October, 1981. I was eighteen years old and a touring musician. I was 60 pounds overweight but spiritually malnourished and a two pack a day smoker. I spent most of my time with people like me, living lives of pretend-happy, inebriated make-believe. I was surrounded by faces.
But I was desperately lonely.
We finished stuffing my 1973 Ford Ltd. to the rafters with sound gear and instruments and started the three-hour drive home from Edmonton to Calgary, Alberta. Terry, my musical partner sat beside me with his girlfriend, now his wife. Although lapsed in their faith, they were sufficiently transformed to cast a curious glow on my shadowy spirit.
In fine form they handled my machine-gun, rapid-fire questions all the way home. In the space of a three-hour drive, I crossed over the bridge of faith from alcoholic, chain-smoking, lonely musician to weeping, snotty-nosed, grateful, beginner Jesus follower.
Mere days later I would sit in a wooden pew at Terry’s home church weeping, watching, wondering, waiting. It was there I had my first real experience of the strange animal otherwise known as “the local church.” First impressions: 1. These hymns are magnificent! And, man, can they sing. 2. I saw men with loving arms around women, nestled tightly together in obvious affection. It was a big improvement from what I was accustomed to. 3. I felt physically out of place with my long, stringy brown hair, jeans and boots…but somehow felt at home. 4. These people glow a little.
Granted, I myself was in a state of post-conversion haze and it seemed that the very universe had arisen to greet me and was high-fiving me into an utterly blissful joy. All was new. And these people seemed too good to be true.
I was right.
Jump ahead two years. I was one of the worship leading team at a Pentecostal church plant in south Calgary. Deep factions had emerged over direction, ethos and calling. Half wanted to televise and advertise. The other half wanted to divide and plant another church. At an all church meeting I watched two men fist fight and the pastor’s wife jump on a table screaming at another woman to f*** off. Mmm, delightful.
Jump ahead twenty-two years. My wife and I were separated. We were poor and not making it financially. In the mail one morning was an envelope upon which was a simple piece of paper that read, “your mortgage was paid by Jesus this month.” It was anonymous but we knew that the little Lutheran congregation we then called home had once more arisen to claim their inheritance as beloved saints and friends.
Jump ahead another year. My wife and I, newly reconciled, had moved to Washington state to take up a new ministry. A sum total of ninety days after starting my job and the senior pastor confessed to over fifteen years of sexual deviance with numerous women and over two different congregations. We were devastated.
That same congregation is the one I still serve. They’ve continually taken chances on me as a little “out of the box” and, well, quirky. Our family is doing fabulously well. The church is growing and generally very healthy.
So, which is it? Who is the real church? Was one following Jesus more intentionally while the other not? Did one congregation really hear how God was directing and the other not? Was it spiritual warfare? Was I blind to the bad stuff in the good situations and vice versa? Was one congregation lying to itself about how true to the Gospel it was while the other not?
Nope. It was all the Church. God’s rotten, holy people. The twisted, malevolent, beautiful people of a perfectly loving God. Sinners made/being made righteous, albeit through pain, filth, fight and fire. Redeemed/being redeemed people like you and I whom Paul calls “saints” and Jesus calls “little ones.” Go figure.
The same Church who thought it good to spoon with Constantine’s “Christian” Rome is the same Church who died at the hands of that same Rome for dubious reasons. The same Church who has tortured and killed heretics have cried for justice, peace and righteousness walking alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. or William Wilberforce. The same Church who machete one another in Africa spend many sleepless nights seeking asylum and freedom for thirteen year old children sold in the sex trade.
If a nice, safe, predictable time on the slow ride at the fair is what you’re looking for, don’t hang with this group. If, however, an utterly horrifying, often hypocritical, terribly disappointing, incredibly messy, but deeply transforming ride is what you need – you’ve arrived at your destination.
Embrace the people of God…if you dare.
What is your experience of the church? Have you seen many of the facets described?
Do you have thoughts on why the church has so many facets?
Robert Rife is the music director at Yakima Covenant Church (http://yakimacovenant.org/), a singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, poet and writer. He is a recent graduate from Spring Arbor University with an M.A. in Spiritual Formation and Leadership and blogs at innerwoven.me.