“I’m done with the church. I don’t see the point of it all. I will worship Jesus on my own.”
Hearing those words from a longtime friend was a sucker punch to the gut. I sat in silence trying to gather my thoughts. I moved uncomfortably in the faux leather coffee shop seat and began to pray silently. This isn’t the first time I’ve witnessed a Christian bail on the church. As a church planter and pastor for 20 years, I have sat across the table with a number of people who have been hurt, burned or disillusioned by their experience in the church. I’ve read countless articles (on Christian websites) that dismantle and deconstruct this sacred institution. I’ve listened to church leaders, in a grand stroke of irony, bash the very church of which they are a part. I’m not talking constructive criticism. I’m talking about the type of tongue-lashing where they throw it to the curb and kick it while it’s down. That always puzzles me. How could someone who shepherds the church speak in such a hurtful way about the church? I’ve heard it far too often.
I’ve sat and listened as other people have rejected the church, but today was different. Today this conversation hurt. It was personal. Maybe because it was such a close friend or maybe because it was the umpteenth time I’ve been on the receiving end of the “Dear John” letter, but I wasn’t going to let this moment pass without standing up for the church. With a thousand thoughts running through my mind and feeling like I had nothing to say, I leaned back into the conversation and said, “Listen, friend. Let me tell you about the beautiful mystery of the local church and why I love her so much.”
The church is made to be messy.
One of the things I love most about the church is that it is anything but perfect. It is a work in progress. If it is done well, it is a collection of broken people who are actively working out their salvation (Philippians 2:12). It is a work of art. After all, we are God’s masterpiece (Ephesians 2:10). But it’s not a work of art that has been reproduced and distributed to the masses. It is unique. There are no two exactly alike. Why? It’s made up of all types of people who are working out what it means to follow Jesus — people who are overcoming the demons of their past while moving forward, sliding back and moving forward again. The beauty is found in the mess. In some ways, the church is an artist’s studio. There’s paint being thrown on a canvas. The masterpiece is not finished. This is not a plastic-wrapped, manufactured print from Ikea. It’s an original that’s not finished.
For me, this makes sense. I am an artist. I love the process of making art. In fact, I love the process more than the finished product. I have no desire to display a perfect portrait. I’d rather paint it and repaint it. Picasso, da Vinci and van Gogh all painted over the top of their paintings. Art experts are able to view the changing work through the layers of paint (fmchr.ch/llpaint). When I’m with my kids, I’d rather build and rebuild with Lego than to set the work aside for display on a dusty shelf. Lego bricks are meant to be played with. In my opinion, they lose their purpose when they are put on display.
The same is true with the church. It won’t be finished until Jesus returns. In the meantime, we are participating artists on God’s canvas.
The mistakes and missteps in the church are not the ugly side. They are the beauty of a work in progress. The idea of participating in God’s creative work is one of the things I love most about the church. I am continually blown away with unique ways that God transforms people through their brokenness. Instead of expecting the church to be perfect, I enter into our community expecting to participate in God’s divine studio of life transformation.
Janice, whom I love dearly, has been attending our church for 10 years. I remember the Sunday when she surrendered her life to Christ. God lifted her from a painful past of abuse and addiction. In that moment of salvation, God began a good work, but like all of us, Janice is a work in progress. She carries baggage from past abuse, struggles with poor decision-making, looks to men for her identity and has addicted family members. The list goes on. As her pastor, I’ve walked with her through peaks and valleys, seasons of doubt and despair, and plenty and want (more want than plenty). To be honest, if I were looking for a perfect portrait of a seasoned churchgoer, I wouldn’t pick her. Her church attendance is sporadic. She will make commitments and fall short. She is certainly not going to be listed in “Who’s Who of Church Members.”
But when I frame it through the lens of God’s artistry at work, she is a marvelous example. Her heart is soft toward the Spirit of God. It’s common for her to kneel at the altar and weep for the broken, or to remain in her chair long after the service’s end as she soaks in the presence of God. Albeit sometimes taking two steps forward and four back, she remains engaged in the church community and continues to grow. This is not a mixed bag of hypocrisy. It’s the divine transformation of the human condition.
This slow and wobbly process has frustrated me at times. In my mind, I would put her under the microscope and ask, “Why can’t you get your act together? Come on. Figure it out.” Then I remember she is figuring it out and getting her act together. That’s exactly what this messy journey is all about. She keeps coming back. Her heart is engaged. She is God’s masterpiece in the making.
Back in the coffee shop, the espresso machine screeches as the next cup is formed. I say to my friend, “Do you see what I’m getting at here? The church is God’s studio for divine development. It’s made to be messy.”
In our church, we embrace the mess.
We believe that God invites this collection of imperfect people into His redemptive work. Hard to believe, but a holy God chooses us to participate in His mission. We become participants in the prayer of Jesus: “Your kingdom come … on earth” (Matthew 6:10).
The church is an invitation to something greater. God uses imperfect people through imperfect programs to usher artistic splashes of His kingdom right here on earth. This is one of the most amazing attributes of the local church. It’s a glimpse into the kingdom of God but not the perfect kingdom of heaven. “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12 ESV).
I love the realization that we are privileged to catch a snapshot of our eternal future. Someday we will gather around the throne of Jesus and experience the perfected church, but until then He gives us this sacred opportunity of participating in a piece of heaven on earth. I wonder what parts of the earthly church will be found in the heavenly version. I’m not sure if the guitars and projectors will make it, but I’m pretty sure we will be on an eternal journey of discovering more and more about Jesus and falling deeper in love. Having been perfected, we will continue in an eternal experience of being transformed by the power and presence of God. A portion of that experience is true for us today. The church is a gathering of people being transformed by the power and presence of God. There has never been a perfect church. The Apostle Paul penned pages of corrections to the churches he started, yet lives were changed in the midst of the mess, and the gospel continues to expand.
Our approach is to embrace messy lives and grow from there.
You may have heard the phrase, “It’s OK to not be OK, but it’s not OK to stay that way.”
A few years ago, a previously unchurched couple joined our church. The man was a contractor and small business owner. The woman held various jobs including motherhood. I remember the Sunday when a response to the altar call was made, tears shed, and a redemptive work began. At that time, they had both been divorced and were living together. Moderate alcohol, cigarettes and foul language were par for the course. Some churches’ expectation would be for them to return all buttoned up by next Sunday, and when they didn’t meet the expectation of perfection, they would be unintentionally pushed out.
Not here. Our church family has a proven track record of loving people in the midst of their messy lives. With nagging doubts and insecurities, they joined a new believers’ class and waded into the deeper waters of faith. Still living together, they attended our marriage seminar and began to align their relationship with godly principles. Hanging onto lingering vices, they were welcomed onto volunteer teams, parking cars and preparing meals for the homeless.
Fast-forward several years. They are active in the church, married and stepping into leadership roles. Are they perfect? No way, but they are being perfected day-by-day in this artistic mystery called the church. This is the beauty of the church — not perfect people putting on a Sunday smile, but imperfect people in God’s studio of divine transformation.
We see this testimony again and again through our ministry. Unchurched, ungodly, imperfect people encounter God in a community of believers, and they are embraced and allowed to navigate the slow, messy process of life transformation. It’s a posture of perspective. The church is a studio for transformation, not a gallery of perfect work.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that seven out of ten people who request to get married in our church are already living together. Why? Because we reach people who didn’t grow up going to church and, before Storehouse, looked to the world for their relationship values. For them, it’s normal to live together. What’s our response? Do we pull them aside, rebuke them and invite them back when their relationship is in proper order? Or do we rejoice that they are responding to God’s invitation by showing up at church?
When the posture of the church leans toward a studio of transformation, the church reaches people who need to be transformed. Believe me when I say, “Messy people make a messy church.”
Feelings get hurt, mistakes are made, sin is evident, and forgiveness is required. That’s not a reason to run from the church. In fact, it’s part of the joy of the church. God uses broken experiences to shape our hearts and grow us up in Him. I love that the head of our church is strong enough to weather the storms of sin. In Him, we are held together (Colossians 1:17). Isn’t that wonderful? The strength of the church isn’t dependent on our effort; it’s dependent on Jesus.
Jesus can handle it.
This doesn’t mean that we don’t have standards. We have high standards. We simply expect our church members are moving in the direction of these standards, not achieving perfection in them.
During one Sunday service, I was standing at the cross praying for people. A man began to privately share a laundry list of struggles in his life. My mind raced to logical ways to fix his problems. I began mentally to gather a series of simple next steps that I could pray over him. (Preaching a sermon through a prayer is a terrible approach, but I was doing it anyway.) As I opened my mouth to pray, a story from Acts 3 took center stage. It’s the passage where Peter and John are on their way to the temple. On the approach, they encounter a man asking for money. Peter responds, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you.” (Acts 3:6).
Peter couldn’t solve the beggar’s problem, but he knew who could. He did what he could do and allowed God to do what only God can do.
I put my hand on the man’s shoulder and prayed, “God, do a work of transformation in this man’s life.” The artistic work of God began to unfold. God did the miraculous, and our church community was privileged to witness an unfolding masterpiece.
That’s what I love about the church. It’s a work in progress — God’s work, more than ours. I’m simply honored to roll up my sleeves and get messy with Him.
J.R. Rushik is the founder and lead pastor of Storehouse Church in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania, and an alumnus of Roberts Wesleyan College and Azusa Pacific University.