My heart broke as I sat across from an elderly woman who began to weep in front of me. I didn’t know her and she didn’t really know me. Her husband displayed little emotion directly next to her…as if he was internally numb. Both of them were sitting in front of me because of their deep love for the church that they attend.
Periodically, I am asked by an organization I am associated with, to enter churches and survey members of the congregations that are having deep division and conflict. I provide them with prompts for them to begin speaking, but really they set most of the agenda as they share what is on their heart. The experience is not only used to collect data and the “pulse” of the people who attend the church, but also serves as a cathartic experience for those who are hurting.
The elderly woman in front of me was sobbing as she spoke about what the church was going through. This church was experiencing division, backbiting, and disorganization. At first, her posture was one of anger and bitterness. She had complaints about surface level issues like music style, carpet color, and men not always wearing a tie. She thought, so many times, about leaving the congregation and seeking one with less issues. Over a period of about 15 minutes, though, her attitude changed as she explained the deep impact this local worship family has had over the span of her long life. She told stories that truly embody what the Church is supposed to look like. Her past highlights include service projects, care for unknown people in the community, laughter, and changed lives. She truly loved this church. She was just so heartbroken to see what it was going through.
At first, I silently judged her (just being honest) based on the fact that her initial complaints were rather trite by my standards. If I would have stopped there, I would have jumped to the incorrect conclusion that these type of attitudes were the things holding the church down. What I realized, is that these complaints were simply a symptom of a larger conflict. The woman in front of me had trouble processing the deep division and simply wanted to experience something that made her comfortable in the moment. I can’t really fault her for that.
As imperfect as we are as Christians, and as many times as we all get it wrong, I can’t help but think that there is something redemptive in this woman’s tears, and a lesson to be learned. As a pastor, it is so easy to look at everything with an intense, theologically driven eye, and use my time to criticize people’s underlying motivations. I can give a class on why we are failing as a Christian culture and how value the wrong things. This all, however does not take the sting out of the genuine pain that this woman was feeling.
More and more, I am coming to the conclusion that, the church does not need more charismatic leaders, insightful Bible studies, church growth tactics, or even upbeat music. We need to mourn more losses together, cry, stay determined, keep an open heart, and most importantly; we need unity.
This woman was crying because the community she loved was struggling. Whether she was a shining example of a perfect Christian or not is neither here nor there. She loved.
So, perhaps you are reading this today thinking, “this lady was putting too much faith in people instead of God”. Or, maybe you are ready to lash out at me in an attack on “institutional religion”. Well, you may be right on some accounts, but I surely won’t fault someone who has seen such transformation in people’s lives, and for better or for worse, connects those events to a body of caring, loving, serving, and mutually-accountable people who desperately want God’s will to be done (on Earth as it is in Heaven).
Love you all.