Season 11 - Week 5
“Hope Through a Broken Church”
I found this last reflection the hardest to write about. Being carriers of hope isn't easy when it comes to global environmental catastrophes, personal tragedy or societal breakdown. These are huge topics. But for me I think there’s something about the church being broken that feels especially difficult to write about.
It’s like when you’re asked to talk about dysfunctional families, and then you’re asked to talk about your own dysfunctional family. Suddenly the theory comes home and you don’t know where to start. You have real names of real people in your mind who you’ve hurt or who have hurt you. Maybe you’re still doing the hurting. Maybe you’re still hurting.
Just how broken is The Church? Where would you go to show the cracks and flaws in the body tasked to represent the only perfect human being the world has ever known? A quick google will reveal a seemingly endless list of stories of abuse, deceit, corruption, control, greed, arrogance and hypocrisy. Individual leaders, local congregations, denominational networks, theological centres, youth organisations, all the structures and systems set up to make Church happen; in every element of Church existence there is the potential for, and often the existence of, giant cracks. People are excluded. Leaders are removed under suspicious circumstances. Ministries crumble under the cloud of dodgy financial dealings. Congregations split over entrenched doctrinal differences. Abuses are covered up.
How can the world be anything but hope-less when they look at the Church? How can Christ do anything but weep when he looks at the mess his bride often gets herself in?
I’m not about to deny that any of the horrors we know (and don’t know of) exist and need to be dealt with. Hope cannot survive in communities where there is no transparency, justice, honesty and integrity. Yet, maybe our very capacity to be utterly hope-less at this whole being the hope of the world thing, is the point where we can become the hope of the world…if we know where to turn.
Paul gets this more keenly than most. He expresses Christ’s love for the people who gather in his name with the words:
‘For he died for us, sacrificing himself to make us holy and pure, cleansing us through the showering of the pure water of the Word of God. All that he does in us is designed to make us a mature church for his pleasure, until we become a source of praise to him—glorious and radiant, beautiful and holy, without fault or flaw.’ Ephesians 5:25-27 (The Passion)
The Greek word for radiance (endoxos) can also mean ‘infused with glory.’ As we allow Christ to love us and for his love to dwell in us we literally become more and more beautiful. Even our capacity for messing up cannot remove the potential of who we, the people of God, can be as we are transformed by the Spirit of God into Christ’s likeness. Maybe it’s in knowing how deeply fragile and flawed we are that we reach beyond ourselves to become something more, a place where everyone flourishes. Where the poor are fed; the homeless, housed; the wounded, healed; the lost, found; the stranger, known; the abuser, transformed; the hardened, melted.
The gifts of the Holy Spirit aren’t for us to use in isolation apart from each other. God gives himself to us- the community of believers who choose him in all things- so that we can represent his kingdom on earth. The fruit of the Spirit in our lives means that the first act of hope we offer to the world is that we love each other.
Against all the odds.
Against reason or preference or experience.
That we love, love and then love some more. That we’re patient with each other, forgiving, good to each other and about each other. That the barriers in culture between those who have and have not, those who can and those who are told they cannot are totally annihilated in this community of people who seek the wellbeing of each other, before their own.
This isn’t a pipe dream. It’s Christ’s Church-dream. And it’s happening now. All across the world the people who dare to own the name of Jesus are often on the front line of working towards a kinder, fairer more just society. They forgive where others cannot. They love where others do not. They persist in hope, where others have given up.
Thank you God!
This is all good and true.
But sometimes when we think about our own experience of working as an employee or volunteer in youth ministry, we can feel pretty hopeless about out own church. Maybe we’re not facing the headline grabbing issues that make for tantalising press. After all it’s not every church that is investing huge sums of cash in dodgy off shore accounts!*
*Youthscape is not suggesting that churches are investing huge sums of cash in dodgy off shore accounts!
But we can feel increasingly defeated by how blisteringly difficult it can be to get people in our churches to invest in the youth ministry programme. Bemoaning the struggles many Youth Leaders face with poor line management, lack of resources and unrealistic expectations is a path well trodden. But if we find ourselves in this situation the knowledge that we’re not alone in this can add to our overall sense of hopelessness in the church.
This week General Synod are debating the findings of a report into the numbers of children and young people (aged 0-16) in the UK who are in a Church of England church service on a Sunday morning. Physically present in a kind of bum-on-a-seat-or-pew kind of way.
Not everyone likes statistics.
Not everyone (irrespective of whether they like stats or not) agree that Sunday attendance is the right measure.
Not everyone thinks that the presence of 0-16’s in Anglican church services tells us much about the spirituality of young people and the impact the Gospel is having in the lives of young people.
And of course, not everyone who works with young people is part of the Church of England.
But however you read these stats, they suck. Across the board. It seems that even the churches that can boast high attendance to big events are still struggling in the discipleship of young people. And I’m writing this as a youth worker volunteering for a church that’s part of a ‘big church’ network - we’re finding this stuff hard.
I’m sat writing this piece while at my 8 year old daughter’s gymnastic club. There are kids in sparkly outfits and parents (glued to their iPhones) everywhere. I do a quick head count. There are sixty three 6-12 year olds in one weekly club. Sixty-three. That’s more 6-12 year olds than in all the churches in this immediate area put together. I can say that because I know many of these churches and love them all. They’re good, loving, welcoming places. They have leaders who care about everyone in their community and who are desperate to do more to reach young people. They often don’t know where to start.
Yet if we are the hope of the world, what does that hope for young people look like when it’s expressed through the local church that struggles to reach them? Maybe a better question would be to ask about the signs of hope in our local community that the Gospel is changing young people’s lives.
A few weeks ago a 17 year old boy walked into my church. He said that the year before he had been in his bedroom, raging at the world. In a moment of desperation he had shouted out ‘Whatever’s out there, show me who you are!’ Then he said this, ‘I met Jesus.’ I’m not really sure what he meant. Did he see Jesus stand before him in a physical body? Did he suddenly remember those things he’d been taught in his church school about Jesus and so recognised the feeling of comfort he felt as doing from God? Whatever went down in his room that day, he met Jesus. In meeting Jesus he met hope, life and love in a way he had never known before.
The following week I began to feel a bit anxious. This young person came to find our church because he wanted to meet other people who have also met Jesus. But what if, as he gets to know us, he realises we’re just as messed up and prone to being defensive and unkind as everyone else? Wouldn’t he be better off without us, without the broken church he was wanting to make his home?
I mentioned this to my husband. He told me that I can’t prevent young people from discovering the local church. That we need to invite young people into the reality of discipleship, even if it means seeing all our rough edges and our ugly side, so that the brilliance of Christ’s power to transform lives shines even more brightly. Then he said something about putting our trust in God, not our clever youth work techniques and that as we give God an inch of faith he will respond with an ocean of grace.
He can be so annoying and right sometimes!
So I asked another young person at church how they handle hanging out with other people (like me) who struggle to be the church God calls us to be. How does she cope with us in all our mess. ‘Makes me feel that I fit.’ she replied. ‘Really?’ I asked. ‘Don’t you want us to be better at doing church? I mean, less snappy, less quick to judge, less stupid about things that don’t really matter like who didn't clear up after youth club on Friday night so the craft club on Saturday morning have to do it?’ (I made that last scenario up. I told you it’s easier to talk in generics than the stuff we’re really struggling with.)
‘Maybe,’ she came back, ‘But it’s OK if we don’t all have our s***’ together.’
And maybe it is OK. I don’t mean the deliberate damage that we cause each other, or the deception and intentional harm that is inflicted. I mean the simple fact that churches are made up of people like you and me, who don’t have all their s*** together. This side of heaven I don’t think we will. But maybe it’s OK to be part of a body that isn’t perfect. Maybe our imperfections can become the place where God’s perfect love can be revealed.
‘God’s power is made perfect in weakness.’ (2 Cor 12:9) The ‘power’ Paul refers to is the kind of dramatic, explosive, maxed out sort of power. Divine fire from heaven sort of stuff. And the perfection he’s referring to isn’t what we mean when we think of the lifeless plastic bodies that adorn bill boards. He’s talking about something being released to its fullest extent. So the weakness in ourselves and our churches that we can feel so hopeless over (the word Paul uses refers to limitations and fragility) in fact becomes the very place where God in all God’s fullness, is.
Or to put it another way,
The life changing Hope that young people are craving to know, is to be found in their local, broken church.
We are where hope is.
‘For he died for us, sacrificing himself to make us holy and pure, cleansing us through the showering of the pure water of the Word of God. All that he does in us is designed to make us a mature church for his pleasure, until we become a source of praise to him—glorious and radiant, beautiful and holy, without fault or flaw.’
Take a moment to be deeply honest with yourself. What are the deep cracks in your local church and in the wider church? What are the areas of working as a youth worker in and through Church that feel hopeless?
Take a fresh piece of paper and screw it tightly into a ball. Now unscrew the paper and flatten it out. Spend some time writing those "cracks" along the newly formed lines in the paper.
Take time to ask God for His forgiveness where we as a church have messed up, and thank God for His abundant grace. Pray for God's work to continue being done in and through us, with all our faults and shortcomings. Ask God's spirit to help the Church start to fill those cracks with gold; turning pain into healing, brokenness into beauty. As you pray you could trace those lines on the paper with gold or a brightly coloured pen.