be inside; in fact, it must get inside of you.
And now I say to all of the critics of the church - and there are many. If you do not have a church, where do you assemble people to teach them to live by the highest summoning of the human spirit? What do you read that can be called Scripture? How do you sing? How do you celebrate?
The church is worth the effort.
Let us pray:
Eternal God, we express our gratitude for the gift of the church and pray that we will see the treasure more than earthen vessel. In the name of Christ, our Lord, amen.