If criticizing the church in America were an Olympic event, I would have multiple gold medals. I’ve trained for years. In the 70’s I was a bored church kid slapped up the side of the head by the Jesus Movement—God’s Spirit making an end-run around the church. The joy of hippies who had found Jesus contrasted with the solemn and often dour faces of the folks in the pews. The courage of “Jesus Freaks” to take Jesus to the streets made traditional religiosity look gutless.
In college and graduate school, my critical skills were honed to a razor’s edge. I had a one-two punch. I could quickly lay out a sociological critique of the church as an institution that served only the needs of the rich or powerful. I could follow that up with the accusation that the American church was hopelessly shallow and unwilling to pay the cost of discipleship.
Out of college I joined those who sought, like many Protestant movements, to recover the power, purity, and mission of the New Testament church. I can still rattle off a dozen ways traditional churches fail to be New Testament.
It’s sad. I have real skills, but no longer have the heart to use them. For I have seen the church invisible. Traditionally, the term “church invisible” has been used to distinguish between those who claim to be Christians from those who only God sees as the church. I mean something different.
When I was growing up in Myrtle Point, I never saw much when I looked at the church. I attended one church and had little idea what went on in the others. It seemed not much was happening. The church seemed to have no visible impact on the city.
For the last twenty-two years in Myrtle Point, Teckla and I have done something that has ruined me as critic of the church: we loved it. Teckla has attended and led non-denominational Bible Studies and has sung in community choirs. We have faithfully attended inter-church events and gotten to know believers from many churches. I have preached in the Presbyterian Church several times and attend a men’s Bible study with guys from different denominational backgrounds.
I hate it when facts get in the way of an opinion, but the more I knew of the Church in Myrtle Point, the more I saw all the ways it was being salt and light. I saw the poor who were being fed, the clothes given to the poor, the housing provided to the homeless.
Why was so much of this invisible? Well, often folks did it right—they didn’t blow a trumpet before they gave to the poor. One couple let people in financial crisis stay in a house they owned, and then they quietly cleaned up after the people moved out. Others are quietly helping neighbors, praying for their families, and doing good in the community.
Sometimes the work of the church was invisible because it was just part of their daily lives as Christians who worked as farmers, doctors, teachers, and businessmen. In my zeal to see apostolic ministry in the church, I overlooked that Paul said to make it our “ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands.”
Yes, I know this does not resonate with our attempts to present a radical and extreme Christianity, but in this age of over-exposure and social media, living a quiet life and doing good without announcing it on Facebook [please share this blog] is radically counter-cultural. As someone who works in the secular world, I am keenly aware of the bad image Christianity has. I desperately want the good that Christians do to grab more headlines than our positions on social and moral issues. I want us to be salt and light, but I want bright light, or perhaps blocks of salt to throw at the world. I am impatient with soft light and even more impatient with salt that disappears into the world it is seasoning and preserving. When used rightly salt becomes invisible.
When I began mentally subtracting all the good done by these Christians and the little churches they attended, I saw clearly how much darker and crueler this town would be without them. Before I really became a part of this community, I didn’t see the work of the Church clearly enough to do this subtraction. I now see the church that was invisible to me when I loved it less.
I have had pastors, who like me, haven’t seen this invisible church and so got busy scolding their congregation for not working hard enough or having enough of an impact on the community. I couldn’t believe it; I found myself, a skilled critic of the church, actually defending it. I wanted to take pastors aside and gently draw their attention to what believer after believer was doing to walk out their faith.
Not that any of the criticisms aren’t true. We can always love God and our neighbor more. We can always grow in faith and obedience. I still have strong convictions about the New Testament providing the model of what the church should be.
But criticism often isn’t what these quiet warriors of God need. They need encouragement, strength, and healing. They need those with eyes to see and hearts to love the Church Invisible.