Two years into college, I was done with the church. It was archaic and hypocritical. One Sunday, I watched as my friends were rejected and asked not to attend a service just because of their appearance. The church I’d grown up in was no longer relevant to me and to a large part of the emerging culture.
So, I set out to change things. I was going to create a perfect church.
As a young college pastor, I took our team away for a retreat. And, instead of having fun and games and a bible study I made everyone endure intense talks on The Church of the Future.
In seminary, I joined a group of zealous leaders who met every Wednesday from 4:30-6:30 am for a year working on plans to start a church like few had ever seen. But when it came time to launch this “special church” I was told I was a little too imperfect, too much of a maverick to be a part of the initial core team.
That should have given me a heads up. But, I just moved on, redoubling my efforts to create a perfect church elsewhere.
As we planted a church in western Canada then later took over an established church in Florida, I devoted all my energy to finding the best methods and strategies to build a church that would radically transform hundreds, maybe thousands of lives for Jesus.
And every year I just knew that great church I imagined was within reach. I could see it in the distance. If we could assemble a staff that was hitting on all cylinders, or get enough money to complete the next initiative, or figure out the optimum time’s people would come church or land on the perfect discipleship strategy or find the right location, then we’d be set.
I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the epic movie Lawrence of Arabia. We just watched it again the other night and in one scene, Lawrence has been in the desert for days, and he runs out of water. Off in the distance, he can see an oasis and he drags himself toward it. But when he gets there—you know what happens—it’s a mirage.
I used to idealize certain leaders and their churches. Especially the ones I thought had it all figured out. They had growing numbers flocking to their churches and conferences, so all that they claimed, must be true. But the closer I got, everything was not as it appeared. That should have given me a clue. But I pressed on, believing my church, my leadership would be different.
When we idealize something or someone we maximize virtues and minimize flaws.
We all do it, either with our kids, a spouse, our mentors or ministry, even with ourselves. But, over time, unchecked idealization produces disillusionment and a deformed view of reality.
Whenever someone talks about the perfect way to do church, the Biblical way, we always hear about the New Testament church. That’s when the church was pure and unpolluted, right?
But, the truth is, congregants of the early church were sleeping with their relatives, stealing money, harboring greed, envy, strife, lying, accusing each other of false doctrine, and leaders mishandled care for the poor. The list goes on.
Eugene Peterson said, “There are no successful churches, there are instead communities of sinners gathered before God, week after week, in towns all over the world. In these communities of sinners, one of the sinners is called a pastor.”
I spent most of my life envisioning and attempting to build that elusive, perfect church. Even though I knew perfect wasn’t actually attainable I was determined to get as close to “it” as possible. Over and over, I stressed and exhausted myself and a lot of others so desperate was I to see my dreams fulfilled.
Then I learned about “wish dreams.” And it rocked me.
In his book, Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor, and theologian who was executed for being an anti- Nazi dissident warned us about the dangers of “wish dreams” in the church. Here are a few excerpts:
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 to try to realize it.
But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams. Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves…
He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial…
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… 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…
…God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man (or woman) that fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God Himself accordingly…
He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community as if his dream binds men together…
Just as the Christian should not be constantly feeling his spiritual pulse, so, too, the Christian community has not been given to us by God, for us to be constantly taking its temperature.
As the old saying goes, Bonhoeffer was reading my mail.
My lifelong dream of the perfect church was a fantasy, a mirage. It was a well-meaning, but an utterly unrealistic picture of what a Christian community can ever actually be. And it made all the difference when I finally woke up and embraced this reality.
So, what’s a leader to do who yearns to help build Christ’s church? Here are four things I focus on now:
- God never asked us to build his church. He just called us to make disciples. He said he would build his church. We need to nail this to our podiums, stick it on our computers, and recite it at every board meeting.
- Count on and get comfortable with this: every model or method… every church or ministry… will ALWAYS have two things operating in it. Sometimes one will be more evident than the other, but over time, both will come to the surface. Instead of having expectations of the ideal, have realistic expectations. What are those? Along with beauty and goodness, there will always be some measure of brokenness and disappointment. By the very nature of its inhabitants, every time, in this life, it will fall short of the glory of God.
- While learning from any leader or model of ministry, no matter how shiny and “together” they may appear, remember it or they are perfectly imperfect.
- Drop the “I must make it happen” mentality and adopt “ I get to make a unique and meaningful contribution to the greatest cause I know.”