Thursday, 05 July 2012 13:05

Hang in There! Donít Give Up on the Church

Written by  Karen Wingate
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Remember when teenagers plastered their walls with poster art? One amusing poster depicted a wide-eyed, desperate cat barely hanging from a high bar by its claws. The caption read, “Hang in there, baby.” Yeah, right.

 


The first time I encountered a church in upheaval, I felt like that kitty, barely holding on to a bar covered with the slippery sins of people I trusted. I felt let down, betrayed. Since then, I’ve seen churches lie wounded and defeated on the battlefield of God’s Kingdom. Churches that allowed sexual predators to assume leadership positions. Leaders whose lust for control rather than humble service caused the congregation to lose face in the community or whose violent tempers erupted during Communion services.

Abigail Van Buren once said, “A church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.” She was right. The church should dispense medicine to heal our sinful brokenness and offer us salve for our souls. What a betrayal when the congregation oozes poison that corrodes key leadership and repels fringe believers. As one friend told me, “I have enough havoc at home; when I come to church, I expect it to be a haven; not another source of discord!”

When you see your congregation broken by immorality, dissention, or power struggles, what should you do? How can believers possibly stay faithful when Christ’s representative on earth can’t even do it? Should you just abandon the idea of the organized Church? Should you flee to safer pastures?
Jesus’ letters to seven churches in Revelation 2-3 reassure us that we should not give up on the Church because He knows what is happening, He will be the final judge, and He will reward those who “hang in there.”

The Good, the Bad and the Indifferent
Christ established the Church to be the expression of His love to the world. Yet Jesus’ description of these seven churches shows that problematic churches have existed since the first century. He describes churches that desired leadership under false pretenses (2:2), prostituted themselves to the ways of the world (2:6,14,15), infiltrated the church with false doctrine (2:20-22), and became arrogant in their self-sufficiency (3:17).

At some point, every Christian faces the painful truth that the Church is flawed and fallible. The world’s corruption seeps into a local congregation when an elder molests a teenage girl, a contentious minority forces out a faithful minister, or vicious gossip ruins the reputation of a youth worker. The fallout leaves many feeling confused and ashamed that the church is capable of behaving so badly. How can we win the world to Jesus when we cannot act better than those we are trying to save?

Jesus knows evil will seep into the church. Yet our Lord does not accept an “Oh well, no one’s perfect” attitude either. Dissention, false doctrine and immorality are serious issues. As evident in Jesus’ words to these seven churches, he expects church leadership to deal forcefully with the problems. He assures the reader that if the local leadership won’t deal with the immoral and the troublemaker, He will.

He told the church at Ephesus that, unless they repented of forsaking their first love, He would allow the church to die by removing its witness (2:5). He warned the Pergamum church He would personally fight against those who allowed sexual immorality (2:14-17). Jesus used strong imagery to tell the Laodiceans what He would do about their apathetic attitude toward matters of the kingdom, saying He would spit them out of his mouth like something vile (3:16). Jesus does not mince words when he says, “ . . . I am He who searches hearts and minds and I will repay each of you according to your deeds (2:23).”

Our ability to hold on to our own faith rests in the confidence that God will bring justice to those who have perverted His word and victimized His children. In the meantime, the faithful remnant may have to watch their congregation collapse like a house of cards in slow motion. It is hard to remain faithful to an institution that has let you down. Hard, but not impossible.

Enduring the Heartache
The temptation to quit is strong. I’ve heard people say, “I believe in Jesus but I don’t want to have anything to do with the Church.” Jesus concludes each letter with words for the individual believer: Hold on to what you have. Don’t let go of your faith. Don’t give up on the Church. If you hold on, you will be rewarded for your faithfulness.

No matter how your congregation acts, you are responsible for your faith. We can’t allow the wrongdoing of others to shipwreck our commitment to Jesus. As one lady told another who wanted to leave our church because of some small infraction, “God forbid that I should let anything come between me and my worship of Him!” Jesus gives a good reason for perseverance through a dark period of congregational life - “so that no one will take away your crown (3:11).”

More often, believers struggle with whether to leave their dysfunctional congregation for another. After all, didn’t Jesus tell the disciples to wipe the dust off their feet? Didn’t Paul and his companions leave cities to minister more effectively in others?

You may need to leave a congregation that has all but died spiritually. Before you do, consider whether you have done all you can to serve the Lord and His people in that location. First, look for the faithful remnant within your congregation. In each letter, Jesus spoke to the faithful. He pointed out the good that was happening in several of the churches, He commended the Thyatira Church for their faith, love, service and perseverance. Look at what God is doing in your congregation and join Him there.

So often, my husband and I have seen church problems escalate because uninformed people kept phone lines busy. Paul tells Timothy, “Avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly (2Timothy 2:16).” We need more Christians who will courageously tell other church members, “I don’t want to discuss this issue; it is not encouraging or beneficial to either of us.”

Finally, safeguard your faith and seek support from other believers. Just as a caregiver tending an aging parent or disabled child needs respite, you may need to find strength and support through another venue so you can remain strong for your congregation. Join a small group Bible study at another church, serve in a para-church organization or partner with another church member to pray together, making the commitment to not discuss church problems, but to focus on building each other’s faith.

As in any dark period of your faith walk, remember Jesus’ reassurance in Matthew 28:20, “I will be with you always.” As you feel your hands losing their grip on the high bar of your faith, imagine Jesus wrapping His hands over yours, giving you the strength to hang on until He comes to take His purified bride to the reward He has prepared for her. Hang in there!

Karen Wingate is a contributing writer and pastor’s wife.

Last modified on Thursday, 05 July 2012 15:19
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