Sunday, July 24, 2005

Digging up bones

I was recently asked to comment about a church that allegedly had some major difficulties more than 10 years ago. In this particular case, I didn't know anything about what I was asked to speak to-- nor did I want to.

There are legitimate reasons why someone would want to know about past troubles in a church; someone considering membership, for example, may wish to know about the church they will join. And I not only admit legitimacy but encourage asking about such things in the context of candidacy and placement. A candidate-pastor must know about the church he will serve.

But how much is too much to ask? How far back must a candidate go to get the information he needs? Five years? 10? 20?

If the situation was turned around, my guess is that the answer would be quite conservative. What if someone considering membership (or, better said, being considered for membership) had to recount their own past history in order to pass muster? “Let's hear it-- all the juicy details,” I can hear them saying. Frankly, this is the more appropriate consideration-- not, “Is this church good enough for me to join?” but, “Am I good enough for membership in this church?”

[I realize that the last idea goes against the grain of our individualist culture: in the “me-first” world we Americans live in, how dare I suggest that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts?]

“But wait,” you say. “Isn't there room for growth in this sort of circumstance? What about grace?” Indeed, grace is hard at work in my life-- and (hopefully!) in the lives of believers coming before a church for membership. In fact, it is that very grace-- NOT the circumstances of their history-- that should be the basis for membership.

This came to mind recently as I learned that a church that I once worked with was soon to be without a pastor. I pondered whether I would want to serve that church as their pastor, and upon deciding that I would want to, it occurred to me that they might not give me fair consideration. Why? Because they knew me 10 years ago. They saw me fail repeatedly. They are aware of the sin and simple immaturity of my past. Would they allow for the maturity and growth God has brought about in my life?

How much allowance should we who are candidates give churches? If we-- as the individual members of a congregation-- would hope and even expect the rest of the congregation to give us grace for our past mistakes and foibles, shouldn't we (as candidate-pastors, potential members, or outsiders looking in) also give congregations grace for their past as a collective group, in hope and expectation that God has been at work to sanctify His church?

I don't know how far back to go, but I do know this: it's what lies ahead that is more important. If past problems are still causing a stir, then my concern shouldn't be with the history but with the present. On the other hand, if there is evidence that healing and reconciliation has occurred, that is cause for praise and thanksgiving.

Every church has a past that is filled with sin. Why dwell on past sins unnecessarily, if God has reconciled those sins?


Tychicus said...

If sin in the history of any and every church is a given, why is it taboo to ask about it, especially if one is considering membership/being considered for membership and subjecting himself/his family to the possible effects/consequences of that sin?

Your very last question is the one I imagine your friend was probably asking about, namely, has God reconciled those sins? Seems a reasonable question to me.

Ed said...

Good thoughts, Tychicus; I can always count on you to tell me all the news.

My point is what I said in the next-to-last paragraph, namely: if God has NOT reconciled those sins, then it is not the past quite so much as the present that should be the primary concern.

As one of my professors so aptly puts it, "Don't hear what I'm not saying!" In no way am I suggesting that history is not important, or that candidate-pastors (or others) shouldn't dilligently study it. The opening lectures of my Church History class, which began today, only affirm this important fact.

In your friend Learner's search for a church home, for example, he would be prudent to seek out some history as he becomes familiar with various churches. How a church has dealt with difficulty (or failed to do so) can be among the most telling factors for anyone seeking their place in a church community.

However, too often-- and maybe this is a better summary statement than anything I offered in my original post-- what happened in the past can so obscure the great things God is doing in the present that judgment can be biased toward the historical, to an unfair extent. Judge a church by everything about it: not only the present, to be sure, but not only the past either.

Tychicus said...

Yes, that clarifies things, I think. Your comment that "what happened in the past can so obscure the great things God is doing in the present that judgment can be biased toward the historical, to an unfair extent" is a good word. Thanks.

I will pass on to Learner your encouragement (and link) on this topic as he finds his (and his family's) place in the body. He's tied up with Greek right now (big, big exam tonight), so that conversation will have to wait. I do know he's meeting tomorrow with a pastor at a church they've been considering, so that's a step in a good direction.

Valerie (Kyriosity) said...

One friend has recommended asking, "When's the last time this church excommunicated someome?" It's not a sure-fire way to determine if the congregation is serious about church discipline, but it gets at the matter of whether the body has the courage and faith to deal with problems in a biblical way.

Valerie (Kyriosity) said...

[Off topic]

I'm on a campaign: I want all the blogs I read that have blogger commments to change their comment settings from showing just the time to showing the date, as well. You can change that setting if you go into Blogger and click Settings > Comments; scroll down to "Comments Timestamp Format" and select a more informative option. Wouldn't that make life just so much better?

MTG said...

History is SO important, especially if the church group has had a major split at one time or another. Having survived a horriffic split over doctrinal issues I hope that anyone wanting to be member or a pastor in ANY group would be brave enough to ask the hard questions, and brave enough to walk away if need be.

Just found the blog......good stuff.

Ed said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Morgan. I'm glad you found your way here.

And I agree with you; you'll find your hopes echoed here, here, and here.

My point is that sometimes we get so over-focused on history that we can miss the history-in-the-making.

Thanks again for jumping in and participating.