Something happened last summer that had been building for awhile. While my confession had not changed — Credo ecclesiam: “I believe the church” — my confidence was trembling. This disoriented me all the more because the church was not merely my confession, but my cosmos. I had given the two decades of my adult life to her, half that with “Pastor” or “Rev.” in front of my name. I was writing academic papers about the church. I was orbiting my entire personal life, family life, academic life, and professional life around the church, and I was starting to lose the faith. I have stood on that crumbling edge of unbelief, and I have seen some of you there with me, your feet slipping under the many reasons why we might doubt the church.
Why We Doubt
One reason that inhabits many of the others is the dust-storm of deep cynicism and suspicion in our cultural air. Tales from the Dust Bowl of the American West tell us that pioneers replaced the deep roots of the native Buffalo grass with a cash crop of wheat. Things were fine when the rains were falling, but the wheat’s seasonal and shallow roots left the soil exposed when the air was dry and moving. Massive clouds of earth would terrorize the skies and those who lived under them, blinding the community and dirtying everything with layers of displaced grit. The 21st century western cultural soil has lost much of its native root system, leaving the cultural air vulnerable to these billows of cynicism and suspicion. No one escapes. We all live on this earth and under this darkened sky. Everyone, you and me included, finds our sight blurred and our houses, including our houses of worship, dirtied with dust.
Additionally, the language of “choosing” itself implies an opt-out clause. In the current pluralist and consumerist cultural context, we get the sense that the church is another vendor in the markets of the town square. We experience this voluntary-ness at each turn. No one requires us to buckle our grumpy kids with their semi-ironed clothes and mostly brushed hair into the family mini-van. No one makes us sing with the congregation, greet the saints, or be fed under the desk of the word or at the table of the bread. As much as loneliness often stalks us from the deep weeds and we long for friendships, no one is forcing us to open our lives and read the difficult chapters of our stories to other people. Maybe we feel a low-grade sense of guilt if we do not invite other people into the life of Christ and his body, but we never fear a letter from an attorney for gross negligence. The church feels fundamentally choose-able.
We also doubt the church because of our experience of the church itself. Church does not live up to our marrow-deep, barely speakable sense of what it ought to be. We have a primal longing for the beauty of the temple of the living God. But we get in the door and it looks like bandits have broken in and rattle-canned graffiti onto the walls of the cathedral. We have church work days to scrub and scrub, but the stones have been stained. Even worse, the vandals keep coming back, and their paint sprays faster than our brushes can scour. But worse even than that, we discover that the vandals live among us. The same friends who scrub the walls Sunday morning were the ones who made the mess in the first place.
More terrible still, those called to shepherd Jesus’ beloved little ones feed themselves on the littlest of lambs. They get rich, buying second and third homes, jets and yachts, all while leveraging their power to satisfy their ungodly sexual urges. They marginalize and silence the vulnerable, and protect the abusive and the powerful, starting with themselves. We are furious and heartbroken. We feel powerless. If we decide not to quit, we try to pretty the place up, wallpapering the sanctuary with encouraging slogans like, “If you find a perfect church, don’t go there.” “No church is perfect.” “The church is full of sinners.” These slogans comfort us, because they point to something true. Still, they do not fully satisfy the longing we have for the beauty and safety of a cathedral without spray paint and peeling wallpaper.
All of this, of course, makes the cacophony of triumphalist over-promises seem that much more plastic. As much as the dudes in ripped hipster denim tell us through handheld mics that the best is yet to come, we don’t quite believe them. As envisioneered as we are to “change the world,” we wonder how that can happen when we are not able to even change ourselves. These overtures rattle loose a sub-dermal reminder of “the Crusades” or “slavery” or other failures of Christendom on the other side of the Milvian Bridge. A partisan endorsement, social media empire, or best-selling book covered by the author’s perfect white smile strike us as just another present-day ecclesial land-grab.
Mixed in, we find the waters of the church are often very shallow. We look beyond the news channel soundbite defending the favored political player, we watch the sermon clips that play like any other inspirational Facebook page du jour, we open the impossibly white-smiled book cover, and we find nothing more. This seems to confirm our cynicism and suspicion that nothing lives under the surface. Or maybe we are wearied by the hard edge of those who seem to forget that a healthy backbone is both firm and flexible. They walk upright like a steel rod runs through their spine, immovable, willing to die on every hill. Either way, we do not find many places full of both grace and truth.
I could keep going, and so could you. We could stir ourselves into a never-ending swirl of righteous (or self-righteous) anger, bitterness, and disappointment. We could keep walking down this path and slowly bleed away our faith. But let’s not, because there would be no end. There is no there at the end of this pathway. Maybe we think we will find utopia, but we should remember that utopia literally means “no place.” Instead, to walk away from the church only takes us further into the wilds of the desert, a no-where with no bread, no cup, no word, and no life. French Toast and orange juice at 11:00am on Sunday will not feed the soul, at least not for long.
Learning to Trust
This goes to the very idea of church-as-an-option in the first place. We do have the existential sense of choosing between Sunday brunch and Sunday communion, but this ultimately puts the issue on the wrong terms. It is not a choice between church and not-church, but a choice between life and death. We cannot lose our faith in the church, reject her, and live to tell about it, any more than we can lose our faith in the Earth. Elon Musk’s Martian colonization dreams aside, Earth is our only option. Either we live on Earth, or we do not live at all. Here we stand, and we can do no other. So too with the church. The fathers were right when they said that we can find salvation and our mother only in the church. The church is our only option. Anywhere and everywhere else is at the end a nowhere. Only in the church can we receive the keys of heaven’s kingdom (Matt. 16:19). Only the church was purchased by divine blood (Acts 20:28). Only in the church can we see God display his many-sided wisdom to the universe (Eph. 3:10). We do not have the ability to choose the church or not. God already has chosen the church, and the faith delivered to us does not come with a line-item veto. This means a Christian cannot be a voluntary member of the church any more than a human can be a voluntary member of humanity or a voluntary resident of Earth. To be alive means to be part of humanity and a resident of this terrestrial ball. To be a Christian means to be a part of the church and believe in her.
But likewise to be alive means to be a specific human in a specific place. As Lesslie Newbigin among others has expressed, the gospel story of Jesus Christ is scandalously particular. Jesus was born not to every woman, but to Mary. Jesus was raised not in every town, but in Nazareth. Jesus was crucified, buried, and raised not in every place, but in Jerusalem. Likewise every human story is radically particular. My wife and I remind our kids not just that they are members of humanity, but that they are members of the Slavich family. When someone asks where we live, we do not tell them, “Earth,” but, “Lighthouse Point.” We cannot escape the particular nature of life. In fact, we have a term for a child who is a member of the human family but not part of a nuclear family. We call that child an orphan, and our heart fills with compassion for her to find a home. So too a Christian who confesses faith in the big-C Church and but is not a member of a little-c church is living like an orphan. We need to buckle those kids in the van and drive to a particular place, sing together with particular people, hear a particular preacher preach a particular sermon, and eat from a particular loaf of bread. We need to share the scary and shameful chapters of our stories, and invite others to do the same. The Church and a church is, quite simply, our only option.
When we realize this, our other objections lose some of their punch. At the risk of recycling a tired cliché, these objections will transform from excuses or obstacles into opportunities for the experience of God’s grace. Something like this happened recently with some friends who came home from their family vacation to find their house had been broken into, robbed, and vandalized. Along with the inevitable frustration and fear that surfaced, they also have testified to a fresh experience of God’s grace. To give one small example, the situation forced them to clean and reorganize some of the long-lingering mess in their house. Similarly, the seemingly endless string of headlines about another church leader facing credible accusations of misconduct hurt the church, and lead to increased frustration, anger, and fear. It feels like we have been robbed, but these situations also open the window for the Spirit to blow through the house of God in a fresh way. In these moments he cleans out some long-ignored corners of darkness. This has happened close to home. A few years ago, two of the most prominent pastors in our region were removed from their positions within months of each other due to sexual sin. The very real pain has not evaporated, but God has used these things to breathe a fresh spirit of humility and unity into the churches nearby. The Lord of the church will not abandon her, and neither can we.
Likewise, we need to pause long enough to see the truth that the slogan, “No church is perfect” should be taped to the bathroom mirror. The problems with the church are not just “out there” in a hashtag movement, but “in here” closer than our own skin. G.K. Chesterton famously offered an answer to the question, “What is wrong with the world?” by figuratively raising his hand: “I am.” So too when the very real and terrible question, “What is wrong with the church?” confronts us, we should have the awareness and honesty to say, “We are.” No one is innocent. Everyone of us cost the Son of God his blood because of our sin. Everyone of us needs the grace of God. Everyone of us is lost without the power of the Spirit of the living God. The church can only be a place of righteous indignation if it is first a place of humble petition, “Have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Grace and humility chasten our other frustrations with the church. When we bristle at the bravado of those selling spiritual snake-oil or when the hard edge of self-anointed discernment rangers makes the body bleed, we can speak out for the sake of God’s sheep. Other times, we can be silent with our own fear and trembling, trusting that Jesus cleans his house and only grace sustains any of us. We can remember that when Peter was concerned about what Jesus was going to do with John, Jesus told him it was not his concern: “What is that to you? You follow me!” (John 21:22). Here Jesus is calling us, his church, toward him on the pathway of faith, hope, and love, so that we can offer to the world a respite from the cultural dust-storms of doubt, despair, and disregard.
The church offers to a world of doubt a pathway of faith. For example, anxiety has become the epidemic of the affluent western world. Residents of a culture that has been promised scientific certainty and been made wealthy beyond imagination have yet found themselves buried under landslides of credit card debt and pressure to change the world. No wonder they are anxious. Here the church offers a better way, gifting to the world what Mark Sayers has called “a non-anxious presence.” As a community of trust in a God who is authoring a story with often surprising, sometimes tragic, twists of plot, the church offers the world a witness to the literal and historical crux of the narrative upon Calvary, and a preview of the story’s happy ending.
The church’s witness likewise points the world to the way out of a despair that buries lives like a deep drift of rootless dirt. The church belongs to the same Father whose Son died under the darkened sky outside of Jerusalem and was buried in a tomb on loan. The church testifies that the dark sky of Friday can be called “Good” and the stagnant despair of Saturday called “Holy” because neither day is the end of the story. The gospel hinges on the hope of the third day, the Sunday called “Resurrection.” The church testifies that credits do not roll after death on Friday and despair on Saturday. These are only the first and second acts and, in a sense much deeper than the plastic cliché, the best is yet to come to life on Sunday.
Perhaps most importantly, in a world of casual disregard, the church offers the way of love. Sometimes extolled as unconditional, this love is in realty much better than that. More than unconditional, it is conditioned upon the eternal love of the Father for his Son. This is unbreakable, triune love, revealed within the womb of Mary, above the banks of the Jordan, and upon the hill of Golgotha. “In this is love” — explains the one called the beloved disciple — “not that we loved God but that God loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10). The church offers to the world this love received from the Father, through the Son, in and by the Spirit. This love is conditional but unearned, and it therefore cannot be lost. This love shapes the church into a community that welcomes a world of sinners like Jesus did. The church welcomes rich sinners and poor sinners, resident sinners and immigrant sinners, black sinners and white sinners. The church becomes a community that is always safe for sinners yet never safe for sin. Set all the more starkly against the cultural atmosphere of disregard, a community of a love that is conditioned by the gospel will present like Christmas morning.
An Inescapable Conclusion
All of this leads to an inescapable conclusion: the church is worth it, and whole-heartedly so. Reasons might multiply like rabbits to doubt the church, reject her, and go to brunch, but one day Jesus will return to claim her in full. Until then, why would we settle for a mimosa when we can join the community of the Messiah, the only community in the world entrusted with the true story of the world? Where else can we go for Jesus’s words of eternal life? Karl Barth once remarked that the whole of the faith is contained in the confession, Credo ecclesiam. “I believe the church.” I think he was onto something. And on August 22, 2017, as I stood at that crumbling edge of faith, I stepped back and prayed, “I believe, help my unbelief.”