My wife and I often have the privilege of guiding couples through premarital counseling. Meeting with these couples forces me to ask myself a helpful question: “How much of a hypocrite am I?”
The question comes up because I spend time in these sessions expounding on the glory of marriage: the joy it brings, the gospel it displays, the permanence of its vows, and the goodness of our distinct callings as husband and wife.
But imagine hearing those glories from a husband who regularly complains about his wife and compares her to the many women he gazes at. You probably wouldn’t listen to what this man says about marriage. If he doesn’t love the wife he’s married to, you’d wonder whether he loves marriage at all.
But isn’t this what too many of us do with the church? We claim to love the church, but our love for the church seems to have little effect on how we feel about our church.
Love the One You’re With
Our relationship to our own church is often marked by discontentment and disappointment, much of which comes from the comparisons we keep making to the imaginary church in our minds. Which, in the end, might say more about us than our churches.
Let me suggest a few ways you can hold up your end of the bargain and contribute to your church’s health, which simultaneously will increase your love and gratitude for your church.
1. Prepare in prayer.
I know people who eventually became so cynical about their church that they expected not to benefit from the Sunday morning service. One way to fight against that cynicism is to find out what the sermon text will be and read it prior to the Sunday service. Then pray for your pastor as he prepares to preach it (1 Thessalonians 5:12–13). If you come to church ready to be edified, you might be surprised how the Holy Spirit will work.
And don’t stop after you’ve prayed for your pastor. Your church has difficult people in it, maybe people who have hurt you. But it’s awfully hard to harbor bitterness toward people you pray for regularly. Pray for your pastors, pray through the church directory, and pray for the people you’d rather not run into. If you want your disposition toward your church to be positive, you need to begin with prayer.
2. Find ways to serve.
We often reap what we sow in our churches. Are you making a contribution to your church’s life? If you haven’t yet, try finding a place where you can serve and put the needs of others before your own. Don’t worry about finding a perfect place to express your giftedness. Instead, look mainly for a need you can help meet. God gifts his people for the needs of their actual church, not in some abstract sense (1 Peter 4:10–11).
One simple yet profound way you can serve people in your church is to talk to them. Seriously. I bet there are people in your church who don’t have people who show genuine interest in their lives during the week. So take an interest in them. Ask them questions about their work or their family or their hobbies. Ask how you can pray for them and if you could get together sometime. If you do what you can to ensure other people love your church, I bet you will too.
3. Check your expectations.
It’s tempting to expect your church’s preaching and music to provide a weekly shot of spiritual adrenaline to keep you going. But is that a healthy expectation? Not every meal you’ve ever eaten was a memorable one, but it kept you fed. Your church’s preaching might not lead you to a spiritual high every Sunday, but if it’s faithful, and you’re ready to receive it, those sermons will keep you alive, and much more.
As you examine your expectations, consider taking a hiatus from conferences and podcasts. These can be incredible resources, but they also can fuel discontentment. At a conference, you spend a few days listening to rich teaching in an exciting environment. Then you go home and listen to your same old pastor with the same old people. And your church building probably isn’t as cool as that arena you were in.
If you listen to sermons on a podcast, you might start to notice how your pastor doesn’t measure up. Carl Trueman once expressed concern that none of his students named his own pastor when asked about favorite preachers. If your favorite preacher or conference is making it difficult for you to benefit from listening to your actual preacher, try skipping the next conference and taking a break from podcasts for a season.
4. Stick it out.
Many marriages begin in pure bliss. But what’s important is how a husband and wife respond when the sheen has worn off, they’ve grown accustomed to each other, and they’ve become more familiar with the sin patterns and imperfections of the other. A healthy marriage responds by settling into a stable, earthy kind of romance where the spouses truly know and truly love each other. They see the flaws, they recognize them as such, they fight to grow, and they love each other through it all.
Our relationship to our church progresses in a similar way. Any church starts to look unexceptional over time. When we’re at a church long enough, we come face-to-face with its flaws and those of its leaders.
So what do we do? Leave? Sometimes that’s a legitimate response. But more often than not, we should stay, for the long haul. We should learn to be grateful for our pastors and the way God has gifted them and put them in our life. And we should learn that church is not about blow-your-mind weekly experiences, but about walking toward the golden shore with brothers and sisters in Christ.
Her Spotless Hope
Like every group of people to ever come together, your church is flawed. But the church is not just another group of people. The church has a past, present, and future that far outshines all other institutions. Jesus died for her, and he’s coming back for her. In the meantime, he is working through her to reach the lost and strengthen his people.
One day, she’ll be spotless, and it’s to this hope she presses. So love the church, and start by loving yours.