5 Must-Read Statements on the Church

It’s no secret that one of my favorite theologians of all time is Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His book Life Together is, in my opinion, the best book written on the nature of true community in the church. It is a must-read for many reasons, but one of the most important is the way that Bonhoeffer directly deals with something all of us face with the church: disillusionment. If you have not experienced disillusionment at some point in your involvement with the church, then you probably have not been that involved. At a time when people struggled with living their faith individually and together, when the church was rent apart by conflicting allegiances and hypocrisy, Bonhoeffer stepped forward to train young pastors to serve Christ’s church.

Here are 5 must-read statements on the Church by Bonhoeffer from Life Together. I hope you find them as challenging and encouraging as I have over the years:

  • “Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves. By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world.” [26-27]
  • “Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.” [27]
  • “Thus the very hour of disillusionment with my brother becomes incomparably salutary, because it so thoroughly teaches me that neither of us can live by our own words and deeds, but only by that one Word and Deed which really binds us together – the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ.” [28]
  • “If we do not give thanks daily for the Christian fellowship in which we have been placed, even where there is not great experience, not discoverable riches, but much weakness, small faith, and difficulty; if on the contrary, we only keep complaining to God that everything is so paltry and petty, so far from what we expected, then we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow according to the measure and riches which are there for us all in Jesus Christ.” [29]
  • “A pastor should not complain about his congregation, certainly never to other people, but also not to God. A congregation has not been entrusted to him in order that he should become its accuser before God and men….Let him pray God for an understanding of his own failure and his particular sin, and pray that he may not wrong his brethren. Let him, in consciousness of his own guilt, make intercession for his brethren.” [29-30]

[These quotations are taken from John W. Doberstein’s classic translation of Life Together. A more recent translation with thorough annotations and a helpful introduction is found in Volume 5 of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works.]

Why I’m Not Giving Up on the Church

Leaving-the-church.jpeg

Six years ago, I wrote this article for Relevant, and in light of my recent message from Ephesians 4 and my posts earlier this week, I think it is still as relevant as ever. It begins this way, but you can read the entire article here.

In 2011 the largest denomination in the United States, the Southern Baptist Convention, announced the results of a survey showing a significant decline in baptisms and church membership. Ed Stetzer, a missioligist and researcher with Lifeway Research, commented at the time: “This is not a blip. This is a trend. And the trend is one of decline.”

In the very same year, across the Atlantic, a report on the Church of England highlighted the challenges it was facing: aging congregations, faltering clergy recruitment and waning attendance. While church leaders used words like “crisis” and “time bomb,” the report predicted the church would likely be extinct within 20 years.

More recently, the Pew Research Center released a study on the state of religion in the United States entitled “‘Nones’ on the Rise.” The study brings into focus the increasing growth rate of those who do not identify with any religion at all. Nearly one-fifth of the U.S. adult population—and one-third of those under the age of 30—identify in this way; an increase from 15 percent just 5 years earlier.

For many people, these are signs that the church is, if not already dead, steadily moving toward the grave. And many have been calling for followers of Jesus to return to the original vision for our faith.

I have lived within the inner workings of the church for the past 15 years, and I will be one the first to agree with many who point out that the Church is full of brokenness.

When you stand on the inside of the church, you see the good, the bad and the ugly. I have been disheartened by the hypocrisy within the leadership of churches. I have experienced disillusionment when it seems like the church is more about ‘nickels and noses’ then it is about real life transformation. To be even more honest, I have seen my own failings and weaknesses as a supposed leader and wondered if this thing called church is truly real or worth it. There are times when I have wanted to give up on the church and ministry altogether.

But I’m not ready to sound the death toll for the Church. Here’s a story to tell you why.

[Read the entire article here.]

Moving Beyond Church Idealism: Bonhoeffer on the Gift of Disillusionment with the Church

Bonhoeffer

In my sermon this past weekend, “A Crash Course in Church Growth,” I paraphrased some thoughts from Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Life Together about how disillusionment in the church is a gift from God. I mentioned the need to give thanks for the gift of disillusionment with the church that God gives to us. Here are Bonhoeffer’s original words:

Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams. Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves.

By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world.He does not abandon us to those rapturous experiences and lofty moods that come over us like a dream. God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth. Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, 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 shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community the better for both. A community which cannot bear and cannot survive such a crisis, which insists upon keeping it illusion when it should be shattered, permanently loses in that moment the promise of Christian community. Sooner or later it will collapse. Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.

God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God Himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of the brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.

Because God has already laid the only foundation of our fellowship, because God has bound us together in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ, long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients. We thank God for what He has done for us. We thank God for giving us brethren who live by His call, by His forgiveness, and His promise. We do not complain of what God does not give us; we rather thank God for what He does give us daily….Even when sin and misunderstanding burden the communal life, is not the sinning brother still a brother, with whom I, too, stand under the Word of Christ? Will not his sin be a constant occasion for me to give thanks that both of us may live in the forgiving love of God in Jesus Christ? Thus the very hour of disillusionment with my brother becomes incomparably salutary, because it so thoroughly teaches me that neither of us can live by our own words and deeds, but only by that one Word and Deed which really binds us together – the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ.

[These quotations are taken from John W. Doberstein’s classic translation of Life Together (New York: Harper & Row, 1954), 26-28.  A more recent translation with thorough annotations and a helpful introduction is found in Volume 5 of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works.]