#2 — Thankful for Spiritual Community

To dwell above with saints we love,
now that will be grace and glory.

To dwell below, with saints we know,
well that's another story!

We are over-familiar with choice. We are burdened by it, confused with it, over-spenders because of it, and drowning in it... all while being addicted to it. We want choice. We like choice. We demand choice. We feel we even have a right to choice.

Unfortunately, I fear we approach church much like we do the latest fad or our latest window-shopping on Amazon. We Google the somewhat generic idea of the thing in which we have interest and up pops our right to have our choice: About 273,000 results (0.30 seconds) my Google screen told me on a recent search.

We get tired of what's happening — the church show doesn't please us or someone irritates us or the songs are not our songs or we're just bored with the surroundings — and we Google our options and move down the road or across town because we have a choice.

I still remember in the late 90's doing a bit of research on divorce and I discovered two amazing things:

  • Most folks who divorced had far more things right with their marriages than they did wrong, but they felt compelled to make that change anyway because they had become so focused on what was wrong.
  • Nearly 80% of people who got a divorce were more unhappy a year after the divorce than they were a year before they got it — the time of their greatest misery in their marriage.

Now I'm not minimizing anyone's agony that led to his or her making a decision to get a divorce. However, I do want us to see something important here. We get an idealized view in our mind of what we want. Soon all the other good things get ignored, forgotten, or simply go unnoticed. Before long, we are miserable with the things that we don't like because that is all we can see. We feel a desperate need to get away from it all. So we finally muster the gumption to do it.

This happens in churches as much as anywhere else. The often-quoted church poem at the beginning of this post is one way to speak to this issue. A much more serious and sobering way to speak to it comes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, someone who gave his life for his Christian faith and community at the end of World War II. In his powerfully moving book, Life Together, Bonhoeffer speaks about the importance of Christian community. The following words have stuck in my heart for nearly four decades since I first read them:

He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.

Let's acknowledge that every church has problems. A church is not a building, it is a gathering of flawed, broken, and sometimes-difficult people. We know this because we see one of those flawed, broken, and sometimes-difficult people every morning when we get up and look in the mirror. We can get to a point where if church isn't what we think it should be, we leave — sometimes we leave the congregation to find another one, and sometimes we dump the whole idea of a congregation to do faith solo, and sometimes we can just quit doing faith at all. After all, we have choice!

I don't want to discount the agony that some have to go through a change of congregations any more than I want to discount the agony of those choosing divorce. But again, I want to make an important point here: Part of our dissatisfaction with everything in a world of choice and abundance is that we forget to give thanks for what we do have.

In working with churches, I have been repeatedly amazed at the incredibly good things that are going on in the name of Jesus. This is true even in declining churches or plateaued churches where you might never expect anything significant is happening. Yet prayer after prayer you hear in those churches are about lack, need, illness, death, separation, hardship, and need for rescue. I do not doubt that all of those are real, but what has happened to our focus on praise and commitment to give thanksgiving?

Praise is a focus on who God is and what he has done to give us life through the story of Scripture and the gift of Jesus?

Thanksgiving is a focus on what God has done to bless us — not just material blessings, but the deeper, abiding, eternal blessings involved with love, a loving community, and an assurance that death can't take away these eternal blessings.

Without these two very vital spiritual lifelines, morale dries up and we lose our sense of being people in whom God is at work doing something that matters eternally.

Part of our dissatisfaction with everything in a world of choice and abundance is that we forget to give thanks for what we do have.
Last week, I emphasized the importance of always praying with thanksgiving. This emphasis wasn't mine, but the apostle Paul's command. We would do well to heed this command in regard to our congregations. Lost in our PowerPoint announcement loops is something a lot more important than the next "crucial" event. (I fear we confine celebrating what God is doing among us to the sidebars of our bulletins, the video loops at the beginning and ending of service, and the margins of our self-promotion to visitors.) Forgotten is the powerful focus on God's work among us.

Notice two passages from Paul's ministry and try to remember a time when you personally, or your congregation actually did this. On coming back from his mission efforts, Paul and his partners...

[R]eported all that God had done through them and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles (Acts 14:27).

[R]eported in detail what God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry (Acts 21:19).

Paul was clear that he believed that the Father was at work in the lives of his people:

[F]or it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose (Philippians 2:13).

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).

Paul's reports were not some shallow self-promotion to impress visitors to use their choice and come to that church. Instead, Paul had the deep conviction that God was at work doing something that mattered eternally to bring the Kingdom of God to the lives of people who didn't know the Father's grace. This "God work" needed to be reported and celebrated with thanksgiving.

So I want to challenge us — us as individuals, us as small groups, us as Bible classes, us as congregations — to commit as much time to celebrating what God is doing among us as we do asking God to help us with our needs. Let's balance our petitions and intercessions with praise and thanksgiving! Let's celebrate God's wins in and through the life of our spiritual family — whether you call it a church, a congregation, a missional community, a small group, or whatever. Let's help each other remember that God is at work doing some eternally significant things through folks like us. Then we can be amazed, thankful, and appreciative that he has chosen to partner with us.

I am as convicted by our lack of these kinds of celebrations of thankfulness and praise as I am convinced that it would help us balance out the negativity that we so easily feel about our stuff, our groups, our congregations, and ourselves.

So let's use this Thanksgiving season to be our season to commit to celebrating God's wins through us, in us, and for us. Let's balance our intercession and petition in prayer with praise for God and thank him for all that he has done for us. Otherwise, we will find ourselves loving our ideal for Christian community more than we love the people Jesus died to save and the Holy Spirit is transforming into servants of grace who bring God's kingdom to those who need it most.