Expecting Less, Discovering the More

Expecting Less, Discovering the More November 3, 2014

Screen Shot 2014-04-21 at 7.43.06 AMThe more we expect from our local church or the church universal the less we will discover in the church. But, when we expect less than our dreamy ideals the more church we will discover. Idealism wrecks reality and the church is not an ideal but a reality. Kingdom-now is not an ideal but a reality, and it is filled with broken promises by people who are themselves broken. Brokenness is part of what it means to indwell the church/kingdom reality in the world today. A broken people is, in fact, the more we are meant to encounter in the church because the church is sacred space for the flow of God’s grace and love and healing holiness.

Ordinary small churches are the norm and the reality of church life, of kingdom-now life.

Often this idealism, what Bonhoeffer calls a “wishful image,” both inspires and ruins church leaders (pastors, elders, deacons, ministers). It inspires these leaders to hope for the most and it ruins them when they encounter the reality of ordinary church life by ordinary Christians (who are the vast, vast majority).

Pastoring in the reality-called-church means first and foremost pastoring those to whom we are called. It does not mean changing them; it does not mean crushing them with our vision or frustrating them with expectations that they cannot themselves accomplish. It means knowing they God’s and that we are called to foster what God is doing in them. It means patience and forgiveness and grace and joy and love and disappointment and divisions and sad days accompanied by good days.

Pastors smitten by the ideal of the church think more of themselves as prophets instead of pastors. It’s the sin of the young pastor, the recent seminary graduate who has had little experience in pastoring, and it creates sharp-edged communication with the people of God whom that pastor is called to serve (not chide, not ruin). A pastor who is always a prophet will either have to create his or her own church or drive out the better part of the church or pack up and move to another church, where often enough the same bad habits will be revealed and the same cycle of vision, disappointment, chiding, leaving and starting over again will repeat itself.

Pastors pastor; they aren’t prophets; we don’t want a church run by a prophet. Churches are guided by pastors.

Pastors driven by ideals push aside all those who are not caught up in that ideal: the children won’t matter; teens are encouraged to enter the program; seniors citizens are pushed into the corner and asked to pray and keep busy but their wisdom is ignored. Those with different views are squashed; those who challenge the prophet-pastor are seen as dissidents and divisive and dangerous; those who think for themselves are silenced. The only voice that matters is the one who speaks for the vision, for the dreamy wish.

The real church, then, is made up of ordinary Christians who are ordinary sinners. If we know that is the reality, we will expect less (in the sense of living for the wishful image) and in living with that less we will discover the more of genuine fellowship of genuine Christians. The pastor who lives like this will discover expecting less will lead to the more of genuine pastoral ministry. The pastor who lives like this will know that he or she needs the table of the Lord as much as the congregants. The pastor who knows the reality of the church then will know that Jesus is the Lord and that the pastor is nothing but called to lead people to that Lord.

Those who are comfortable only with the ideal will settle for nothing less than conformity of all others in the congregation to their perception of the Christian life and church. Hence, those smitten by such idealism will become insufferably judgmental and cantankerous, perhaps appealing to the 16th Century or the 18th Century or, just as often, the 1st Century when things were done right — which means, their own wishful image of what church life was like. There never was a golden age; even among the followers of Jesus during his lifetime there was all kinds of sinfulness and doubt and misjudgments. James and John, after all, wanted Jesus to toss thunderbolts on a village that didn’t respond to him. That second name became the apostle of love (1 John), but it took time and it will take time today for even the best of us to become grounded in love.

My contention is this: if we will learn to expect less than our ideals we will discover the genuine more of fellowship and church life.

The paradox of real church life is yearning for love and holiness in the midst of sinners who will not this side of eternity ever be fully loving or holy. Hence, the paradox is that we are both saints and sinners — that’s what the church really is. The now of the kingdom is no different.

No one said this better than Bonhoeffer, and I quote now what might be the most influential paragraphs on church life in my own thinking.

DB, Life Together (in DBWE 5: 34-37):

This dismisses at the outset every unhappy desire for something more. Those who want more than what Christ has established between us do not want Christian community. They are looking for some extraordinary experiences of community that were denied them elsewhere. Such people are bringing confused and tainted desires into the Christian community. Precisely at this point Christian community is most often threatened from the very outset by the greatest danger, the danger of internal poisoning, the danger of confusing Christian community with some wishful image of pious community, the danger of blending the devout heart’s natural desire for community with the spiritual reality of Christian community. It is essential for Christian community that two things become clear right from the beginning. First, Christian community is not an ideal, but a divine reality; second, Christian community is a spiritual [pneumatische] and not a psychic [psychische] reality.

On innumerable occasions a whole Christian community has been shattered because it has lived on the basis of a wishful image. Certainly serious Christians who are put in a community for the first time will often bring with them a very definite image of what Christian communal life [Zusammenleben] should be, and they will be anxious to realize n’ But God’s grace quickly frustrates all such dreams. A great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves, is bound to overwhelm us as surely as God desires to lead us to an understanding of genuine Christian community. By sheer grace God will not permit us to live in a dream world even for a few weeks and to abandon ourselves to those blissful experiences and exalted moods that sweep over us like a wave of rapture. For God is not a God of emotionalism, but the God of truth. Only that community which enters into the experience of this great disillusionment with all its unpleasant and evil appearances begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it. The sooner this moment of disillusionment comes over the individual and the community, the better for both. However, a community that cannot bear and cannot survive such disillusionment, clinging instead to its idealized image, when that should be done away with, loses at the same time the promise of a durable Christian community. Sooner or later it is bound to collapse. Every human idealized image that is brought into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be broken up so that genuine community can survive. Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.

God hates this wishful dreaming because it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. Those who dream of this idealized community demand that it be fulfilled by God, by others, and by themselves. They enter the community of Christians with their demands, set up their own law, and judge one another and even God accordingly. They stand adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of the community. They act as if they have to create the Christian community, as if their visionary ideal binds the people together. Whatever does not go their way, they call a failure. When their idealized image is shattered, they see the community breaking into pieces. So they first become accusers of other Christians in the community, then accusers of God, and finally the desperate accusers of themselves. Because God already has laid the only foundation of our community, because God has united us in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that life together with other Christians, not as those who make demands, but as those who thankfully receive. We thank God for what God has done for us. We thank God for giving us other Christians who live by God’s call, forgiveness, and promise. We do not complain about what God does not give us; rather we are thankful for what God does give us daily. And is not what has been given us enough: other believers who will go on living with us through sin and need under the blessing of God’s grace? Is the gift of God any less immeasureably great than this on any given day, even on the most difficult and distressing days of a Christian community? Even when sin and misunderstanding burden the common life, is not the one who sins still a person with whom I too stand under the word of Christ? Will not another Christian’s sin be an occasion for me ever anew to give thanks that both of u us may live in the forgiving love of God in Jesus Christ? Therefore, will not the very moment of great disillusionment with my brother or sister be incomparably wholesome for me because it so thoroughly teaches me that both of us can never live by our own words and deeds, but only by that one Word and deed that really binds us together, the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ? The bright day of Christian community dawns wherever the early morning mists of dreamy visions are lifting.


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  • samstfleur

    Beautiful. I wonder how this kind of genuine community can come about if those in it don’t see themselves as sinners. Perhaps that is an example of the idealism Bonhoeffer has in mind?

  • DMH

    Very nice, and so true. My wife and I were part of a community (common living space, common meals, semi-common pot type) early in our marriage. We made Life Together required reading for anyone thinking of entering in.

  • I’m wondering if on the subject of Community you might see more of a male/female divide? My thought is that maybe men might need less idealism, women more. Maybe men need more immanence and women need more transcendence? As women, we do community and ecumenism and forgiveness because we know that we might have to go borrow an egg from that neighbor tomorrow. I was intrigued by a recent question of Roger Olson’s on his blog–how might theology look different if women had had an equally loud voice as men over the years?–and so I did the community thing and asked my MDiv pastor daughter. We’re still working on it. I hate to type-cast but I’m wondering if as women we cut each other so much slack because of our monthly hormonal fluctuations and because we are more naturally more community and family-oriented. Maybe we aren’t critical and discerning enough?

  • Nice article. I think the focus of church and community is like a family that needs to listen, share be humbled and love fiercely. Naive interpretation, maybe; simple idea, definitely, doble; absolutely.

  • Gene R. Smillie

    Wow. Opening this up this morning, the first piece of e-info to appear on my screen on Monday morning, was like pulling the pin on a Holy Hand-grenade. Thank you. Nice to have my mind & spirit cleared so thoroughly. Bless you and may the readers of this be legion.

  • John W. Frye

    “The churches of the Revelation show us that churches are not Victorian parlors where everything is picked up and ready for guests. They are messy family rooms. …They are not show rooms. They are living rooms, and if the people living in them are sinners, there are going to be clothes scattered about, hand prints on the woodwork, and mud on the carpet. For as long as Jesus insists on calling sinners and not the righteous to repentance–and there is no indication as yet that he has changed his policy in that regard– churches are going to be an embarrassment to the fastidious and an affront to the upright. …We expect a community of saints who are mature in the virtues of love and mercy, and find ourselves working on a church supper where there is more gossip than casseroles.” Eugene H. Peterson, *Reversed Thunder* 54,55 I think all pastors should read Peterson’s chapter titled “The Last Word on the Church.” I think Peterson read Bonhoeffer for EHP writes, “There must be no idealization of the church.”

  • Randy

    I have read the book and (several times) the passage quoted above several times in the past. Today it stung me, and I’m trying to pay attention to that. I confess to being a poster boy for the prophet idealist. Possibly it has not been a problem for me until now because I have been largely the one setting the culture wherever I have served. But I am a member now of a very small (and somewhat liberal) church who has been most likely too involved in the lives of those attending (due to my age and experience…and ordination…I am called on to serve as counselor/pastor/teacher once in a while). I am currently struggling with an issue where my pastor and board chairman (VERY small church) have no issue with the treasurer of the board being in a fairly public, adulterous relationship (she knows it is wrong, but is unwilling to leave it). They are encouraged that she seems very happy in it, and they do not want her to feel rejected by them (ie, the church). I have not been able to embrace the amount of grace needed to let go of this. Are we not to call one another to something better? Are we to simply accept public, unrepentant sinful behavior among our fellow followers as the norm for gracious community, and move on? I’m not trying to be an ass. I’m really wanting to find another way. And I need help.

  • EW78

    This reminded me of an important article from Kyle Childress ( “Good Work: Learning About Ministry from Wendell Berry” , Christian Century), implying that “farm” should be swapped with “church”, he writes:

    Every pastor-to-be should ponder this passage, in which Berry describes a farmer who is considering the purchase of a piece of land (he sounds like a pastor looking over a new church assignment or call):

    When one buys the farm and moves there to live, something different begins. Thoughts begin to be translated into acts. . . . It invariably turns out, I think, that one’s first vision of one’s place was to some extent an imposition on it. But if one’s sight is clear and one stays on and works well, one’s love gradually responds to the place as it really is, and one’s visions gradually image possibilities that are really in it.. . . Two human possibilities of the highest order thus come within reach: what one wants can become the same as what one has, and one’s knowledge can cause respect for what one knows.
    (Standing by Words)

  • This is so good, thank you so much for sharing. As much as we need prophets, we also (maybe more) need pastors, because most of us live in the ordinary.

  • MrErr

    I could be wrong, but i think you are saying that we need to accept the messiness of the Church. I would rather say that we need to deal with the messiness of Church in a loving way. I think the best attitude we can have is described by Paul.

    php 3:12 Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. 13 Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, 14 I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you. 16 Nevertheless, to the degree that we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us be of the same mind.

  • MrErr

    In case it was not clear, i advocating that there is a place for idealism within the church. We need to figure how to use it to be progressing towards a better future rather than using the lack of attainability of idealism as reason for discontent with the church.

  • Mark

    “Kingdom-now is not an ideal but a reality, and it is filled with broken promises by people who are themselves broken. Brokenness is part of what it means to indwell the church/kingdom reality in the world today.”

    I question what is meant by “brokenness.” If by it you mean a contrite heart before a holy God then yes. But if you mean a constant state of “I’m just a sinner saved by grace” then no. It seems that many within the Church wallow in their unworthiness and never move on to being transformed. Isn’t that the “ideal?” To be transformed by Christ? To conform to the image of Christ? The goal won’t be reached in this life but should we not strain in pursuit of it by the power of the Spirit?

    “The real church, then, is made up of ordinary Christians who are ordinary sinners.” Really? “Sinner” is no longer my identity. I am a Christ-follower
    who happens to sin. It’s important to note the difference. What happened to being “a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s treasured possession?” Paul calls us to crucify our flesh and questions how we can live in sin if we have died to sin.

    “…those smitten by such idealism will become insufferably judgmental and cantankerous, perhaps appealing to the 16th Century or the 18th Century or, just as often, the 1st Century when things were done right — which means, their own wishful image of what church life was like.” I think what you are labeling “idealism” is simply the sin of pride and self.

    As an idealist, I expect (but don’t demand) more, not less but I don’t expect my ideals but, ideally, a surrendered heart to God. I expect my flock to pray the prayer of Psalm 139:23-24. I expect that Christ will transform them. Is it difficult and messy? Yes. So is life, so is love.

    I simply believe that the Church must live up to the calling which it received, not by strength of will but by a surrendered will.

  • David Hull

    I am curious if you would label the early apostles as idealists, because in reading the New Testament, it definitely seems as if they had expectations of the church which were not consonant with the manner in which they were living in day to day life.

    What are your thoughts about this?