In his book A Fellowship of Differents, Scot McKnight, professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary, unpacks the unfortunate process of folks who idealize Christian community, refusing to make space for the messiness that comes with human relationships. He writes about a common pattern, or process, that we often see when their idealism crashes into the realities of life in the church:
- They read the NT carefully.
- They discover the glories of what the church could, or should, be.
- They start all over again with a vision of the church.
- They experience problems achieving the vision.
- They get discouraged.
- They withdraw from church.
- They start another church with a new-and-improved vision.
- They soon find fewer and fewer like-minded souls.
- They do church at home alone.
The idealism of the church will inevitably lead us to isolation if we do not learn how to deal with our disillusionment with the church. The church is a messy place, but it is a place where we walk together in the grace and truth of God in Christ.
If we are looking for the ideal church, it’s important to remember that it ceases to be ideal the moment we walk into it.
This past weekend at Eastbrook Church I concluded our series “Unshackled: Joy Beyond Circumstances” on the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians. I took us through the last section of the letter, Philippians 4:4-23, where Paul draws together some final exhortations and personal reflections. This section has some of the most well-known verses in the entire letter, which makes it both a delight and a challenge to preach in its context.
You can view the video and sermon outline of this message, “Multiplied Joy,” below. You can also follow the entire series at our web-site, through the Eastbrook app, or through our audio podcast.
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Given my recent sermon, “Connecting Together,” on what it means to be the church, I wanted to share again some thoughts from one of my favorite thinkers on the church, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His book Life Together is, in my opinion, the best book written on the nature of true community in the church. Here are 5 must-read statements on the Church from Bonhoeffer:
- “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.” 
- “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.” 
- “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.” 
- “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.]