Church Plants: So You Want to Start a Church? Part 7

From Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together

On innumerable occasions a whole Christian community has been shattered because it has lived on the basis of a wishful image. Certainly serious Christians who are put in a community for the first time will often bring with them a very definite image of what Christian communal life [Zusammenleben] should be, and they will be anxious to realize it.

Christians who live in community — in a church plant or any other congregation — often have an idealized vision of what life ought to be like in that community. We feel that if we are truly good and Christian, surely life will proceed as our vision anticipates. 

But God’s grace quickly frustrates all such dreams. A great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves, is bound to overwhelm us as surely as God desires to lead us to an understanding of genuine Christian community. By sheer grace God will not permit us to live in a dream world even for a few weeks and to abandon ourselves to those blissful experiences and exalted moods that sweep over us like a wave of rapture.

I’d bet you didn’t see that one coming! Bonhoeffer considers such idealism wrong, even sinful. And so, he says, God makes a point to shatter our dreams. We see that as defeat, but God sees that as a necessary step toward truth. (I can’t tell how shocked I was when I first read this — and yet how very convicting I found Bonhoeffer’s wisdom. I’m planning on reading this book at least once a year as along as I’m an elder.)

For God is not a God of emotionalism, but the God of truth. Only that community which enters into the experience of this great disillusionment with all its unpleasant and evil appearances 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 moment of disillusionment comes over the individual and the community, the better for both.

Indeed, to be the community that God wants, we must base our relationships on truth — and the truth is that we are sinful. If we can’t learn to get along with sinners, we can’t learn to get along.

However, a community that cannot bear and cannot survive such disillusionment, clinging instead to its idealized image, when that should be done away with, loses at the same time the promise of a durable Christian community. Sooner or later it is bound to collapse. Every human idealized image that is brought into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be broken up so that genuine community can survive. Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.

Therefore, if we hold up our ideal above the challenging reality of imperfection and sin, we fail in our effort to form a congregation. A church plant can’t be built on idealism. Nor can a church plant be justified by the failure of the existing churches to be ideal. Ideals are for the next life.

God hates this wishful dreaming because it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. Those who dream of this idealized community demand that it be fulfilled by God, by others, and by themselves. They enter the community of Christians with their demands, set up their own law, and judge one another and even God accordingly. They stand adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of the community. They act as if they have to create the Christian community, as if their visionary ideal binds the people together. Whatever does not go their way, they call a failure. When their idealized image is shattered, they see the community breaking into pieces. So they first become accusers of other Christians in the community, then accusers of God, and finally the desperate accusers of themselves.

Have you ever spoken with a visionary church planter, his head filled with a vision of how his new church will be absolutely perfect? Have you ever spoken with a failed church planter, bitter because real people aren’t nearly as perfect as his vision?

What’s the solution?

Because God already has laid the only foundation of our community, because God has united us in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that life together with other Christians, not as those who make demands, but as those who thankfully receive. We thank God for what God has done for us. We thank God for giving us other Christians who live by God’s call, forgiveness, and promise. We do not complain about what God does not give us; rather we are thankful for what God does give us daily.

Christianity is about grace. We receive grace from God and so we extend grace to others. And so we shouldn’t be surprised when God fills our lives with people who need grace from us — people who are far less than perfect, annoying, demanding, and filled with sin — and yet trying to follow Jesus the best they can — even though the best they can is pretty pitiful. But as pitiful as it is, it is enough — because God’s grace makes up what’s lacking.

What doesn’t make up for the lack are our dreams, our visions, and our ideals. We can’t make people perfect. We can’t build a community with wonderful, glorious, holy people who never disappoint us and always do the right thing — because that’s not the point of church.

Therefore, we learn gratitude for what God is doing in us and among us. We learn to appreciate small steps and little improvements. We don’t complain because the pace is too slow or the ideal seems unattainable.

If we were to limit membership to the truly saintly, well, we’d be a pretty sorry congregation — arrogant, proud, and insufferable. When we imagine that we might convert new disciples and teach them using new methods and thereby produce a congregation filled with saintly disciples, well, we’re fooling ourselves — and God won’t let us stay deluded for long.

(Have you ever shaken your head at the young ministers who think they’ll solve the church’s problems if only we could make our members into “disciples,” meaning members who finally get it and act right? Hasn’t this been true of every generation of ministers? What happens to the idealistic ministers when they learn that church members are all imperfect, when they learn that elders are imperfect, when they learn that their fellow ministers are imperfect? Well, some become bitter and angry and quit. Some others grow up, by the power of the Spirit.  Oh, would that our universities teach more Bonhoeffer!)

How do we respond? Do we give up? Do we decide that if church can’t be done right, it can’t be done at all? Well, what did the apostles do?

Paul planted the church at Corinth, and they were rife with divisions, paganism, incest, and all sorts of other truly awful sins. Welcome to the reality of New Testament Christianity!

But Paul was not content to let the church wallow in its immaturity. He worked diligently to bring them closer to the ideal. He wanted them to become like Jesus. But he was truthful enough to know that any mission church would have to walk with Jesus a very long time before getting anywhere close. He didn’t give up. And he celebrated small victories.

You see, the perfectionism of the 20th Century Churches of Christ insists on perfect orthodoxy — perfect doctrine — to measure up. It has destroyed many a minister. When we learned grace, we sometimes kept our perfectionism, insisting instead on perfect orthopraxy — perfect practice — to measure up. And when the members of our congregation or church plant are closer to the Corinthians than the Sermon the Mount, we get frustrated and angry — and we might even quit.

Priscilla and Aquila helped lead the church in Rome, and yet it was divided between Jews and Gentiles, over meats and holy days. Paul taught them better, but he didn’t insist that they get it right. He insisted that they accept one another despite their immaturity and weakness. He insisted that the strong let the weak be weak — for now. He taught tolerance and patience. He taught the Romans to be as gracious toward each other as God was being toward them.

I’m not opposed to church planting. In fact, I think there are places where that is exactly what God wants us to do. The apostles planted churches.

I’m just opposed to the notion that we should turn up our noses at the existing churches, due to their many imperfections, abandoning them in order to plant newer, hipper churches — using new methods that produce the same problems that bedevil the older churches.

Plant churches where the church is absent and can’t otherwise be present. For those places that have existing churches, maybe we should look for ways to re-energize them and bring about a better, more outward focus. After all, if we can’t figure out how to bring about an outward focus in an existing church, what makes us think our new churches are going to stay outward focused?

If the problem is the older members or the leadership, then just what on earth are we teaching our members so that, the more sermons and classes they attend, the more selfish they become? And what makes us think our church plants are going to be any better? Until we figure out what we’re doing wrong, we’ll be doomed to spend a lot of effort and resources to repeat the errors of the past.

The key, of course, is to teach our members to follow Jesus through service, submission, sacrifice, and even suffering. It’s to call our leaders and oldest members to set examples of exactly this — because this is the heart of Christianity.

I don’t know. It just bothers me when churches feel like they have to plant a church to get it right because they can’t, even with the Spirit’s power, persuade their members to be transformed into the image of Christ.

It’s hard. Probably impossible — unless God does a miracle. But I think we need to start praying for and counting on miracles. After all, if the old church won’t change, rather than pretending we’re a church, we should admit that we’re not Christians at all, just a singing social club built on nostalgia.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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