When I was in middle school my family drove from Michigan to Wyoming on a two-week camping trip. Somewhere along the way we began noticing signs for Wall Drug. I vividly remember a sign alerting us to this mystical place: “Wall Drug 500 miles.” It was a siren song enticing mini-vans crammed with families exploring the West to detour away from historic monuments into tourist hell. And so we, like so many who had gone before us, stopped at Wall Drug and got sucked into the kitsch. And the free water.
As we passed all the signs pointing us in the direction of Wall Drug, do you know what we never did? Stopped the car, ran up to the sign, and said, “We’ve arrived! Yes! We are there!” We took a lot of pictures in front of signs on that trip, but we never did that. We never confused the sign for the destination.
As Christians, the destination for us is the kingdom of God. The place where the rule of God has brought about the shalom of God. The place where reconciliation has found its completed purpose, and where harmony exists in creation. The kingdom of God is the place where the dwelling of God is with us, and us with God in a wholly new way. The church, as much as it is the body of Christ in the world, isn’t the kingdom. It is a sign, constantly pointing beyond itself. Over and over again the church says, “It isn’t here. This isn’t the destination. It’s that way.” But I wonder if we’ve confused the sign for the destination.
Every church I know is struggling to figure out what it means to be the church and how to be the church. Truth is, church is hard. There are a plethora of explanations for this, but the most common and most simplistic explanation passed around goes something like, “There are no perfect churches because there are no perfect people.” I get that. Put messy, broken people into a room and things are bound to get messy and, well, broken. On top of that, the church consists of a ragtag group of people that wouldn’t otherwise gather in a room anywhere. Considering the preferential diversity in any given church, it is no wonder they call it worship wars. Put two people in a car and an argument about who controls the radio is bound to break out. Put a couple hundred in the room and ask them to sing the same song in the same style and it is bound to go DEFCON 1.
Yes, sinful people make church hard. But let’s be honest. Part of the reason that churches divide and form new denominations or coalitions is because the Bible isn’t super clear about how to do church. We may say the Bible is clear, but the truth is, it isn’t. When people tell me the Bible is clear, I have to work really hard to not to make this face:
When it comes to how the church is to function, or how the church is supposed to worship, or how the church is to conduct its business the Bible doesn’t provide clear instructions. Sure, the Bible is relatively clear on some things: Eucharist, baptism, elders, deacons, and meeting together. But even within those essentials there is a lot of debate. There are all kinds of different understandings of the Eucharist. There is infant baptism and believer baptism. There are differing ideas on the roles of elder and deacon and who can serve in them. I mean, we can say that the Bible is clear, but saying it doesn’t make it so. If it were clear, the church universal would have a lot more consensus on these issues. As it stands, consensus in church is harder to find than someone who has actually lost a needle in a haystack.
This lack of consensus, and the messiness and conflict arising from people’s moral proclamations about those who hold differing opinions, is what turns so many people off to church. When it comes to the church, we expect something different from people. We expect people to care about things that matter. We expect people to get along and be unified around Jesus and the gospel. We expect grace. Lots of grace. In essence, we expect the church to look like the Kingdom of God we read about in the Bible. But when the church looks like cliquey social club rather than the Kingdom of God, we throw our hands up in frustration and say, “Jesus, yes. Church, no.”
The mistake is confusing the church with the kingdom of God. The church is not the kingdom of God. It belongs to and is a part of the kingdom, but it is not the kingdom. Lesslie Newbigin said, ‘The church lives in the midst of history as a sign, instrument and foretaste of the reign of God.”
I believe that even in its messiness the church is pointing beyond itself. Now, I understand that when people are fighting over the color of the carpet or the type of food served during the fellowship hour, ain’t no one saying, “Now, this is church!” No, what we say is, “There has to be something more.” And there is. It’s the kingdom. Inside the walls of the church people politick and placate and police in a manner that cloud the real purpose of the church. So we fight through the fog and work for reconciliation. We do the hard work of justice. We submit to one another. These are the signs pointing to the kingdom. We don’t walk away when it gets hard but we dig in, we refuse to stop loving one another as we engage our differences. When the church does the work of breaking bread with those who we have been reconciled to, we point to the kingdom.
I believe in the church, but I do not believe it is the destination. I believe that God uniquely and ineffably is with the church, but I do not believe the church is the kingdom of God. I wonder if we thought of the church rightly and didn’t expect it to be something that it isn’t if our disappointment would be less? I wonder if we shouldn’t stick with it more? I wonder if we wouldn’t be more gracious with the church and those in it?
Being gracious with each other. That’s another sign.