Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Myth of the Perfect Church

The hunt for the perfect church is like looking for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow or trying to find the Fountain of Youth. It is trying to get your three wishes just right from a disinterested genie in the bottle. It is the search to get something for yourself that is magically delicious. It is a fabled and mythical journey for something that is supposed to answer some deep and aching questions about what it means to be human and spiritual and who God is.

Questions of Humanness: We have a lot of questions as humans. We want to know what it means to be human. We want to understand the meaning of life, our place in this life, and how we make a difference. We want to know what to do with our bodies, our minds, and our passions. We want to know what it means when our bodies, minds, and passions don’t agree with each other or go in directions that make no sense or are embarrassingly selfish.

Questions of God: Who is God? What is God doing? How does God relate to us? To me? How does God communicate? How can I understand this communication? Is God completely good? Completely powerful? Completely willing to act? Does God even know what is happening? If God is good, powerful, and willing, then why ___________? We have lots and lots of questions about God.

Questions is Spirituality: We have questions about what it means to be spiritual. How does this life in flesh connect to the divine? What happens when we die? Is there really an afterlife? Are the spiritual life and life in flesh one in the same? Different? A mystery to remain unresolved?

There are places we search for answers to these questions. One of these places is church.

Let me be clear: The search for the perfect church is a process that hinders these questions from being answered. It is impossible to answers these questions in a socio-spiritual context when the requirement for a church is perfection. The bar is just a little too high.

The search for the perfect church may be more a demonstration of theological and social procrastination than it is a legitimate pursing of the real and weighty questions of life. I avoid these weighty questions by pretending to find a place to ask them.

In the search for the perfect church, what will be found is far from perfection. Instead of perfection, you will find the following three things:

Messy people. People carry with them their moral blemishes, relational aches, and broken assumptions. We all do. We all come from families of origin that have their stories of pride and stories of shame. We carry within us secrets that we hope no one ever finds out and accomplishments we hope everyone finds out. We have beautiful moments of sacrificial kindness and ugly moments of blinding narcissism. We carry in us an inconsistent bundle of mixed motives at varying levels of self and other awareness into everything we do and avoid doing. People in churches are a mess.

The search for the perfect church has an inherent question buried in it: Are the people here perfect? If perfect people are a requirement for church, then no one is qualified. The search will never end.

Instead, we come to learn more of what it means to be human by being with a lot of humans who are acting human, living human, and performing humanity as it is – imperfect. How could anyone answer the big questions of humanity by hanging out with a bunch of perfect people – humans acting inhuman? The perfect place to seek the understanding of humanity is with imperfect people.

It is in relationship with imperfect people that we can seek answers to questions of humanity.

Messy theology. It took me 20 years to accept that the theology into which I was born was flawed. It took me another ten years to accept that all theologies are flawed. I was on the hunt for the right theology, the right way to understand God. I failed to find it. I have so many critiques of the beliefs of the fellowship to which I belong. There are contradictions, blind spots, omissions, and systematic problems that are impossible to individually or collectively resolve – at least not quickly. And yet with a theology, there is something in place with which to wrestle. We have a framework of understanding God which can be shaped and molded – which shapes and molds. We come to increasingly better understandings of God in wrestling with a theology.

The search for the perfect church has an inherent question buried in it: Is the collective belief system perfect? If a perfect belief system is a requirement for church, then there is no church qualified. The search will never end.

Instead, we find that learning about the nature of God does not come so cheap as a systematic theology. God is not so small or simple that understanding could result from a set of propositions. What we find is that we come to understand God in seeking to understand God together. When scripture, experience, each other’s stories, and inspiration collide, new understandings of God emerge.

It is in imperfect theology that we can pursue questions about God.

Messy practice. How a church implements its beliefs is sometimes even messier than its beliefs. There is a theology of equality, but some blatant violations of that theology. There is a theology of simplicity and the practice of too much consumerism. There are mission efforts implemented with good heartedness that sometimes resemble colonialism. We want to be pure in doing good, but we are not pure. Sometimes the  implementation simply falls apart. And yet, in the practice of moving beliefs into action, we find the link between humanity and the divine.

The search for the perfect church has an inherent question buried in it: Is the ministry this church does perfect? If perfect practice is a requirement for church, then there is no church qualified. The search will never end.

Instead of perfect practice, we are perfecting our practice. If the move of God in this world is a process of redemptive motion over time, then the idea of perfect practice is at best premature. What does it mean to be spiritual? It means improving our practice, it means participating in the redemptive motion of God to better the world in which we live.  We find spirituality might be defined as performed goodness in the world. We might find that spirituality is that divine nature we all have that puts into redemptive motion the animal nature that we all have.

It is in imperfect practice that we can pursue questions of spirituality.

Finding a church home is certainly an important task as you are in a sense, casting your lot with these people. And there are certainly churches to avoid as they are fronts for absolute corruption (Westboro Baptist Church). However, if the search for finding a religious body to belong to turns into the hunt for the perfect church, then there will be disappointment that may fester into cynicism and even a crisis of faith. The big questions of life will go unanswered or at least not answered as well as could be.

The hunt for the perfect church will prevent the discovery of the good enough church. It will prevent being situated in a socio-spiritual context meant to pursue answers to the big questions of life.

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