If I had to guess, I’d say that most Christians (including pastors) have a “bad church” story to tell. And that’s not to speak of non-Christians and former Christians. Many have walked away from God because of the hypocrisy, bigotry, power-mongering and just plain bad manners of those who purported to be God’s people. We should grieve over such stories, confess our sins, and pray for change.
But aren’t there good stories to tell, too?
It’s not either-or, as if any congregation’s stories are all good or all bad. I remember a friend telling me of joining a small and contentious congregation. The politics that played out among the members rivalled anything one might find in a secular organization. But when he and his wife experienced a personal crisis, the people of that congregation reached out to them with loving attention, earning the couple’s undying gratitude.
As suggested in a recent post, humans tend toward a negativity bias: we remember negative experiences because they impact us more deeply than positive ones. In consequence, it may be easier to remember and resent all the things a church did wrong than it is to appreciate what was godly and right. To some extent, that’s how we’re wired.
But life in the Spirit entails growing past that negative programming.
To be sure, Paul hasn’t forgotten the deeply hurtful way he had been treated by some of the Corinthians — the way some probably still wanted to treat him. Paul can catalog his apostolic sufferings (e.g., 2 Cor 1:8-9) because he remembers. And yet he loves these people, and wants them to see in themselves what he sees: the work of the Holy Spirit, the very image of God and the reflection of his glory.
I can’t help but wonder: when we get stuck ruminating over our own sin and brokenness, or that of others, are we not still shackling ourselves to an old-covenant way of thinking?
Where the Lord’s Spirit is, there is freedom (2 Cor 3:17b, CEB). Freedom from the condemnation of the law. Freedom to rejoice wholeheartedly in God’s grace. Freedom even to see the glory of God kindling and flickering in our lives, and the lives of our brothers and sisters — even if we sometimes find them clueless and annoying. (And let’s face it: they probably see us the same way from time to time, and we wouldn’t want that to be all they see.)
There’s a reason why Paul teaches that love “isn’t irritable” and “doesn’t keep a record of complaints” (1 Cor 13:5, CEB). It’s not simply because to do these things means to fail at love and therefore fail at old-covenant righteousness. It’s because anger and resentment veil our eyes to the image of God in others, to the gracious work God is doing to transform his people from glory to glory (2 Cor 3:18).
The bad-church stories won’t go away by themselves. But we can be part of the problem or part of the solution. And the latter begins with learning to see God’s grace and glory with unveiled eyes, and telling that story instead.