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A Short On-Ramp: A Pastor's Appreciation of Church

On the drive from Saint John to Fredericton you come to a point where Highway 7, which passes over the Trans-Canada Highway, loops down to join the bigger highway for the rest of the journey. Its shape is fairly standard—it’s what is known as a partial cloverleaf interchange, or parclo—but one aspect of this piece of road has always made me shake my head: it’s ridiculously long. The loop goes through a piece of woods that seems to last forever. I measured it once and it was about a kilometer and a half in length. That’s a long on-ramp.

Over the past six months, our family has entered into life in a new church, an experience we’ve had on two previous occasions with me in the role of pastor (the kids weren’t around yet for the first of those). It’s been a good six months. And it’s confirmed something that I experienced in those other contexts too: pastoral ministry often offers a short on-ramp into the life of a church.

What I mean by this is that the relational nature of being a pastor—let’s imagine that it occupies a space somewhere between being a spiritual friend and a newly discovered cousin—results in the gift of being treated like an “insider” quite quickly. Numerous people are ready to talk to you about their hopes or concerns. I wouldn’t fool myself into thinking that I know people well without the years of investment that can take, but people do extend privileges of self-revelation that are usually reserved for closer friends. I am a people person, someone who finds the mystery of each human being to be a deeply fascinating and even wonderful thing, so I don’t take lightly the gift of this kind of welcome.

Someone who is cynical about church might think that this short on-ramp is either an invitation to a false vision of the church (people will only reveal their best sides) or an exposure of the church as the troubled institution that its worst critics claim it is. It’s certainly true that church people want to put their best foot forward (who doesn’t?), but I’ve also found that people don’t hide their shortcomings very well, whether or not they try to. Yet after almost twenty years in formal leadership roles in churches, I have found this short on-ramp to be the gift I most appreciate about my vocation.

As a pastor I am welcomed into situations that show me people at their most celebratory, their most vulnerable, and their most honest. In that position, you become aware of quiet gifts that tend to go unnoticed, a sincere faith and desire to please God that hums beneath the surface of public church life, alongside hurts that people carry with them, fears they struggle to overcome, and anger that threatens to turn into bitterness. This amalgam of good and bad in the lives of the faithful has tended to humanize the effects of the gospel, through the moments that are its best demonstrations as well as through the heartbreaks and disappointments that are the constant reminders of our need for a good word from God.

Of course, many people who become involved in church life don’t get to take advantage of the short on-ramp that pastors do. Some people have enough connections when they show up that they experience the church as an open door, but that’s the exception. It’s common for most people to spend a lot of time on that long on-ramp surrounded by New Brunswick woods, unable to see the true life of the church very quickly, if they ever do. As a result, surface impressions or the biggest problems are all they come to see.

The Christian church’s failures are well-known and increasingly well-documented. We have failed in the distant reaches of history and in the recent past. Every church could (if it is being honest) say the same thing about its own record. We have learned all too well the truth that beneath the surface of Sunday morning church life or the public face shown on a website there are often problems that are more troubling than you think. But as a pastor who has taken that short on-ramp into the lives of three churches, I also want to say that beneath the surface there are lives that are more glorious than you would imagine. Sometimes even the most heartbreaking divisions—in churches or between individuals—have come from people whose motives were born of a sincere desire to serve God well and who never intended the hurts that came from them. The ability many people have to understand one another and to be willing to forgive is a work of God’s Spirit in his church, and sometimes only fear or awkwardness keeps people from healing the divides. I have often thought that if only church members knew what other church members were carrying inside them, they might be surprised and more willing to let God’s grace and mercy flow through them.

The habit of taking an honest look at the church and offering rich thanksgiving for God’s work in the (flawed) church has been with us from the very beginning. There could be no more messed up church than the church in the ancient Greek city of Corinth, addressed in Paul’s two letters to the Corinthians. And yet Paul, well aware of their troubles, said they were “the church of God…sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people.” No church is perfect, and some churches have more scars than others. But the church is the temple, or dwelling place, of the Holy Spirit (again, a phrase that originates in a letter to the Corinthians). It is a special creation of God, always in need of God’s grace and mercy but chosen by him to be a sign of what God is doing among broken people.

I suspect I will always be grateful to have been given access to a short on-ramp into the heart of church life in each of the places I’ve found myself. The church, like all human communities, is going to be a bit of a mess until the time of the new creation of all things in the day of Christ, but it remains a lovely and graced mess even now, a community where human lives meet the love of God and commit to learn love with one another.

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