I've been thinking lately a lot about church. Which makes sense, given I'm a preacher.
When I say church, I'm not referring so much to The Church, the Body of Christ, but to individual, local, specific entities we call "church." Like when we say, "I'm a member of Providence United Methodist Church," or we point to a building and comment, "That's where I go to church."
In that context, church is a collection of people, a particular building, or a worship service. That's what I've been pondering - those people gathering to worship together, or to serve in some capacity, or to participate in some form of fellowship.
Church. It's the people who know me but love me anyway, or at least they're supposed to. It's the place where I learn about both sin and grace. We pray, laugh, eat, play, and cry together, and we sometimes fuss and fight and disagree like the brothers and sisters we are. We debate scripture passages, argue over politics, and forgive each other when we mess up. It's the people who let me stand among them when we sing, even though they full well know there's never been a song, chorus, hymn, or tune I couldn't mangle. They're the people who keep showing up to hear my sermons, despite the fact they've heard most of my favorite stories and have likely forgotten most of what I've said. Yet, show up they do, and most of 'em stay awake.
Church. I can't think of another organization in the world which fails so miserably to live up to its charter. Before you get too mad at me about that statement, pause to read Matthew 5:48 - "Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect." Here's another one - "My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you." (John 15:12) Try this one: "Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you." (Luke 6:27b)
Still not convinced about the shortcomings of church? In Matthew 18:21, Peter the disciple asks Jesus how many times he has to forgive his brother or sister who sins against him. Some manuscripts say "seventy-seven times" and others report the answer as "seventy times seven." Either way, I'm in trouble, and I suspect I've got company.
Saying that the people called "church" fail utterly is not an assertion that somehow Christ's followers are worse than the rest of humanity. Rather, it's an affirmation of the incredibly high calling of Christ and to the basic fallen nature of those who believe in Him. Yet, despite the yawning chasm between Jesus's commands and the actual obedience of His followers, there's no place I'd rather be than smack dab in church.
Church is far from a perfect place. In fact, should you happen upon one that is perfect, please don't start attending there as you'll mess the whole thing up. If a perfect church ever sees my blue Ford pickup roll into the parking lot, they'd do well to bolt the doors before my feet hit the pavement.
Oh, how churches have failed. We've told people they couldn't attend because they didn't look like us. We've fought over some of the silliest things - the color of the carpet, which snacks to serve at Vacation Bible School, what to call the preacher, what instruments we can play during worship, etc. You name it; we've argued over it and likely split over it. We've been hypocritical and judgmental and we've failed to listen to the hurts and complaints of many. A simple Google search like "church scandals" or "disgraced preachers" will keep you reading for hours.
But, guess where I'll be on Sunday. In church with the people I love and the people who love me. Church is the place where I've learned about playing nice, about sharing, about realizing that I'm not always going to get my way. Church is the place where I've been reminded that it really isn't my money, but the Lord's, and it's the place that has connected me to people not just in the room, but around the world. Church is where I get my perspective adjusted from the here and now to the eternal, and it's where I've been taught that God is the "Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End." Not me, meaning it doesn't all start with, nor end with me.
It's also the place where I've learned that I'm a lost sheep for whom the Shepherd searches and I'm a wayward son whose Daddy watches and prays for my safe return and, the minute He sees me take a step His way, He comes running and ready to embrace me and to throw a party on my behalf. It's where I keep getting reminded that He cares for the last, the least, and the lost and that Jesus "loves the children of the world; all the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight." And it's the place and the people who encourage me to keep on trusting in and following Jesus.
There are a lot of reasons I go to church - because I should, because I want to, but most of all, because I need to. I hope you'll join me this Sunday.
And if you do, I promise not to sing too loud if you'll promise not to laugh too much.