Over the years I have mastered the art of criticizing the Church. I have skills. Come over when you have four or five hours, and I will share my Biblical, historical, and sociological critiques of the Church. I have stories and scars.
But I have discovered a discomfiting truth as I have sought to follow Jesus: He loves the Church, died and rose from the dead to create the Church, and declares the Church to be His Bride. That means I have to love the Church too. I, therefore, must be cautious about slandering God’s people. One way to do that is to admit what I don’t know.
Let me point to three areas where this humility is important. When I first moved back to Myrtle Point, the Church in the city seemed irrelevant and ineffective. Most congregations were small and struggling just to keep the doors open. The churches failed, it seemed, to have any real impact on the city.
Over the years, however, Teckla and I have worked to connect with people in other congregations. Gradually we began to see that in Myrtle Point the Church, as small as it is, was feeding and clothing the poor, helping the addicted, comforting the wounded, offering the hope of Jesus to the lost. Across the spectrum of theologies, from liberal social justice Christians to Bible-thumping conservatives, God’s people were being light and salt in Myrtle Point.
One day Teckla and I were discussing how dark Myrtle Point would be if you began subtracting all that God’s people do for the community and for individuals. We soon realized how significant and quite wonderful the impact of God’s people was. Often, we fail to see this because many believers live in the silos of their own congregation and have no perch from which to see all the Church is doing. For years, I simply didn’t know.
Teckla and I have better insight only because of relationships with people in other congregations and because of inter-denominational Bible studies we have attended for years. We have also stepped up to help people in the community only to discover we were not alone—other believers were helping the same folks. But for a long time, we didn’t know, and our ignorance made our default setting to be a declaration that the Church in Myrtle Point was doing nothing for the community. I didn’t know and should have kept my mouth shut. Could the Church do more to be Jesus to others? Of course! This is always true and should always be our goal.
The second area where we must confess ignorance is regarding our local congregation. It is only fair that I have been at the other end of the criticism that the Church isn’t doing anything. I have heard people make this complaint about the little congregation where Teckla and I worship and serve. Because Teckla and I are deeply involved in the ministries of the congregation, we know much of what it does for the community and one another. Even so, we are continually hearing about individual acts of kindness and generosity that we might just as easily never have known if not mentioned in passing.
A third area where we don’t know enough to speak is regarding the work of the pastor. From the outside, preaching twice a week for 45 minutes seems like a good gig. We often don’t know about those late-night calls from people in crisis or treks to the hospital. A few weeks ago an intoxicated and suicidal person showed up at our pastor’s house at about 10 p.m. while the pastor was away at his other job as a manager in the lumber mill. I went over to pray with the guy and help the pastor’s wife with a difficult situation. Soon the pastor arrived, and we walked the person over to the church for more prayer. But if I hadn’t been called to come over, I would have never known. I could easily wonder if the pastor does anything for the church from one Sunday to the next. We should also mention that pastors often don’t know all the ministry the congregation does that falls outside the official programs of the church. We just don’t know.
Our ignorance is understandable. The very nature of Christian love and generosity is that it requires personal time and commitment: it is relational. However, this kind of service to the community doesn’t get headlines and often isn’t part of a program with an impressive name. It is people loving people selflessly and is often hidden from view. None of us really know how much of this one-on-one, non-institutional, service is happening in our own congregations—probably more than we think.
We often forget that the church isn’t a building or even the organization. The Church consists of the people—living stones built into a temple for God’s Spirit. If we forget this, we may ignore any work or service that isn’t an official expression of the organization. I was once listening to someone criticize the congregation for not doing enough for the poor in the congregation. Over the years, Teckla and I had helped this person in many ways. The person had a good heart, really, and was grateful for all we had done. However, the person did not see us as the Church or regard anything we had done as the ministry of the church. We didn’t, but both Teckla and I wanted to exclaim, “But we are the Church!” Indeed, the Church is made up of all God’s people, and we simply do not know all the ways individual members of the Body of Christ are impacting the world around them. We don’t know.
What we don’t know should not only make us humble and move us away from reflexive criticism, it should challenge us to see the real difference God’s people are making in the community. It should make us grateful for all the little, daily, and often hidden ways believers are expressing the love of God to those around them.
We don’t know, but we can know more than we do if we open our eyes. And again, we aren’t doing enough, but we should not be blind to all our brothers and sisters in Christ are doing. Humbly affirming what the Church is doing is the best way to encourage her to do more.
Even better is for each us to set an example of selfless and faithful service to others—even if only God ever knows it.