I really hate Trevor’s post this week.
Ok, it’s actually really good. And you should read it because it’s true. But I still kinda hate it. Because what he wrote hits on the essence of my frustration as a minister (which I suspect is really the tension in most endeavors) — the distance between the ideal and reality, between what should be and what actually is.
As we continue to talk about church as institution, this is the actuality that must be faced. As a minister I spend much of my time dreaming and visioning about what we could be as a church. But the reality of the situation rarely sees this things birthed into existence. My church is imperfect and flawed.
Then again, I’m also imperfect and flawed.
What I must face is the fact that I am not called to achieve some perfect vision, but rather to work with the people I have been placed among and work to help us take one more step in the right direction. So I want to talk about another one of those steps.
There’s a story in Mark 2 where Jesus gets questioned about his disciples breaking the Sabbath. Now understand, the Sabbath was a huge deal to the Jews. The command to keep it holy was part of the original 10 on stone tablets, and additional rules were developed over the years to ensure that it was kept well. So when Jesus’ followers were seen picking heads of grain as they walked along (basically “harvesting” on the Sabbath), the keepers of religious sanctity found it appalling and called Jesus out for it. The way that Jesus responded was interesting and important:
Then Jesus said to them, “The Sabbath was made to meet the needs of people, and not people to meet the requirements of the Sabbath. (Mark 2:27)
Catch that? What Jesus was pointing out was that through the clutter of all the rules made up to keep Sabbath holy, something was getting lost. The fact was that God gave Sabbath to people for their benefit, not as a hoop to jump through to prove loyalty or devotion. Sabbath was made FOR people because God is FOR people. We need Sabbath, not God.
This is the way God works with us. He puts things in our path to show us the best way to live and move in the world. Sometimes we find this way and other times we miss the point. But it’s all for our benefit because that’s how much he loves us. It’s not busy work or a way to stroke some massive divine ego.
We have an amazing ability to turn things upside down like this. It happens with religion and rules in general. What is originally set out as an aid becomes a taskmaster. In their zeal to keep Sabbath well, the religious leaders had completely missed the point of Sabbath in the first place.
Because the church is also an institution, it can be turned upside down, too. The reason we created church in this form was to aid people in worshipping with fellow believers, connecting with one another and pursuing the mission of God in the world together. The institutional church has been great at this. It’s the best way we found to do it.
So often I have heard that the church is the people, not the building. But let’s be honest, that’s not the reality in our church-as-institution culture. The church is obviously not a structure made of brick and mortar. “Church” is more specifically a conglomeration of programs and budgets and events and policies and committees and initiatives.
The church is a much more abstract structure than any building.
And there is something myopic when the primary way we relate to God in our culture is by “going to church.” Our spiritual lives can become anchored to a building or an institution rather than something that permeates the everyday places of our lives. We can develop spiritual leashes that tie our spiritual lives to a program rather than letting them loose in the world.
And in the process church can become upside down from its original intent.
The church — the institutions we have created around the idea of being God’s people together — were made for us; we were not made to uphold the institution.
Now understand, I have a deep respect and love for the way we do church as institution. It fostered my faith as a child, provided me with mentors and spiritual partners and has provided a living for my family for many years. But I am also not blind to our weaknesses.
And every minister I know would tell you that we pray that all of the structure and institution we create is not meant as a master, but a pathway to a much deeper, meaningful spiritual walk that transcends any program, building or framework.
So I pray you get involved in your local church. Or stay involved. I hope you find avenues to serve and worship and grow. But let it be a launching pad into a rich spiritual life, not a confining structure that weighs you down.
Keep the institution right-side up and you’ll be blessed.