I often get e-mails from people looking for a church. The questions are always similar:
- What kind of church is ideal?
- What kind of church should we settle for?
- How long should we wait before joining a church?
I have found the insights of Francis Schaeffer and Dietrich Bonhoeffer to be a helpful resource in advising people who are looking for a church.
1. LOOK FOR AN ORTHODOX CHURCH
Schaeffer focuses on the church being orthodox:
First, there should be an “orthodoxy of doctrine”– that is, it should be Bible-believing in the full sense of the term.
Second, there should be an “orthokardia of community.” This means that people would care for each other in the whole spectrum of life, including financially if this is needed. There should be real community among those in the church and a real sense of the importance of this – rather than the church just being a preaching point or an activity center.
I would add to both of these qualifications an “orthopraxy of mission,” where church leaders emphasize the need for Christians to represent Christ and proclaim the gospel outside the church walls.
After Schaeffer focuses on orthodoxy, he turns to the matter of personal preferences:
Third, after these two points are met, then you must find a church which meets your personal needs. Theoretically all churches should meet all people’s needs, but in a fallen world this is not possible. Some people, for example, like one kind of music and some another; some like one kind of preaching and some another. Some churches meet the needs of certain individuals, but not the needs of others.
2. BE PREPARED FOR AN IMPERFECT CHURCH.
Next, Schaeffer points to the reality that no church is perfect. In fact, he challenges the reader to anticipate imperfection:
When you put the three things together, we must recognize that there is no church in this fallen world which is perfect, and unhappily there are an appreciable number of communities where it is difficult to find any church that meets the three criteria.
Two further things must be said simultaneously: first, we must not accept what is poor; second, however, if we will only accept what is perfect or else nothing at all, we will always get the nothing in this fallen and abnormal world.
That’s where Dietrich Bonhoeffer has something to offer to this discussion. He begins with the love of God for sinful humanity:
God loves human beings. God loves the world. Not an ideal human, but human beings as they are; not an ideal world, but the real world. What we find repulsive in their opposition to God, what we shrink back from with pain and hostility, namely, real human beings, the real world, this is for God the ground of unfathomable love.
This unshakeable, unfathomable love of God for the real world is the basis for Bonhoeffer’s appeal for real people to love real people. That’s why he warns against excessive idealism when considering the church:
The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own laws, and judges the brethren and God himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of the brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together.
When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.
3. GROW IN GRACE WITH AN IMPERFECT COMMUNITY.
But here is where we need to take a step further. We don’t just settle for an imperfect church. We expect that the imperfect, bungling bunch of believers we’ve united with will become the means by which God sanctifies us.
Bonhoeffer writes about the sanctifying grace that comes from one’s disillusionment with the church:
Will not the very moment of great disillusionment with my brother or sister be incomparably wholesome for me because it so thoroughly teaches me that both of us can never live by our own words and deeds, but only by that one Word and deed that really binds us together, the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ? The bright day of Christian community dawns wherever the early morning mists of dreamy visions are lifting.
Here’s the key to remember: God uses imperfect churches to perfect His children.
Too many people are looking for a church in the abstract rather than the flesh-and-blood people they bump into on the way to the nursery. That’s one reason I devoted an entire chapter to this subject in Counterfeit Gospels:
I remember seeing a Peanuts cartoon in which Linus yells, “I love mankind… it’s people I can’t stand!” G. K. Chesterton said something similar: “I learned with little labor the way to love my fellow-man and hate my next-door neighbor.”
Truth be told, we talk about loving others, but we’re quick to hit the road when loving people gets hard. We’re not called to love an idea, we’re called to love our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Too many people think that the church’s problems are an obstacle to becoming more like Jesus. Actually, the opposite is true: commitment to bear with the church’s problems is the method by which we become more like Christ.
So look for an orthodox church on mission for God’s kingdom. Expect the church to be imperfect. And then watch how God uses that church’s imperfections to sanctify your heart.
* The three “ortho’s” at the beginning of this post were suggested by Michael Bird, who got them from Harry Goodhew, former Anglican bishop of Sydney.