One of the reasons I like watching the “reality shows” on VH1 and MTV is that compared to the people on those shows, my life seems pretty squared away. It’s too bad that there aren’t any shows like that about churches so I could watch and compare the “reality church” to my own congregation.
Actually there is a place observe struggling churches that don’t have it all together. It’s the New Testament. This history book of the early church shows things the way they really were, complete with greedy people, religious crazies, hurt feelings and racial prejudices—and these are the good guys! It’s one of the reasons I love the scripture so much: It casts a cold hard stare on its subjects.
For example, take the church in Corinth. There are plenty of Biblical resources available if you’re interested in a real reality show. The church in Corinth was a crazy mix of spirituality, worldliness, excess and beauty. In others words a church very much like the most churches in North America today.
The church in Corinth started off with a bang, God himself spoke to the apostle Paul in a vision: “Don’t be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city” (Acts 18: 9-10, TNIV).
So “Apostle Paul” unpacked his suitcase and became “Pastor Paul” for a year and a half. Can you imagine have Paul of Tarsus, the towering colossus of Christianity as a pastor? This church must have been smokin’, right? Well, not exactly.
Paul invests 18 months of his life in these people and then ships off to continue planting churches. A year and a half of the very best in ministry, miracles and teaching; but after he leaves, Paul gets a note from the folks who meet at Chloe’s house. “Uh, Paul, there are few problems here we’d like to ask you about.”
A few problems? Let’s make a partial list:
• Believers in Corinth were “choosing sides” concerning who was the best spiritual leader: some said Paul, some Peter, some Apollos and the really spiritual people said, “I only follow Jesus!”
• A regular attendee of the church was sleeping with his father’s wife (yikes!) but no one was doing anything about it.
• Church members were racing each other to courts of law because they couldn’t play nice together in the church.
• There were major arguments over who should eat what of food and why.
• People were getting drunk at communion (no, really: I Corinthians 11: 20-21).
• And we haven’t even touched on problems like worship services that were off the hook with spiritual gifts (and spiritual pride), arguments about dating and messed-up views of the resurrection!
I don’t know about where you go to church, but even the worst church in my town doesn’t come close to this list. If I want to gawk at a bunch of messed-up believers, I don’t even have to leave home. I can just open up my Bible.
Naturally Paul wouldn’t have anything good to say to these guys, would he? Hmmm . . .
I always thank God for you ..
You have been enriched in every way …
You do not lack any spiritual gift …
He will keep you strong until the end …
And these words are just from the greeting. Maybe Paul was just “being nice,” or diplomatic—except this is Paul writing Holy Scripture, and I don’t think he told polite white lies.
What lessons can we learn from a terrible church?
For one, Paul didn’t give up on them. There was a lively correspondence that lasted for years, and Paul was committed to them the rest of his life.
Second, even though they questioned Paul’s position and authority, Paul responded with a passion that reflected his true fatherhood. “You really are my children,” he said. Even though they were unfaithful to him, he remained faithful to them.
Next, Paul continued to teach patiently. Even the greatest church-planter in history had things to fix. If a guy like Paul can produce a church like Corinth, perhaps we should cut some slack towards pastors who don’t rise to the level of super apostle.
Finally, and this is the most challenging to me, Paul let them continue to operate even though they were making mistakes. If I had started a church that later went nuts with spiritual gifts, I think I would have been tempted to write to them: “Everybody stop! You’re doing it wrong! Just cut it out until I get there, then we’ll talk about it.” But Paul said, “Tongues are good, prophecy is good and don’t forbid them.” Even though they were doing it wrong! The answer to the misuse of spiritual gifts isn’t to shut them down; it is to teach them up.
The church in Corinth is reality TV written down for us in the Bible, and if they can go down in history (and scripture) as a that church God loves, that God speaks to and God nurtures, why can’t our church be the same?