I have been in the church for over twenty years now. I’ll never forget my first experience in a real Bible-believing, Spirit-filled, grace-singing church. I was surprised people enjoyed being there, floored that they knew the words to the songs, and freaked out that they talked about their faith when they weren’t at church. I saw spouses doting over each other, kids being respectful, and college students staying sober. It had a tremendous effect on me — I was sold on the church.
Twenty years later, I have felt the pains of being in church. I have felt the pain of getting ground up in the gears of church politics, leaders leaving members in the dust on decisions, friends uttering harsh words, members ruining their lives in sin, and congregational meetings that almost seemed like an episode of Jerry Springer.
Church hasn’t always been pleasant. But while I’ve watched many people give up on the church and flee from it like a haunted house, nevertheless, I still love the church and even decided to move my family to rebuild a struggling church. What I am doing may confound people, but despite the imperfection and sin we see in the church, we still love the church.
No one should be surprised that the church is made up of sinners — it’s one of the admissions that opens the membership door in the first place: we are not perfect and never will be in this life. At its best, the church in this age consists of sinners who are sincerely but imperfectly following Christ. And inevitably, the church also has people who are not truly following Christ.
Even the earliest churches in the New Testament were this way. People were proud of their gifts (1 Corinthians 12:21), unloving, unwilling to associate with other races (Galatians 2:11–12), some were involved with lawsuits (1 Corinthians 6:1), some were getting drunk during communion (1 Corinthians 11:21), some were living in sexual immorality and even sleeping with their own family members (1 Corinthians 5:1)! Paul actually told one church their meetings did more harm than good (1 Corinthians 11:17) — that’s amazing.
Paul was not derailed by any of these things. And he certainly didn’t give up on the church. He said these differences are necessary to prove who is genuine in their faith (1 Corinthians 11:19). The mess was in line with what the apostles expected, and it should be with us, too.
So, why do I love the inconvenient, messy, and sometimes painful local expression of Christ’s body?
1. We are humbled by those who are hard to love.
God is bringing people of different backgrounds, nationalities, socioeconomic statuses, and spiritual maturity levels together (Ephesians 3:10). The church’s diversity is a beautiful thing, and part of the beauty is that it grows us by bringing us into orbit with people unlike us — sometimes with people who are hard to love.
Loving lovable people is easy. Associating with unlovable people in unlovable situations will always make us marvel at the love of Christ. It forces us to grow in knowing and sharing that love. In the mess, we will find beautiful displays of forgiveness, compassion, humility, and reconciliation. These never would have been seen apart from the mess.
2. We are warned by those who fall away.
Some of the worst things I’ve seen in the church were caused by people who had fallen away (or were falling away) from the faith. Seeing the results of their actions was sobering. When I first saw the problems in the church, I thought Jesus was the problem. I thought his work in our church was insufficient, or at least incomplete, and that he was the reason we faced the issues we did.
Then I realized most of those people causing scenes were struggling in their faith. This aroused compassion in me, rather than judgment, and it made me want to pray for and help them (Matthew 18:12). If I had left the church at the first glimpse of trouble, I would not have understood the root issue of the problems — or the vital importance of striving in faith side by side with other Christians (Philippians 1:27).
3. We are prepared to love outside the church.
I have become more gracious and less judgmental. I have learned to work through disagreement when it occurs. This lesson has been massive, not just in church settings, but for how I act at the office and with my family. I have learned to love better, more fervently and consistently.
If you have not had a reason to question loving the church, then your love has not been tested. Great lessons happen in the life of the church.
4. We learn to love what God loves.
The greatest and most important reason why I love the church is that God loves the church. Christ loves his bride, his holy ones for whom he died to purchase them with his own blood (Acts 20:28; Ephesians 5:22–23; Revelation 21:2, 9–10; 22:17). If the one who had to die to make us holy is not ashamed to call us brothers, how could we refuse to love those who are sinners like us (Hebrews 2:11)?
God’s plan to make his grace known to the world is not for a bunch of perfect people to live together in perfect harmony, but rather, for sinful people to cling desperately to Jesus, even in the hardest instances. God’s light may not shine in every corner of the church, but it still shines all around. When the church looks to Jesus for help in our weaknesses, powerful things can happen.
Paul saw the mess in each of the churches, and he still gave his life to building them (Acts 20:24). The reason we love the church, and all its mess, and all its baggage, is because it’s there that we see God’s amazing grace conquering our sins and transforming us to look like his Son. When the world sees that, even the mess of the church can make Jesus look great.