A Lament for the Church
My Love Affair
I have had a love affair with a woman who is not my wife, going on 52 years. This woman has been as significant in my life as my wife Amy and our three daughters. I have never for a moment considered divorcing my wife. But, on the other hand, I have never for a moment considered breaking off the relationship with the “other woman” in my life. Some would call me a bigamist, for in actual fact I am married to both. For these past 52 years I have taken money out of my bank account every week to support her. I visit her every week, and pray for my family and hers every day.
I want to let you know that I love God’s Church. I hold to the conviction that not only is God is my father, but the church is my mother.
My entire life has found itself drastically affected by the church.
- It was as a young man of 21 that the church told me such incredibly good news that it helped bring about my conversion.
- It was the church that adopted me into its family, and took a great risk when it did so.
- It was the church that sensed gifts within me, and offered me a place of service among them.
- It was the church that provided me with a Christian College and Seminary to give me an education.
- It was the church that opened itself to me to let me pastor its people.
- It was the church that opened up its colleges to let me teach their young people.
All manner of good has come to me out of my love of her. But I must confess that the church is as disappointing to me as she is highly satisfying. She is my best friend and at times the cause of my deepest sadness. She makes me glad and makes me mad. I often confess to God that I love his church more than I love Him: for I never have to worry about God. I worry about his church all the time.
And I know that I am not alone. There are many of us who have loved the church and given ourselves to it, for as long as we both shall live. We have committed ourselves to the church: “to have and to hold, for better for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until death do us part.”
A changing Church
But the church has changed. It is not the one we married those many years ago. We are all aware that the world has changed dramatically in the last 50 to 75 years. Technology has ballooned beyond our wildest dreams. Transportation has zoomed from the Model-T to the stars. Moral Culture has changed where things judged evil once are now in fashion. And many of us could handle that change more easily if it were not for the fact that the church of Jesus Christ seems to have changed at about the same pace, though not in the same ways.
Some of us have loved the church for a lifetime. We were born into it, or born again into it. It nurtured us in childhood and youth. We found ourselves moving into its leadership as we taught the children, guided the young people, hosted the activities of the church in our homes, and sat on its boards and committees. Some of us grew up in small churches where our efforts and energies were indispensable to that church’s survival. We gave generously to its ministries and sent our sons and daughters into its varied ministries.
But now strange days have come upon many of us. We find ourselves marginalized inside the very churches we helped get started. Sometimes we have pushed ourselves to the fringes, as we have grown older, suffered ill health, undergone energy depletion, but also to make way for the next generation of church leaders. Sometimes we are marginalized because many of our churches are now so large that the church is no longer a family chapel where we know each other’s names. Instead new faces and new ways have entered and now set the pace of life.
And in the process the theology of the church seems to have changed, along with its members, its ministers, its music, its style of worship, and its programs. Some of us find it bewildering. The church we have loved for a half-century or more, is now strange to us. So much change in an already changing world. Why can’t the church stand still, and be the anchor point for a swirling world?!
A few years ago family needs moved us to a part of the world where we needed to start looking for a church home. Since the 1960’s that has never been a problem. We have never had to look for a church home. But now we have moved to a part of the world where there are no churches of my denomination, for 100 miles or more. So we went out to find a new church home. But what shall we look for in a new home? We have been very active in the churches we have been part of. Now we are strangers in a strange land visiting the neighbours, asking ourselves “Is this the one?”
What criteria shall we use? Good sermons? Good music? Good fellowship? Good programs? Nice pastor? Friendly people? Sound theology? Healthy Outreach? A senior’s ministry? A place to work? I want them all, but which ones could I live without? Which ones are the most critical? Tough choices awaited us. For several months we tasted several different churches for 3 or 4 weeks each. But realized we must make up our minds soon less we become vagrants. We needed to belong and be accountable.
But then we understood that there was guidance of a sort available to us from the wisdom of the ancient Church. The church leaders of the first 3 centuries gave us what the marks of the church are, that are central to a healthy church. The list is found in the ancient creeds of the church.
The Apostles’ Creed “I believe in the Holy Catholic Church”
The Nicene Creed “I believe in One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.”
For the next few chapters I want to bring us some reflections on what must never change, if the Church is to be truly Christian. It can change its songs and change its style, it can change its personnel and its programs, and that may well be OK, but there are some things that change the foundations of the church and that level of change can be dangerous and cause for true alarm.
The next few chapters will cover the following themes:
- I believe in The Church
- I believe in One Church
- I believe in a Holy Church
- I believe in a Catholic Church
- I believe in an Apostolic Church