I remember when I could blame my mistakes on youth and inexperience. Those were the good old days. Now, I think I make fewer errors, but coming up with acceptable excuses is so much harder. When worse comes to worst I can always revert to the tried and tested Garden of Eden Hall of Fame excuse Adam used, “The woman you gave me…” He blamed both the woman and God in one short phrase. Brilliant.
I have spent a lot of time in recent months trying to get my life in order. I’m talking here more about my stuff than about my spirit, though I’ve been working on both. I’ve been going through boxes and files and sorting and throwing away and trying to tame the wild beast that is my office. I need one of those signs that says, “A clean desk is the product of a cluttered mind.” I doubt it’s true, but it would make me feel better. I just got to the point where my mess was overwhelming me. Ever seen one of those TV shows where someone opened a closet and boxes of junk poured out? Bingo.
But it always seems like there’s more mess than there is time to clean it and sort it. No matter how much I do, there’s always another box to rummage through and another closet to tame. The mess is bigger than my management skills.
Ever felt that way about your church?
It was a long time ago in a church far, far away. I shared a story on Sunday night about how God had worked to answer prayer and make a mighty and powerful provision. It was a joyful moment. After church a couple of men in the church approached me, upset about their suspicion that there may have been a minor church policy violated in the process. I don’t think anything wrong was done, but I was amazed that when God was doing something great a couple of our leaders were bothered about a possible minor policy issue.
If you have been in the church of Jesus Christ any length of time you will have noticed how absolutely messy it is. My dad used to say, “If you find a perfect church, please do not join it. You will just mess it up.” I have often laid awake at night wondering why people who claim Christ act the way they do. Of course, I’ve also laid awake wondering why I act the way I do! The church is messy because it is filled with messy people, people with broken lives, dysfunctional people with hurts, with dark places in their souls.
Chuck Lawless wrote a great article called “8 Reasons Every Church Is Messy.” Spot on. Absolutely true. Your church is messy and so is mine. Here are his 8 points and my brief observations.
- We’re all sinners. That’s the heart of it. Our lives, our hearts, our emotions have all been broken by sin and we bring that brokenness into the church with us – there is no place to drop our sin nature at the door. We are growing, but our sin is always present.
- Some are still non-believers. Every church has people in it who say they are saved, think they are saved, but according to Matthew 7 are not saved. “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord….’” Unsaved people will never walk in the Spirit.
- The gospel is intended to reveal messiness. We are not a country club of superior saints, but a hospital for broken sinners. Jesus fixes those sins that tear us apart and the only way to avoid messiness is to keep out sinners. Mighty small congregation you are going to have then, pastor.
- All of us are in process. When you do renovations, there is a mess. God is changing us and the process is often messy. We are under construction and are not finished yet.
- There’s an enemy in our midst. Make no mistake, the enemy of all that is good is at work among us, stirring up anger and dissension, provoking the works of the flesh, attacking all that the Spirit is doing among us.
- We are still figuring out how to do discipleship. Everyone bemoans the lack of discipleship in churches, but how to get that job done is still baffling us. It’s easy to criticize your mistakes but figuring out how to do it better ain’t easy.
- We are not likely to be better than the Early Church. Ever read Acts. The Early Church could be pretty messy – and powerful at the same time!
- You and I are there. Let’s stop pretending we are perfect. We are messy, messed-up, struggling people with problems, who have a GREAT Savior. Praise God!
I would add a few more things about the messiness of the church.
1. If you are a “neat-freak” the ministry is not for you.
I’m not talking about someone who is like my wife. Thank goodness my wife is not a slob like me or our house would be a federal disaster area. She is as much of a neat freak as I am a mess monster. There’s probably a lesson in there about spiritual gifts or “it takes a village” or “unity or diversity” or something. But that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the ability to deal with the mess in people’s lives.
I’ve talked to young pastor friends who were absolutely shocked that Christians came to church and didn’t behave like Christians. “But if they are followers of Christ they should behave like Christ.” Yes, they should. And it is your job to model that, teach that, and patiently lead them toward that. But you don’t take your baby back to the hospital every time it poops its pants or spills its milk, do you? You realize that raising a child is a messy, difficult, sometimes gross and ugly thing. And helping baby Christians grow into mature Christians is even more difficult because while they make messes they aren’t always cute and they are born again already talking back!
Yes, church discipline is a necessary tool, but you don’t use it every time someone in the church gets mad or makes a mistake or says something wrong. Messiness in ministry is going to be a constant reality. Yes, you hold up the standard and you encourage the higher walk, but you also need to accept this reality. Life is messy. The church is filled with sinful people and dysfunctional people. They bring their dysfunction to church.
The church is always going to be a messy place.
2. No amount of policies, procedures, bylaws or principles will stop messiness.
I’m something of an amateur expert on the writing of church constitutions, bylaws, policies, procedures. I’ve written or rewritten three church constitutions and bylaws, plus associational bylaws, plus worked closely on the policies and procedures of a state convention.
The first church I served here in Iowa was a mission church when I took over. We constituted in 1993 and worked hard to develop a set of bylaws that would guide us well. We’d all seen abuses and problems in our church lives, so we tried to put in place procedures that would prevent people from behaving badly. We tried to install procedures to prevent messiness. What I noticed over the next 12 years was that the policies we most regretted were the ones we used to try to prevent fleshly people from doing fleshly things. They often had the unintended consequence of preventing good people from doing good things.
The old saw is that “you can’t legislate morality.” I’m not sure that’s really true, but I know that no set of bylaws or policy manual can prevent messiness in a church and if you think you have developed a fool-proof system to prevent fleshly messiness from encroaching in your congregation, the folly of sin will prove you wrong. It is the Spirit of God who protects from sin, not policies and procedures. You need to rely on the proclamation of the word of God the power of the Spirit, good biblical procedures (simple, not complex), and faithful ministry to do God’s work.
3. Trust the Spirit to grow the people.
When my kids were learning to walk they fell down a lot. I never once despaired or sent them away because of their failures. Why? Because I knew that they would grow up and learn. It was natural. Their failures were a part of the process and helped them to learn and grow. God has built us so that it is natural to grow and we trust that process.
God has built something inside each believer that gives great hope – the Holy Spirit.
There was a man in my church who had glaring faults. Big faults. He crossed personal boundaries and didn’t seem to understand sometimes what he’d done wrong. He offended people with his behavior and with his humor. Some of my more zealous and biblically grounded folks were frustrated with me that I didn’t “do discipline” on him. But I spent a lot of time with him. I knew him. He was growing. He was moving in the right direction. The Spirit of God was at work within him and he was growing in grace and knowledge. Why use discipline to crush his spirit? Sometimes I confronted him. Once, it was pretty harsh. But until the day he died he continued in Christ, by which time even the harshest among us understood who he was and loved him.
I’m afraid we don’t trust the inner work of the Spirit to conform people to Christ. Paul said that “he who began the good work” would carry it on to completion. Jesus saves and sanctifies. The church needs to teach and train but we don’t have to whip people into shape.
I remember confronting a man over and over again for his sin – to the point at which I was ready to give up. His marriage and family were in shambles. Every time we met for “counseling” I said the same thing and I put counseling in quotes because I might as well have been talking to a brick wall. Then, one day, in my office, this man was broken – utterly broken. I’d not said a thing different, but the Spirit spoke to him.
Trust the Spirit to work on the mess. Be careful about throwing out messy things, because the Spirit can sort out even the messiest Christian.
4. Remember the finished product. Be patient.
My first job was as an associate pastor at a church in Florida that was in the middle of a major building project, constructing a new sanctuary. When I arrived, the floors had been poured and the beams that swept up to the peak above what would one day be the pulpit were being placed. Everything was a mess. Water collected in what would be an instrument pit down front. Dust and dirt were everywhere. There were no finishings on anything. The beams were wrapped in an ugly brown paper. It was a mess. But I never heard a single person go through the church as say, “This place is awful. How can we be expected to worship in a pig sty like this? It’s a total wreck.” They looked past the present and imagined the future. “Wow, this is going to be magnificent.” They looked to the finished product.
We seldom do that with people, though, do we? “Wow, Buford is a real piece of work.” “Our church is better off without Beulah. She did nothing but stir up trouble.” “Everything Mortimer does rubs me the wrong way.” “Why can’t Eunice support what we are trying to do?” We look at people’s present failings, their annoying personalities, their faults and quirks and we act as judge, jury, and spiritual executioner. Where is the grace that we give to buildings?
Anyone remember the button that people used to wear back in the 70s?
They were very popular in my church. “Please be patient. God is not finished with me yet.” You know what? It’s a worthy sentiment. In a messy church filled with messy people led by messy pastors, patience is the power of God to keep everything together.
5. Don’t abandon congregationalism to avoid messiness.
I’m convinced that some who move their church away from congregational government to elder rule do so to avoid the messiness of allowing every person in the church to have their say and express their opinion. It can be annoying to spend hours upon hours working on something, sweating over it, studying it, praying over it, laboring diligently, then bringing it to the church and having someone just dismiss it without serious consideration because, “that’s not how we did it in the church I was raised in,” or some other equally weak reason. It’s infuriating.
But insulating ourselves from criticism and the review of our ideas is another way of failing to trust the Spirit of God. Embrace the messiness of having to earn the right to lead and to convince the people that what you believe is really the way of God.
Ministry in a fallen world is always messy. The good news is that our God is amazing at bringing order to the mess. He does great things in our lives and in our people’s lives and one day, he will finish the work completely.
Oh, and right now, my office looks pretty good!
No guarantees about tomorrow.