What 40 years as a pastor have taught me: The Church—can’t live with it, can’t live without it (part VI)

My connection to church began when my parents went to the church building daily to pray for me when I was still a fetus in my mother’s womb and my father was a young pastor in a southern Indiana town. The only time when “the church” was not a part of my life was a couple of years in my late teens when I was away from home and lied to my parents about “going to church” — I said I was, but wouldn’t have attended for anything.

Actually, I guess there was another time when I wasn’t really connected to a church, during the years between my first and fifth birthdays, when my father became very disillusioned with the church community he was working with as well as with God for allowing his younger brother to die in WWII. The rest of my life has been filled with the blessings and the heartaches that come from being involved in the communities we call churches.

When I fell in love with my wonderful wife, who was also a pastor’s child, we only made two promises to one another – one was to love God and to love each other forever, a promise we now know we do not do as well as we wish, but have built our entire life upon. The other promise was that we would not be a “pastor” or “pastor’s wife.” A promise we both meant to keep almost as seriously as the commitment to love God and love one another.

How God tricked us into spending our lifetimes in the roles we swore we would never consider is a long story and, at least for us, a great insight into how God often works in the world. But, what I want to note in this post is one of the big lessons I have learned during my 40 years as pastor of New Covenant Fellowship as well as the years prior to that era.

We started New Covenant because many of seekers whom we had been privileged to help introduce to Jesus were not welcome in the local churches where we tried to take them. This new embryonic community of faith was made up of people from the 70s counter culture with long hair and beards, disenchanted conservative church seminary students, university students from conservatives churches who were finding their backgrounds far too legalistic for the real world, political radicals who wanted to see the society become more just and equal, some drug users and some alcoholics, disenchanted Catholics, and seeking Jewish people. Nobody seemed to want us. So, we started a community of God-seekers that soon became New Covenant Fellowship.

Of course, I knew from the beginning that we were far from an ideal community. But, it took a good part of the last 40 years for me to learn that the community of God’s people is always a very mixed bag. Why wouldn’t it be? It is made up of people like me, and I am certainly a mixed bag of grace, goodness, love, growth, and sinful, self-centered brokenness.

Like your family of origin, your extended family of faith is a community that, even when it is one of the ones you consider among the best, can still hurt you deeply and break your heart. And yet, I could never grow as God wants me to grow, and I could never serve as God wants me to serve, without being a part of a community of people who are seeking to know God better through what God has done in Jesus.

I have suffered most of the worst hurts of my life at the hands of brothers and sisters in Christ from whom I expected so much better. I am pretty sure that some of these same people would say the same thing about how hurt and disappointed they felt by things I did and said, and things I did not do and did not say. And still, God has used his community to hold me, to grow me, to love me, to refine me, to teach me, to challenge me, to correct me, to allow me to serve in ways I could never do alone, and to stretch me.

And, God continues to do so. I do not at all buy the modern “faith is mainly a personal and individual thing” any more than I buy the “self-made” mantra of our culture. We are all members of community – born of two coupled bodies, family, culture, etc. Neither you, nor I, have ever been just an individual in our entire lives. We are community and we are individuals within community, from conception through death and beyond.

What have I learned? I am thrilled to be allowed to be a member of God’s community of those seeking to be with God and to know God better. Sometimes I can hardly live with them — or they with me — but I certainly cannot live the way God wants me to without them!

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As always, if you have any thoughts, comments, or questions about this post, or if there is another topic you would like me to explore in a future post, please leave a comment. I always enjoy your questions and thoughts.

/ Ron

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