I come from a religious tradition that has historically been preoccupied with being right. We’ve focused on the “right” (and therefore, only acceptable) way to “do” church and live your life, setting up rules and boundary markers to help us determine who is a real Christian. In fact, I was raised with the belief that members of our tribe were the only real Christians.
We even have a particular insider term to refer to real Christians: someone who is a “member of the Lord’s Church” or simply “member of The Church.” An outsider may not recognize it, but when we use these terms, we’re referring to someone who is part of our particular tribe, not the church universal.
Our tribe froze a particular moment in christian history (interpretation, tradition, practices, teachings, etc.) and baptized that as the “right” way to “be Christian” and “do church.” Moreover, we continue to believe that there is, in fact, a right or *gasp* perfect way to “do church.” And this may be part of what’s killing us.
I’m still being confronted with the ways in which my tradition steeped in me a toxic desire for and pursuit of perfectionism.
I was at a conference last week on “Space and the Formation of Missional Communities.” Surrounded by church leaders and holy insurrectionists, I voiced the question that has been plaguing me for more than a decade but has been particularly present of late: does church matter anymore? If God’s mission is all around us, and we’re regularly meeting God outside the walls of institutional religion, then why bother putting up with the messiness and pains of congregational life?
In the midst of a lengthy conversation with a leader in missional engagement, it slowly dawned on me that at the heart of my question was my own preoccupation with doing things right – my need for church to be perfect.
I talked about the tendency for institutions to preserve themselves, ensuring their own survival at all costs. And I said that I often thought about trying to do something new (planting a church), but that at some point even that would become an institution that will one day harm its members.
My disillusionment with church and observations about institutions are real and valid, but why did that make me question the importance of church? Because deep down, I believed that if we couldn’t get it right, why bother?
My conversation partner comes from a religious tradition that doesn’t carry the same perfectionist baggage, so he was confused by my line of questioning on a fundamental level. Church isn’t for righteous people and church will never be perfect, he said.
As much as I’ve resisted some of the uglier tendencies of our tradition, this was a huge blind spot for me. And I’m thankful for it being exposed.
I was asked to offer the words of institution and guide our participation in communion at the close of the conference. My voice surprised me with a sudden shakiness after I’d repeated the words “the body of Christ, broken for you” about a dozen times for those who came to receive Jesus. Struck by the brokenness of the church—the messiness, pain, redemption, and beauty of it all—the surge of emotion alerted my mind to the holiness of the moment.
I struggled to continue repeating those words as they were actively tending to my heart, communicating a wordless truth that the beauty is in the brokenness, not perfection.
I’m not sure what God’s up to here, but the Spirit is stirring something deep in me. If something has been stirring in you too, let’s talk.
Dave Hill says
Outstanding article! Thanks for writing this and I fully agree with you. I like meeting together as a body of Christians as we are able to encourage each others and grow together. I am from the same tribe as you are and for way too we as a whole have thought that we had all the answers. I see that going away in most congregations now, but there are still a few that still hang on to that concept. Keep up your good work. Dave Hill
Thank you for sharing!
That’s an amazing and very helpful observation, Jen. My brain needs to let it sink in a bit. Thank you for you thoughtfulness.
Thanks, Donna! It’s been rolling around in the back of my mind and heart for a while