Unrealistic Expectations
of the
Body of Christ


                              

 

by Clay Sterrett

 When Bill and Betty Foster first came to Community Church they had high expectations. Being dissatisfied in the last two churches, things seemed different in this lively church. The people were warm, the pastor spoke powerful and pertinent messages, and the exuberant singing left them feeling uplifted in spirit.

It is now three months later and Bill and Betty are having second thoughts about their choice. Few people seem to express warmth and excitement to them now. On two recent Sundays, no one has even spoken to the Fosters after the service. The pastor, a man they have grown to appreciate as being sincere and "doing the best he can," just does not seem to hit the mark in his preaching anymore. In the past month the Fosters are also sensing a change in the worship. The meetings have seemed too "ordinary"; the singing is somewhat subdued and Betty just has not "felt the presence of God."

The Fosters now have growing concerns about the "problems" of the church and once again are considering visiting other churches. What has happened?

Unrealistic Expectations

Like the Fosters, people can bring with them expectations that a church may not be able to meet. In a marriage, unrealistic expectations can pave the way for trouble. For instance, a husband may expect his wife to be a meticulous housekeeper, a sensitive mate, a romantic lover, a creative breadwinner, a patient mother, and in addition have all the attributes of the Proverbs 31 woman! We can be sure this husband will become somewhat disillusioned and disappointed over "his perfect mate." If he gradually develops realistic expectations and accepts and appreciates his wife despite her "deficiencies," the marriage will be much better off.

In a local church, the wrong expectations will similarly bring disappointment and disapproval. Some believers have difficulty settling into a particular church. On the one hand, some may have legitimate concerns about spiritual deficiencies and be an instrument of God in bringing instruction and admonition into the situation. There may be times where one must even leave a congregation in good conscience because extreme spiritual compromise is not dealt with. On the other hand, some will only have a self-centered perspective toward a church, with no motivation to encourage or assist other believers. Such people fall into a state of continual spiritual agitation, upset over the way they have been "neglected" or "mistreated." Convinced these conditions will never change, they move from church to church, never content in a group that has weaknesses or deficiencies.

 

All Things to All Men?

The body of Christ cannot help everyone; it cannot become "all things to all men." If we look at a person's natural body our attention is usually drawn to the head. The same focus of attention should be true of the spiritual body. Our main purpose as the body of Christ should be to draw attention to the Lord Jesus Himself. People do need flesh-and-blood involvement and reassurance; however, many who come to our churches will become disappointed or disgruntled because they are not coming primarily to seek the Lord Himself and his plan for their lives. Deitrich Bonhoeffer explains:
 

Many people seek fellowship because they are afraid to be alone. Because they cannot stand loneliness, they are driven to seek the company of other people. There are Christians, too, who cannot endure being alone, who have had some bad experiences with themselves, who hope they will gain some help in association with others. They are generally disappointed. Then they blame the fellowship for what is really their own fault. The Christian community is not a spiritual sanatorium.
 

While it is true that a church is a place where personal needs are often met, the complete peace that our souls long for will never be found merely in the fellowship of God's people; true peace can be discovered only in God himself: Find rest, 0 my soul, in God alone; My hope comes from him. He alone is my rock and my salvation; He is my fortress, I will not be shaken.

Our churches are pervaded with common complaints. Most of these members' complaints have to do with the lack of attention that is shown them. Some members will complain because no one ever visits them or invites them into their home. Others will feel ignored and left out of the "in group." Some members will become upset because the pastor seldom or never visits their home. R. J. Rushdoony reproves this kind of thinking:
 

No one is called to be a passive Christian, to be courted, waited upon, or soothed by the pastor and church. Passive Christianity is a contradiction in terms. . .

The church is Christ's army. Its purpose is not to provide breakfast in bed for all members, and a social lift for the unsocial, but a faith for life, preparation for battle against the powers of darkness, and a strategy of life for victory. The ineffectiveness of the modern church is partially due to this passivity.
 

The early Christians did not draw undue attention to themselves or try to meet everyone's need. Peter once asked, "Why do you look upon us ... ?" When dealing with the practical need of widows, Paul did not encourage unqualified support for all widows; rather he suggested several practical stipulations - e.g. the widow must be over 60 years in age, faithful to her husband, a doer of good deeds, and without supporting relatives. At times, we must have a realistic, God-focused attitude toward the unlimited problems some people seem to have: If the Lord does not help you, from where shall I help you?

The early Christians were not absorbed in plans and programs to keep everyone happy and interested. These Christians were absorbed with the King, Jesus Christ, and the kingdom that He was establishing in the hearts of men.

We Are Growing Into the Lord's Body

The body of Christ is not as mature as it should be; we are continually growing into a holy temple in the Lord. As we learn to function as a body we grow. . . in love, as each part does its work. The sooner we realize this, the less likely we will be disappointed when Christians do not act as we expect them to.

The church portrayed in the New Testament was certainly not a perfect, mature church; and neither is the church today. In writing to seven first-century churches, the apostle John exhorts five of them to repent concerning certain compromises and failures. The Galatian believers had slipped into doctrinal error and legalism. The Corinthian Christians were divisive, allowing immorality, and even getting drunk at the Lord's Table! The Thessalonian believers were allowing wrong ideas about the Lord's second coming to cause them to quit working and become idle. These churches were far from perfect.

The New Testament church apparently did not always walk in love or care for people as it should. As a result, the biblical authors repeatedly encouraged their readers to love one another. Paul once wrote to the Philippians concerning Timothy, "I have no one else like him, who takes a genuine interest in your welfare. For everyone looks out for his own interests, not those of Jesus Christ." Out of all the Christian disciples and workers in the city of Rome, Paul only knew of one other man, Timothy, who was genuinely concerned about this Philippian church. Another time Paul revealed another shortcoming among his brethren: "At my first defense, no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me." Though no one in the body of Christ was willing to stand with Paul, we must say that Paul had the right spirit - his hope was in God, not in his brethren. The passage continues: "But the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength. . ."

Yes, Christians are often lacking in many regards. This is why we must never paint too rosy a picture for people who are inquisitive about our churches. I have often told visitors to our church that we are simply an unusual assortment of people whom the Lord is in the process of changing! We have not arrived; we are being transformed into his likeness. . . The good news is that God is not bound by our limitations; He works despite our deficiencies.

When Paul writes of the bride of Christ, he describes a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle. This does not mean, however, that we should expect to see a perfected church on the earth in our day. The "glorious church" is not just an especially mature segment of the universal church living in the 20th century; rather it will incorporate the redeemed of all the ages!

 

Committed to Imperfect People

Someone once defined a marriage as "two imperfect people who are committed to grow together in love." The same is true of the church. In the Early Church we see a group that was devoted to the apostles' teaching, and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer. These believers knew that God had placed them in a particular body, with all the good and all the bad. Fenelon, a 17th century saint, stated it well:
 

It should be remembered that even the best of people leave much to be desired, and we must not expect too much . . . Do not allow yourself to turn away from people because of their imperfections . . . I have found that God leaves, even in the most spiritual people, certain weaknesses which seem to be entirely out of place.
 

One chief reason we fail in our commitment is because we realize how imperfect our brethren are. We may be too proud to give our lives away to people who are not perfect. So, like Judas, we make only a partial commitment to the body of believers to which we belong, and in our hearts we are aloof. If this is the case, we will usually be the first to criticize those who fall beneath our standards. Stuart Briscoe speaks of this:
 

Perfection is what people expect of you and that's tough. Generally, they don't expect it of themselves; they expect it of other people. It's an unrealistic expectation.

To be committed to a body of believers is risky; it can result in personal hurts and misunderstandings. The body, however, is something we all need - even with its apparent weaknesses. I have realized that some members of our church who seem the weakest often contribute in the most beneficial ways.
 

The Church and the Media

One way we develop unrealistic expectations is through Christian media - especially interviews on TV or in magazines with pastors who have large, "successful" churches. There almost seems to be a mania today about "church growth" and "success" which often makes the pastor who is faithfully attending his 50 or 100 sheep feel that he is "missing out" on something.

I once read a report from a group of churches which summarized all that had occurred during the previous year. As I read these several pages describing impressive church growth, explosive evangelism, creative care groups, and dynamic worship, I felt somewhat like a "spiritual wimp." It made me wonder if those churches ever had any problems or "steady seasons" in which there was little growth or little excitement. We should certainly give glory to God for anything He accomplishes in our churches, but in our manner of communication we should also be realistic and not paint exaggerated pictures.

 

Proper Concepts About the Church

To keep our people from disappointment and disillusion-ment, we need to focus on the true nature of the local church. Three concepts should be emphasized:

1. The church is a home, not a grocery store.

Someone has said, "The church is not a grocery store where the elders keep shelves full to keep the people happy." In a grocery store we select what we want; in a home we take the good with the bad. Ern Baxter comments:
 

The subnormal understanding of the nature of church has in many instances caused it to deteriorate into a kind of religious social club where many people feel a freedom to come and go as they please. This practice is not entirely valid because, when widespread, it turns the church of God into little more than a lecture hall where people come, in essence, to hear ideas preached.
 

God wants the local church to be like a home. In a loving family, the members do not just attend meetings together. They need to work out problems and sometimes even face "painful confrontations." In our families when something happens that we do not like and "our feathers get ruffled," we do not just pack our bags and move to another family.

The church is a family, and all believers are part of a royal priesthood. Sometimes a pastor is reluctant to share in ministry with others (especially counseling and Sunday morning preach-ing), thereby keeping the focus of the membership solely upon himself. Members may be discouraged from looking to anyone else for spiritual help. The focus is on the pastor; if anything good happens in the church, it is credited to him. Likewise, if anything bad happens, it is also credited to him. This is an unhealthy situation. Robert Girard describes the problem:
 

There is thoroughly entrenched in our church life, an unbiblical two-caste system. In this two-caste system there is a clergy caste which is trained, called, paid, and expected to do the ministering. And there is a laity-caste which normally functions as the audience which appreciatively pays for the performance of the clergy - or bitterly criticizes the gaping holes in that performance (and there are always gaping holes).

No one expects much of the lower or laity caste (except "tendance, tithe, and testimony"). And everyone expects too much of the upper or clergy caste (including the clergy themselves!).
 

In the Lord's church, the people of God must realize we have a role to play, something to contribute. We do not just look for others to serve us and criticize them when they fail to meet the need. John Wimber illustrates:
 

After a meeting some years ago, a young man approached me and asked to talk. He was visibly upset with me. He said, "I've tried without success to contact you for two weeks. I've tried to get help from the church for this guy that I found sitting on the side of the road two weeks ago. He was wet, cold, hungry. I fed him, clothed him, and took him in for the night. I thought the church could take over the next day. But when I called, the staff said they couldn't take him in! I've been caring for him for two weeks. You say you believe the church should care for the poor, but you wouldn't take this man. Why isn't the church caring for this man?"

My response was simple: "The church is caring for this man."

He stared at me for a moment and said, "Ah, but I wanted you to do it."

"Yes, but Jesus wanted you to do it. And you did."

We are living in a society that feels entitled to the best of everything. We hear it all the time:

"You deserve a break today..."

"The government ought to be doing more..."

"Buy now, pay later..."

"I'm looking for the church which can meet my needs..."
 

Bill Hull, in his book, Building High Commitment in a Low-Commitment World, speaks out about the entitlement mentality that has crept into the church:
 

The Entitlement Mentality. In the church this same spirit manifests itself in the great evangelical adventure, "looking for the church God has for us" or "shopping for a church." I am all for people prayerfully attempting to locate the best church for them. However, I believe the decision should be a bit different from choosing your entrée at a cafeteria. When I was a pastor, I was frequently asked, "What will your church do for me?" "How do you plan to keep my son safe from evil?" "Will we feel good here?" "Is there spiritual warmth?"

My Kids Deserve the Best. How many families have decided whether or not to attend a church solely on the existence of a youth program that will meet the needs of their children? Many a frustrated small church pastor has lost good people who like everything about his church and could make a valuable contribution. Yet they choose a larger church with a full-time youth minister or exciting appendage. The question that freezes most pastors in their tracks is, "Shouldn't my kids come first? I only have them for a short time, and in days like these, they need every help we can get to keep them with the Lord."

I would answer no! My kids don't come first; my family does. The most important factor in a child's spiritual development is the parents' spiritual development. Peer relationships are important and so are alternative social and recreational opportunities to counteract the secular options. But it is absolutely foolish for parents to sacrifice their opportunity and challenge to grow just for a youth program that appears to be better.

The "best" may mean pioneering a youth work. Churches across America desperately need a family or two to say, "We will take on the task of starting a healthy youth work." This actually has much more potential to build teens' Christian character than the majority of self-serving, fun-oriented youth works.

In many cases church choice means simply doing what the kids want. That is no way to run a family, make decisions, or train children. Looking for the full-service youth program that appears to be the most fun is part of the entitlement mentality that has thoroughly saturated our evangelical church culture. It is quite rare to find a family or person who approaches the church asking, "How can I serve? What can I do to help?"

2. The church is the dwelling of God, not an entertainment center.

A. W. Tozer stated, "It is scarcely possible in most places to get anyone to attend a meeting where the only attraction is God."

We make a dreadful mistake if, in order to keep members, we need to provide a certain measure of entertainment. With the right combination of seminars, retreats, movies, outside speakers, and contemporary singing groups, most churches could probably expect an increase in membership, possibly even doubling in size. The question should not be, "Do we have a full program?" Rather, we should ask, "Are we the "dwelling of God?" The Lord's assembly of believers is not just a beehive of activity; it is a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. His primary calling to us is not to serve our own needs or even to serve the needs of others. His call is for us to be a people for God's own possession. Some churches, warns Charles Colson, are in danger of becoming nothing more than "places where people go for their one-hour a week inspirational fix."

In our church we limit the number of outside speakers, seminars and movies because we want to discourage people from thinking of Christianity as a spectator sport. We also want to avoid contributing to the busyness that is already a problem with many people.

Seminars and conventions can be helpful or a hindrance. If overdone, they can distract from our primary calling and relationship to God. Os Guinness recently pointed out that a generation characterized by "convictions" is usually followed by one of "conventions." Stuart Briscoe adds his concern about the multitude of seminars that are readily available to us:
 

Perhaps I am overly critical, but I suspect that the Church may be catering to people's reluctance to do things by putting on innumerable seminars and training sessions to teach them how to do them. By the time the people have attended all the seminars, they can legitimately say that they don't have the time to do anything about the things they learned in the seminar. And by the time they have explained that point, it's time to go to the next seminar!
 

3. The church is the army of God; it is not a sympathy club.
 

One of the functions of the Holy Spirit is to bring comfort. Indeed, our churches should be places of refuge where the hurting and wounded can come, to feel accepted, and to receive the healing they need. The Greek idea of "comfort," however, goes beyond just mere sympathy or consolation. It means to encourage, to make strong, and to fortify. In his study of New Testament words, William Barclay points out that the function of the Holy Spirit is to fill a man with the spirit of power and courage which would make him able to triumphantly cope with life. He says the Greek word, parakalein, was used for "exhorting troops who are about to go into battle. . . it is the word of the rallying-call to urge fearful and timorous and hesitant soldiers into battle . . . to make a very ordinary man cope gallantly with a perilous and dangerous situation." John Miller, in Outgrowing the Ingrown Church, says:

The local church was intended by Jesus to be a gathering of people full of faith, strong in their confidence in Him - not a gathering of religious folk who desperately need reassurance.
 

Mario Murillo also expresses his concern:
 

I have watched with dismay as entire congregations reduce the purpose of Christian living into getting over past hurts. If this becomes a life-long pursuit, we are in for disaster! We will never field an army or mount an attack. We will hand over an entire generation to the devil by default. Yes, we need to take time for the wounded among us to be healed, but their recovery must be our intention and battle preparedness must be our goal.
 

I have known people who have left a particular church because they did not feel loved or because they felt that proper attention was not given them. Sometimes God has used people's feelings to point out deficiencies in our churches. But while we are called to encourage everyone and especially to help the weak in the faith, we are not called to be spiritual baby-sitters. When my two sons were little, I would hold their hands when we walked together, especially when crossing dangerous intersections. When they grew up to be teenagers, I no longer held their hands; they could walk on their own, and I expected them to take responsibility for crossing the street safely.

The church is a place where God wants to conform us into his image. It is not a place to continue our selfish pursuit of life. The church is to equip us for service. It is like a "spiritual boot camp," preparing us for warfare, to endure hardship . . . like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. Jean Vanier comments:
 

Christian communities . . . are not hiding places for the emotions, offering spiritual drugs to stave off the sadness of everyday life. They are not places where people can go to salve their consciences and retreat from reality into a world of dreams. They are places of resource, which are there to help people grow towards freedom, so that they can love as Jesus loves them. "There is no greater love than to give one's life for one's friends."
 

In closing, let us keep in mind that the Lord is much more interested in His body than we are. He is "the Head" and His plans for the church from eternity are much higher than any of us can fathom. Even though we are quick to see individual inconsistencies and weaknesses, the church as a body is the very best our Lord does for us:
 

What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it?
 

All beautiful are you, my darling; there is no flaw in you . . . my bride. . .
 

Perhaps if Bill and Betty Foster had developed realistic expectations of the local church, they would not have become so disappointed and disgruntled by the imperfections that they encountered. What we expect of God's people can make a big difference in our involvement, especially if we realize that the Church - the Body of Christ - belongs to God.

 

NOTES

  1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together , translated by John Doberstein (Harper and Row Publishers, New York, NY, © 1965)
  2. Ps. 62:5-6
  3. R. J. Rushdoony, Chalcedon Report, May 1981 (P.O. Box 158, Vallecito, CA)
  4. Acts 3:12
  5. I Tim. 5:4-10
  6. II Kings 6:27
  7. Eph. 2:20
  8. Eph. 4:16
  9. Rev. 2-3
  10. Gal.1:6; 3:1-5
  11. I Cor. 1:10; 5:1; 11:21
  12. II Thes 2:1-12; 3:6-15
  13. I Pet. 1:22; I John 3:23
  14. Phil. 2:20-21
  15. II Tim. 4:16
  16. II Tim. 4:17
  17. II Cor. 4:18
  18. Eph. 5:27
  19. Acts 2:42
  20. Fenelon, Let Go (Whitaker House, Springdale, PA, © 1973) p.43,50
  21. Stuart Briscoe, Purifying the Church (Regal Books, Ventura, CA, © 1987) p.106
  22. I Cor. 12:21-25
  23. W. J. Ern Baxter, The Chief Shepherd and His Sheep (Timothy Publishing Co., Spring Valley, CA, © 1987) p.56
  24. I Pet. 2:9 NAS
  25. Robert Girard, Brethren Hang Loose (Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI) p.123
  26. John Wimber, article in Equipping the Saints magazine (Anaheim, CA) Summer 1993 issue
  27. Bill Hull, Building High Commitment in a Low-Commitment World (Fleming Revell, Grand Rapids, MI, © 1995) p.18-19
  28. Harry Verploegh, A.W. Tozer: An Anthology (Christian Publications, Camp Hill, Pa © 1984) p.60
  29. Eph. 2:22
  30. I Pet. 2:9 NAS
  31. Charles Colson, Presenting Belief in an Age of Unbelief (Victor Books, Wheaton, IL, © 1986) p.35
  32. Stuart Briscoe, All Things Weird and Wonderful (Victor Books, Wheaton, IL, © 1977) p.47
  33. William Barclay, New Testament Words (SCM Press Ltd., London, England, © 1964) p.220-221
  34. John Miller, Outgrowing the Ingrown Church (Zondervan Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI, © 1986) p.20
  35. Mario Murillo, No More War Games (Anthony Douglas Publishing Co.) P.5
  36. Rom. 14:1
  37. Rom. 8:28-29
  38. Eph. 4:12
  39. II Tim. 2:3
  40. Jean Vanier, quoted in Ralph Neighbour, Where Do We Go From Here? (Touch Publications, Houston, TX, © 1990) p.113
  41. Is. 5:4
  42. Song of Sol. 4:7-8

Unrealistic Expectations of the Body of Christ is copyright © 1989 by Clay Sterrett, and revised in 1998. A condensed version of this booklet was published by Decision Magazine in April 1993 and by The Christian Reader in March 1994.


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Clay Sterrett
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