The 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.