Dear Church

In thinking about planting a church, we’ve been reading everything we can get our hands on related to the subject.  For both Karen and myself, this little section entitled Dear Church from Jen Hatmaker’s book For the Love: Fighting for Grace in a World of Impossible Standards  hits the nail on the head.  We hope you enjoy, and encourage you to purchase and read the entire book.  Funny, easy, yet enlightening read.

Dear Church People,

First let me broaden the definition of who “church people” are. How about church people, former church people, and potential church people? It’s a fluid category, so all of you can just gather round. You are so incredibly dear to me. I particularly like the prickly folks on the outer edges, but I was raised by church choir ladies with casseroles, so I have big heart-space for all the concentric rings.

Let’s go ahead and address the “stuff”: Church is a teeny bit crazy. I know this. I am this. Approximately four of you don’t have church baggage. These wounds range from “This feels irrelevant and weird” to “This place crushed my soul.” I’ve experienced both, so I promise to be a gentle friend.

When I was a kid, I thought my parents knew everything because they were parents. I was unclear how information about All The Things had been transferred to them, but I was certain they were in possession of it. They seemed very old and parentish, and I believed they were fully certain about our world and its happenings. What was their real life? I have no idea. I thought they existed to parent us.

When I realized my parents were in their twenties and thirties when they raised us, I freaked out. Babies! They didn’t know everything! They weren’t sure about anything! I know because I’ve completed my twenties and thirties, and we don’t know jack. We use smoke and mirrors while we figure it out behind closed doors. Plus, sometimes we are cranky and tired of parenting and just want to go to our own mom’s house and take a nap.

Our kids don’t know we are real people, but they’ll figure it out one day.

I think many church folks feel this way about pastors. We perceive them as experts in everything, super-special and somehow different (better) than us; and we suspect they are always certain when we sometimes doubt. Plus, their job is to pastor us, and that is the beginning and end of them. Just as kids don’t think of parents as human people, we assume pastors exist to pastor.

Dear ones, pastors are so terribly human. Did you read the previous letter? Most are struggling, lonely, overwhelmed, and sad. They battle the same sin and tendencies you do, and they are equally susceptible to life’s quicksand. Their hearts are no less tender and their souls are no less vulnerable. Sometimes they are not sure. Sometimes they project authority while trying to figure it out themselves. They can blow it as husbands, wives, parents, and friends, and they often do. Their list of “shoulds” can be paralyzing, and most pastors live with a chronic sense of disappointing people.

Now obviously they accepted a pastoral role, which comes with responsibility. They’ll answer to God for their care of souls, and trust me: That reality is sobering when “being human” does not excuse them from humble, diligent leadership. To whom much has been given much will be required, and that certainly applies to human care. Pastoring is no role to accept lightly.

But I wonder how much expectation is placed on mere men and women? They have the same twenty-four hours a day, the same basic capacity, and the same “life outside of church” as anyone— spouses, soccer games, fishing trips, dinners. Some of this is their doing, I know. They’ve given you the impression they can meet all your needs (perhaps having no needs themselves). Maybe they have a class, a staff member, and a curriculum for everything under the sun, so everything seems in hand. Plus, if they aren’t transparent, their pedestal is protected.

And this pedestal thing. What a nightmare. Please don’t feed into this. It has created some monsters. When church is less like a family and more like an enterprise, its leaders act less like pastors and more like commanders. This puts everyone in danger— the leaders and the people. Spiritual abuse thrives where pastors are untouchable and people are commodities. No one intends this, but absolute power corrupts in every human environment. The right things become too small— humility, Jesus, ordinary church folks, simplicity— and the wrong things become too big— the pastors, toxic hierarchy, success, appearances.

Church in general bears a heavy burden. After forty years under the steeples, I am convinced we want more than church was designed to provide. Unreasonable expectations leave pastors constantly depleted (or power drunk), and people constantly disappointed (or codependent). The early church involved small, organic communities who gathered around tables, lived simple lives on mission, and loved God and neighbor. That was kind of it. The first believers assembled for renewal and teaching and dinner and togetherness. It was so basic and lovely. Everyone pulled weight, pitched in, pressed into God. The early church wasn’t fancy or entertaining, impressive or complicated, but it managed to take the gospel to the whole world.

I don’t know your feelings about church, but what if you freed up your pastors to be ordinary men and women, your church to be a simple family, and your life to be for loving God and people?

I don’t mean to minimize church damage; that pain is real, and wounds from supposedly trustworthy people cut deep. I know this personally. Don’t hear me say, “A pastor or church person or church hurt you but they are just human so lah-deedah.” One’s humanity is never a license to injure, especially by those in leadership. Like any organization, church has mostly wonderful, dependable leaders and some abusive, manipulative ones. I wish we could shield the church from our humanity, but alas, the two are hopelessly linked. Church leaders are regular old sinners but should still be vetted with discernment. We don’t carelessly place our families under spiritual authority. (My checkpoints, in order: 1. humility; 2. transparency; 3. integrity.)

But under a humble leader, in the fold of ordinary folks who love God and each other, the church can be the safe family Jesus dreamed up. It really can. Without unrealistic expectations foisted on one another, we are unbound to create a beautiful little community.

You are capable of a Spirit-filled life on mission without constant church management. Does that free you up at all? Does that help you free the church up too? You’ve got the goods: Here is your Bible, there is your neighbor, you know the prayer words, you have eyes to see your city, and the Holy Spirit dwells within you. The kingdom tools are yours already: Scripture, a smart mind, a kitchen table, capable hands, the capacity to study and learn, a heart full of Jesus, a porch, people to learn from, people to love. Honestly? Life is convoluted but the kingdom is simple. We overcomplicate the ways of Jesus.

  • Love God, love people.
  • Act justly, love mercy, walk humbly.
  • Treat people as you want to be treated.
  • If you want to be great, be a servant.

It really is simple— a pure kingdom lived in ordinary ways by ordinary people. Let’s unshackle each other’s hands a bit. Our pastors and churches teach and gather us, challenge and launch us, but no church supersedes you living your beautiful, valuable life on mission. You fulfill an extraordinary role through ordinary means, and no leader or church can do this for you. There is no whole without the pieces.

If you assume an obedient life requires a thousand moving parts, a bunch of church programs, an international movement, a big fancy ministry, or a giant platform, let Jesus’ description of the kingdom relieve you: small, invisible, humble, tiny seeds, mostly hidden. Faithfulness is not easy, but it is simple. You are already able, already positioned, already valuable in your normal life on your normal street next to your normal neighbors in your normal work. The priesthood of the believer is real.

Also? Church people are regular old sinners too. If I could fix this, I would. As it turns out, the church isn’t a gathering of shiny new pennies. It lets anyone in the door! All sorts of hooligans fill the sanctuaries: kind and good ones, angry and cynical ones, mean and judgmental ones, smart and funny ones, broken and sad ones, weird and awkward ones, precious and loving ones, scared and wounded ones, brave and passionate ones, insiders and outliers, newbies and lifers and trying-one-more-timers. Just a whole bunch of human people.  Every church has all these folks. It is just the hottest mess, but clearly you belong here because everyone does. Find your little faith tribe (it exists) and learn to love it with all the grace and humility you can muster.

If we allow people to be human and God to be God, the church has a fighting chance. If you show up brave and true, and leaders show up brave and true, if you own your place and I own mine, the kingdom will break through in every possible way. God is big and good enough to lead us all, and together we just might see His kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

Hatmaker, Jen (2015-08-18). For the Love: Fighting for Grace in a World of Impossible Standards

Written by Brian Culbertson

Sinner turned Saint because of Jesus.

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