Becoming the Church God Desires Us to Be

Becoming the Church God Desires Us to Be

By Jerry Deck, Executive Director of Presbyterian Global Fellowship

Confession. Penitence. Contrition. Repentance.  These words, if we’re honest, are not ones that come easily for many of us.  Perhaps that’s why the Scriptures are continually repeating these words in one form or fashion.  God is abundantly aware both of our proclivity for sin and our great reticence to acknowledge that reality.  It isn’t, of course, that we don’t believe there are sins to be acknowledged, indiscretions to be forgiven, and wrongs to be made right.  It’s just that we rarely believe those sins, indiscretions and wrongs are our own.  For as long as humanity has had breath we have found it easier to find, as Jesus described so vividly, the speck in our neighbor’s eye rather than the log in our own.

There’s a part of me that wonders whether or not that image isn’t one that should continually be with us.  While walking through most of our church buildings it is readily apparent that the cross is a primary symbol for us. However, I have recently been wondering whether we wouldn’t be wise to have random logs strewn throughout our buildings as well — logs that are continually tripping us, and by so doing are a constant reminder that we are prone to self-deceit and self-righteousness.  Perhaps this is especially true for those of us who are desirous of change in our denomination.

The problem for those of us yearning for change is that more often than not we are better at seeing what others are doing wrong (Louisville, presbyteries, etc.) and rarely able to see, much less admit, our own shortcomings.  It isn’t, of course, that Louisville or our presbyteries or whomever couldn’t be doing a better job or have fewer failings.  It’s just that this is never, and I mean never, the right place to begin.

I am fully convinced that any discussion about how things should be done differently (be it a new church body, or presbyteries, or new ways to relate to one another) must always start with confession about where we have fallen short.  Not an apology on behalf of others (i.e. “Lord, we’re sorry that our denomination has strayed” or even, “Lord, we confess that we evangelicals have been quiet for far too long”), but an old-fashioned, Old Testament, prophet-like, roll around in ashes, gut-wrenching critique of ourselves.  The amount of hope that true and radical change can occur is directly proportional to the amount of true and radical confession in which we are able to engage.

If our confession is merely a “passing the buck” then truth be told we will simply be trading one old wineskin for another.  For this reason, as people prepare to gather in August, it seems it would be prudent for all to spend some time in these weeks (as well as at the August 25-26 Gathering) beseeching the Lord to examine our hearts.  For there are many questions that the Spirit would long to hear us ask before we bestow upon others our great ideas as to what we should now be doing and where we should now be going.
Have we loved our neighbors (as Alan Roxburgh asks, can you name five things in your neighbor’s house that you can’t see from outside)?

Have we been radically hospitable (if you’re not sure what this means than make friends with someone from the Middle East and they will show you)?  Have pastors had the courage to challenge the congregation to risk and fail?  Have elders led the congregation by imagining not simply how we can get more people inside our buildings, but how we can love those who are outside our buildings more?   Have we changed the structures in our own congregations so that they are keeping people at “church” less and allowing them to engage with their neighbors more?  Have we adopted Christ’s way of teaching in which, as disciples, our learning is always infused by what we have learned when we are out in the world following Christ (i.e. Luke 10)?

We don’t have to answer all these questions with a resounding “Yes!”  In fact, if you did then you should probably go back over them again and make sure you really read them.  We do, however, have to be willing to grapple honestly with these questions if we genuinely desire to experience change in our congregations.  If we fail to take them seriously and decide instead to simply blame others for our decline, we will continually decline and continue to find someone or something else to which we attribute our struggles.

But when we begin with true confession, we will allow ourselves to be in the proper position to humbly ask where the Spirit is leading.  It may be to a new body or new presbytery.  Of course, it also might be simply out of our comfort zones and into our neighborhoods with new eyes.  Perhaps it is all of the above.  Starting with confession and an honest assessment of who we are, though, will be the only way we will become the church that God desires us to be.  And that, as we can all agree, must be our hearts’ greatest desire.

10 Responses

  1. Jennifer Mears says:

    Thank you! This is exactly where I believe we need to be. It fits with what has been mentioned recently, an invitation to fasting and praying as preparation for this event. Frankly, I don’t believe I’ve prayed so hard for the church, and then in turn for myself, then in these recent days. How can one begin to lay the blame outward without recognizing that there are faults and needs — sins — inward that must be addressed and confessed? God must start here, with me.

    Perhaps some of the reluctance is a fear that by taking responsibility and acknowledging sin, that means I’m absolving sin elsewhere. Or by changing myself here, I’m not expecting change over there. …Yet that is patently not true. Irrationally, it feels true at times, but we are all 100% responsible before God. We stand alone before him in judgment. We must do as he directs us, and trust that his justice and grace will be carried out.

  2. Tom Milligan says:

    Challenging, convicting, and wise. Thank you for calling us to repentance, I pray that I might examine my heart in preparation for the Gathering.

  3. Carolyn Poteet says:

    A few more questions for us: Why are we evangelicals so good at criticizing leaders and so bad at following them? In the last 25-75 years of denominational dysfunction, have we developed such a habit of mistrust that we don’t know how to be trusting? We are used to being fragmented and segmented, each hiding in our own foxholes, fighting for our own survival. We are a bunch of mavericks, teaming up only as necessary and when necessary to accomplish something specific. We are very very different people, held together by a common theology (but even in that, we don’t always trust each other, and we are quick to judge). What will it take to have our hearts softened and prepared? What will it take to drop our weapons with each other and learn to work together, support each other, and Do Something New?

    I know one thing – it will take the Head of the Church, Jesus Christ!

    • peter larson says:

      Carolyn: I think we are in the wonderful position right now of not having human leaders and of being, in a sense, leaderless. The strong leaders of the previous generation have retired or gone on to glory. There is no one person (or two or three) in the PC(USA) who I would name or identify as our leader or leaders. In fact, many of the Tall Steeple group are experiencing decline in their own churches, if you look at the statistical reports. They have no magic wand, no quick fix to the malaise and decline that grips most of our churches – liberal and evangelical alike. I agree with you that our eyes must be fixed and focused on Jesus Christ, rather than human leaders, plans or solutions. I believe new leadership will emerge only as we are guided by Christ. In the meantime, I think it is good to be a bit wary and suspect of those who wish to take control and lead a movement. If we truly desire renewal and reformation, we must resist the temptation to fall in lock-step, passively, behind human leaders. I go to Minneapolis to listen to the Holy Spirit speaking to all of the group – not to listen to any man-made plans.

  4. Bill Ward says:

    Good thoughts, Jerry. The bit about mavericks hits home. We talk a lot about being connectional, but I doubt we are anywhere near as connectional as we like to think we are . . . probably never have been. We like to say that our Presbytery is not a staff or an office or an assembly, but people in mission & ministry together. If only it were so in fact as it is in my dreams. As for our current debate, though I believe the sexuality issues are symptomatic and the Biblical issues are central, I wonder where we would be–as churches, denominations, country & culture–if over the last 150 years, when encountering people in sexual crisis or confusion, had “kissed the leper” rather than driving them out of town? The whole church, myself included, have been guilty of treating sinners (excepting ourselves and those who share our preferred “sin”) as pariahs rather than as beloved children of God in need of exactly the love and grace of which we as the church are called to be conduits. We have allowed the devil to bring us to a point at which the offer of that very love and grace has become an act of hate and condemnation. In out lust to see ourselves as the church perfect and pure, we have lost the opportunity to be the church of wounded healers. Diabolical … and sad.

    • peter larson says:

      Dear Bill: Please forgive me if I don’t join in this chorus of guilt and self-flaggellation. I have been an ordained Presbyterian pastor for 21 years. In that time I have befriended homosexuals, visited AIDS patients in the hospital, visited AIDS orphans in Africa, performed funerals for homosexuals who died of AIDS, and helped provide space in my former church to counsel and minister to homosexuals who are seeking healing and transformation. In all the churches I have served, I have never experienced the sort of shunning or judgmentalism that you are describing. I believe those who favor gay ordination are very skilled at framing the debate in terms of an either-or choice: either we are loving or hateful, welcoming or fearful, angry or kind, tolerant or prejudiced. In other words, Christians are made to feel that we are guilty and at fault for our harsh and unloving treatment of homosexuals. I can only speak for myself and the churches that I have served, that we have tried to welcome, love and reach out to all people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ which alone can heal and save. I think to shift the blame to the Christian church for having “rejected” gay people is simply false. What the homosexual community wants from us is endorsement and sanction of a behavior that is sinful, and this is the one thing that we cannot offer – not out of hatred, but out of deep and genuine love for sinners, that they might come to repentance.

      • Culley Parris says:

        Pastor Larson, thank you so much for that thoughtful response that highlights the fact that the vast majority of those who stand against 10-A do NOT do so out of disgust or hatred for others, but out of reverence for and faith in the Word of God. The church will become entirely empty if we ultimately cannot call sin “sin” because that somehow can’t be done in a loving manner. When challenged about eating with “sinners,” Jesus is never recorded as correcting his questioner in regards to their label of His companions. Instead, he said things like, “Those who are sick need a physician…” Indeed, we see Christ calling us to reference the scriptures as our moral guide, not to overthrow scripture’s witness to avoid the discomfort of those we “eat” with (minister to, visit, befriend, etc.)… We’re all sinners… and we better stay uncomfortable with that!

        Blessings in Christ

  5. It’s too bad confession is no longer seen as an essential tenet.

  6. Wes Fortin says:

    Good thoughts. I would assert that Confession is a good first step. Looking at some of the posts here and yonder, it seems too many don’t include “repentance” in any definition of the term that would be recognized. Admitting one’s sin is laudable, but feeling genuine regret of the sin and working hard to resist sin is what it’s all about. What’s the point of confession if one then goes out and continues the same sin?

    We all sin. We all fall short of God’s standard of righteousness. We can’t help it. Paul wrote on this almost two millennia ago and it stands today. The glory to God is not in the sinning, or the confessing, but the striving for a standard we can’t ever fully meet, and the forgiveness of a loving God who appreciates our trying.

  7. Lori Bass-Riley says:

    I so appreciate your reflections. I am in complete agreement that we are called first to look at ourselves and see where we, personally, and our individual congregations are failing to follow the Lord before making decisions about the larger structure of our church. After reading your offering, my immediate thought is the need to enter into a state of absolute humility on a daily basis before any future plans are devised. Right now, I believe so many are functioning out of pure anger and frustration and anger often breeds a self righteousness that goes far beyond righteous anger. I hope those meeting in August will heed your advice. I hope that the leaders of the Fellowship lead meetings of humility and forgiveness and not meetings filled with hateful references and pronouncements of judgment on those with whom they disagree. If anything I hope that there is despairing for all of our brokenness and acknowledgment that most people are sincerely seeking to serve the Lord in righteousness, whether we choose rightly or not. None of us will ever serve the Lord in completeness. No organization or fellowship or denomination will serve the Lord without error.

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