Our church, like every other church, gets phone calls throughout the week from people wanting to know about our assembly. They ask questions, but typically they are not the kinds of questions I would ask if I were looking for a church. “What kind of music do you have? Do you have programs for the kids? Does your church home school? Do you have recovery groups? What Bible translation do you use? Do you serve Krispy Kreme or Dunkin Donuts?” Okay, we’ve never had anyone ask that last one, but at times the questions haven’t been much more substantial.
Then, of course, people come and go. People get upset and leave. Unfortunately, people often leave for reasons that likewise lack substance. They are willing to isolate themselves and fragment the church because their theological or ideological boxes have not all been checked.
For some people, these insubstantial issues manifest themselves in obvious and external behavior. But for many, these issues are quieter and less noticeable. They fester in the heart where no one can see.
Assessing Our Assessments
Have you ever been upset with your church? Have you ever been disappointed with people in the church? Have you ever been offended by someone in the church? Have you given up on the church altogether?
If you answered “yes” to any of those questions, then ask yourself, Why? Is it because the Word of God is being violated? Is it because God is being dishonored? Or is it because your view on right and important is not being satisfied?
As a pastor who planted a church in 1993 and has been serving that church ever since, I have seen many get disgruntled with us for not holding tightly enough to the things they thought were important, whether politics, education, or family planning. And the list could go on.
Danger of Our Wish-Dreams
Over the years I have gone back again and again to a little book by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together. The wisdom and comfort in this little book is inestimably valuable. One of the most important truths I have gleaned from Bonhoeffer’s work relates directly to the disgruntled, the disappointed, and the angry. Bonhoeffer says:
Every human wish-dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial. God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. 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 law, and judges the brethren and God himself accordingly.
Brothers and sisters, how we must guard against our own wish-dreams of what the church ought to be. The church isn’t about my preferences, my agenda, my likes or dislikes, my political views or personal convictions. When these wish-dreams govern the way we evaluate a church, we become critics of the church as we stand in judgment over it.
The church is about God’s truth, God’s people, the gospel of Jesus Christ, and fellowshiping with sinners who have been saved by grace. The treasure of the church isn’t in the sterling people who compose the membership and wave the right flags. The treasure of the church is Jesus Christ himself, as he comes to us in the gospel (2 Cor. 4:3-7). The people in the church are clay pots, earthen vessels, weak, frail, fragile sinners. That’s all of us. Wish-dreamers are always focused on trying to improve the clay by reshaping the clay into their wish-dreams.
Why We Have Wish-Dreams
Obviously Bonhoeffer didn't mean biblical standards are wish-dreams. He was talking about our non-biblical expectations of others and thus of the church. When we expect the church to be “the fellowship of the pious” we have a wish-dream. When we expect the church to trumpet our personal causes, then we have a wish-dream. If we are put off because there are sinful people in our church whose clay is showing, then we have a wish-dream.
Wish-dreamers forget that the church is built on the gospel of the cross and that gospel is for people who really know themselves to be sinners. Wish-dreamers see themselves as having their act together because they . . . [fill in the blank] . . . and expect the church to follow suit. Wish-dreamers see themselves as sinners only in their creed, but not in reality. When we see ourselves as desperate sinners in need of the grace of Christ, it changes the way we look at others, what we expect of others, and what we want the church to be. Wish-dreamers are concerned about certain sins, but not others. They are great labelers of people. They are always looking for a church with better clay.
But the wish-dreamer forgets that we live in community with one another for a reason. As Bonhoeffer reminds us later, “He who is alone with his sin is utterly alone.” To be alone, to withdraw from the body because our wish-dreams have been challenged or smashed, is to end up alone in our sin. When we are together, we are together in him, in his gospel. We can minister to each other and love each other as fellow sinners.
The gospel is glorious when clay remembers it is clay and treasures the true Treasure.
Brian Borgman (DMin, Westminster Seminary) is founding and senior pastor of Grace Community Church in Minden, Nevada. He is the author of My Heart for Thy Cause: Albert N. Martin’s Theology of Preaching (Mentor, 2001), Feelings and Faith: Cultivating Godly Emotions in the Christian Life (Crossway, 2009), and Spiritual Warfare: A Biblical and Balanced Perspective (Reformation Heritage, 2014). The article was originally posted on The Gospel Coalition.