Nobody Gets the Church They Want
For the past few days I’ve been more or less confined to bed. That’s rare for me, since I’m twenty-seven and healthy. But I’ve got a degenerative disc in my lower back that flares up once in a long while.
As physical afflictions go, this one is mercifully minor. It’s nothing compared to the cancer that one member of my church is facing down, or the debilitating conditions other members battle. But it has still blown up my plans for the week. I’ve had to miss class, delay an anniversary day away with my wife, and lie in bed all evening instead of playing with my kids.
In all this God has been teaching me lessons I didn’t particularly want to learn. He’s teaching me not to turn frustration into hard words toward my wife, not to worry about how this condition might play out in coming decades, to know just how dependent on him I really am.
I didn’t want to learn these lessons this week, but God knows I need them. I’m confident that’s one reason, at least, why he didn’t give me the week I wanted.
I’d suggest there’s a lesson here for life in the church. To put it bluntly, nobody gets the church they want.
You may not bring a checklist and clipboard when you show up at church, but we all bring a want-list. Maybe you want a certain kind of music, a certain experience in worship. Maybe you want a preacher who can dive a mile deep into two verses in Romans. Maybe you want charismatic, extroverted leaders who can connect with anyone and always know what to say.
Whatever might be on your list, I can guarantee this: not everything on your list is on God’s.
Mainly, I mean that you have opinions that go beyond God’s revealed will. One preacher I greatly respect has been known to say, “I don’t have opinions, I just believe the Bible.” I love the spirit there, but that’s impossible. Would you rather eat a burger or boeuf bourguignon? Would you rather sing “A Mighty Fortress” or “10,000 Reasons”? Either way, you’ve got an opinion, but you’ll have a tough time giving me chapter and verse for it.
But there’s another sense in which your list for a church won’t always match God’s: God has revealed his will for the church in Scripture, but no church perfectly fulfills that will. No church is as mature and holy as God’s Word calls it to be. Every church is a work in progress. Sometimes, then, even the good hunger to be part of a mature, thriving church might lead you to be impatient with the immaturities and struggles of your own congregation.
And God has revealed what churches should be and do. Churches should be led by a number of godly men who shepherd the flock and preach the Word (1 Tim. 3:1-7; 2 Tim. 4:1-5). What should you do if you’re in a church without plural elders? The answers are as endless as the variables in any real situation. But one likely option is for you to embody some of God’s own patience toward his imperfect people.
If God can patiently bear with his people in their immaturity and failure to follow his own directives, so can you. If you’re in a position of influence, deploy that influence humbly and wisely. But whatever you do, don’t let your good desire for your church to obey Scripture harden into frustration or bitterness.
Nobody—that’s right, nobody—gets the church they want. We all have opinions, preferences, and sometimes even convictions that won’t perfectly match any actual assembly of God’s people. We all will have to put others’ interests before our own, and sacrifice what we want for the sake of what the whole body needs.
In some ways, that’s the whole point of life in the church. God has made us members of the body so that we would learn to attend to the body (1 Cor. 12:12-27). God has made us co-laborers in the gospel so that we would image the gospel by putting others before ourselves (Phil. 2:3-4). Christ set aside his rights to serve us, and that’s what you do every time you sacrifice a preference to promote the body’s growth.
Putting others before yourself will cost you. In a culture saturated with consumerism, and in cities with a buffet of church options, the last thing we typically want to do is sacrifice our preferences. But that’s precisely what the gospel calls us to do.
So say your church sings a song that you don’t really like. The words are orthodox, but you grimace at the tune and the tone. Instead of silently smirking through it, dig deep and belt it out. Odds are that another member of your church loves it. So encourage that member, whoever they are, by addressing them with that particular hymn or spiritual song (Col. 3:16-17).
Get in the habit of letting go of your preferences so you can grab onto the good of the whole body. Train your heart, mind, tongue, and hands to run in the gospel grooves of giving up so others can gain.
God may not give you the church you want, but he’s more than capable of giving you the church you need. So take a look around. Maybe he already has.