This summer I will have been at my church for 18 years. In these days of the consumer mentality, being anywhere for 18 years is rare. I heard a statistic once that the average "parishioner" stays at any given church for about 18 months and then they move on.
Over the course of my 18 years in one place I have often found it a difficult "row to hoe" and have on many, many.... many occasions considered packing up and moving along myself.
The thing about churches is they are seriously dysfunctional, all churches, not just mine, but mine is dysfunctional too. Over the 18 years I have been offended. I have been wounded. I have felt taken advantage of, and I have felt unappreciated. I have felt betrayed, and judged and even picked on on occasion. I have felt invisible, I have felt unloved, I have felt ostracized and I have felt manipulated. Yep, over the course of 18 years, I have felt every one of those feelings, and I have felt them more than once. And I have felt on the receiving end of it from leaders to laymen.
So why would I stay, right? I'm sure that's a question you're at least entertaining. Maybe some of you are even flat out asking, "why didn't you just bail?" There have been times I almost did, times I came really close.
One particular time when my "mental" bags were "packed" in the proverbial sense and I was heading for the door on a permanent basis the Lord brought me across a scripture from the Book of Proverbs that stopped me in my tracks. The 4th verse of chapter 14 says, "Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean, but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox. Say what? The way I actually remember the verse in my mind is "A clean stable is nice, but the oxen bring the increase." That doesn't make it any clearer to you? I'm sorry, let me elaborate on what it spoke to my heart in that moment. What it said to me was, a church would be a perfect place if there were no people in it, but what on earth would it ever accomplish?
I know, I know, I can hear you now, "But it shouldn't be like that..." And I have to ask you, what makes you say that? Is it the long biblical history of God using perfect people to accomplish His purposes? Because if that's what you're thinking, I am just going to have to respectfully disagree.
And if I am honest, I will have to admit if I look behind myself over the last 18 years, I am sure to find a wake of wounded, offended people too. People I have hurt, let down, disappointed and grieved. I don't recall ever having ever tried to do it purposely, with malice, but I am sure I have.
I'm not the only one either, I have seen lots of people get hurt in my church, by each other, by "the church," and I have seen a lot of people pack their bags and walk all the way through the doors never to return. Sadly, many of them cut their ties not only to this little "body" of believers but they have allowed their wounds to come between them and God. They didn't just walk away from the building, or from the people who hurt them, but they decided to blame God and walk away from Him too. And they have suffered the consequences, carrying a bitter heart that burns with an unresolved anger that slowly consumes them from inside. Suddenly their anger at "Christians" turns into an unbelief in a loving God.
Not everyone I've seen do it has walked that far away, some have stopped short at actually blaming God, but they've still let a root of bitterness settle in, and they leave with bridges burning behind them, breaking friendships and creating stress factors in relationships that damage things seemingly beyond repair. They walk away with their pride but rather than helping them "stand tall" it weighs them into a weakened state that they live with for a lot of years. They might tell you everything is "OK" but you'll never catch them at a baby showers or graduation parties where they're likely to run into those people they "used to know." Chance meetings in restaurants and Target lead them to hiding behind a clothes rack just to avoid crossing paths stretching out from history. So they've left their dysfunctional church only to find they took the dysfunction right along with them.
So what I came to realize was, that's just the way it is. Churches are like filthy stables, people are there and (forgive me) they bring their crap with them, and it can get pretty messy, you have to watch where you step. But you have to realize, sometimes you're the pig in the stable too, and even with the best intentions, sometimes you screw things up, and someone else find themselves stepping in your mess.
So I started thinking about this, and it occurred to me, God has always been accomplishing His purpose through imperfect people.
I think of Abraham, the same guy who told his wife to lie and tell people she was his sister so no one would try to harm him, that same fearful guy was the man of bravery and faith who was willing to be obedient to the point of sacrificing his son at God's command.
I think of David, he was the adulterer and murderer too, the same man who stood on the rooftop and called for Bathsheba was the same man of honor who held Saul's mortality in his grasp and showed him mercy and respect as God's anointed.
The same hot headed and overzealous Peter who denied Christ three times, is the apostle on whom He chose to "build His church." God uses imperfect people, and they gather and meet together and make for imperfect, albeit effective churches.
I think I know why, or at least I have a thought of the possible reason. If it wasn't that way, and people didn't screw up royally (I was going to say, "make mistakes" but let's just be real here) then maybe no one would see the powerful work Christ is doing in their hearts and lives, instead they'd just be nice people doing nice things all on their own, and where's the fun in that?
Seriously though, I know when I look back and acknowledge hurts I've caused in my life, I know it was all me, I can't blame God for my actions. I made choices, I was responsible for my actions and since I'm not a member of the Church of Stepford Wives, no matter how much it grieved God's heart, or how hard He might try to bring conviction to my attitudes and actions, in the end, I would make my own choice and someone else would suffer the consequence. And the fact of the matter is, I'll undoubtedly do it again, no matter how hard I try not to. I'm a cow in the stable and I will leave my "crap" behind.
So I guess the moral of this story (or diatribe?) is that we need to remember why we're in church. It's not about us. We're there to be used, to be effective, even in our imperfections. We're there to bring glory to the God who gives us the power to touch lives for Him, Who enables us to overcome our shortcomings and failures to make an eternal impact on the lives He's placed in our path, in our church. Is it ironic that Jesus made his original debut in a filthy stable?
So next time you find yourself making it all about you,and feeling offended or hurt by someone you think should "be better than that," acknowledge the fact that we all leave a wake of woundedness behind us, but God is a God who redeems, rebuilds and restores, if only we'll stick around long enough to let Him.