Receiving the Church as a Gift

One of the biggest lessons many of us learned in our missional church plant was the necessity of receiving the church as a gift.  We all had our dreams, plans, and ambitions about the shape the church was to take.  We found that our community couldn’t bear the weight of our various demands.  We were crushing this precious, beautiful, and weak community and hurting each other with our grand plans and big dreams.

We needed to give the community freedom to be what it was.  We needed to learn to receive one another as wonderful gifts from God, and to receive the church as a gift from God.

Many people report dissatisfying church experiences.  I wonder where the fault lies.  There are, after all, only disappointing churches filled with underwhelming and broken people.  Churches will never live up to our pristine ideals—our big visions for what the church should be for us.

It just might be our task to learn how the church is a beautiful and infinitely satisfying gift to us.  Friendships flourish when we receive others; when we explore and enjoy the richness of one another rather than when we make demands.  Good marriages work that way, too.

Now, there are lots of things to be said about the church, but I’ve found that one of the secrets to my being happy with the church is identifying my own expectations and plans and being prepared to name them as destructive idolatries.  It’s my task to find out how the church is a gift to me.

In his classic work, Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer discusses the clash between our imagined ideal church experience and the actual church communities we encounter.  He absolutely nails it.

Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and try to realize it.

By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world. He does not abandon us to those rapturous experiences and lofty moods that come over us like a dream. God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth. Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it.

The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community, the better for both. A community which cannot bear and cannot survive such a crisis, which insists upon keeping its illusion when it should be shattered, permanently loses in that moment the promise of Christian community. Sooner or later it will collapse. Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of a community more that the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial (emphasis added).

He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together.

Big thanks to my friend, Kyle Bos, for alerting me to this passage.  Cited from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1954), pp. 14-15.

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5 responses to “Receiving the Church as a Gift

  • athanasius96

    Excellent quote! This is where the idealized “Acts Community” leads us astray. We pick out the good parts, forget the bad parts, and lose perspective that even some of the good did not play out for long in the early church. Growing community is saving grace and intentional work. As long as everyone is making an effort to receive and participate, something should happen. Just not necessarily what we demand.

    • timgombis

      I don’t know how many times I’ve heard pastors say, “if only our church were like the early church!” But think of the hassles and problems they had! There never was an ideal church, only actual communities loved by the Lord of the church..

  • Michael

    I’ve really enjoyed parts if that book. Leah and I have been reading snippets at a time over the past few months. I felt compelled to recite the same part you highlighted to our congregation a few months ago. But I think it’s a great reminder during advent and post-Thanksgiving of one if our biggest blessings as believers. Thanks for articulating!

  • Dan Jr.

    Great post Tim,
    Our community just discussed this in church yesterday. It is quite frightening how guys like Chan are setting up this ideal church picture from the first few chapters in Acts. He attempts authoritatively to use Acts prescriptively instead of descriptively. People hear his sermons that preach idealism and then come away with destructive expectations. Much of the expectation then take on an emotional narcissistic bent of not having “my needs met” and then being defended with a poor use of scripture.

    Funny thing is the first intentional church plant in Acts 18 is Corinth and that was a messy, messy community. Interesting how selective we are in our Bible reading.

  • getting real about church « Cave Adullam

    [...] I rather like Tim Gombis’s post on our idolatries about church life.   I especially like the quotation from Bonhoeffer he cites.  Read the whole post here. [...]

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