Is our church a museum of saints or a hospital for sinners?

Written by Jon Herring, Pastor, Grace Church Leatherhead

Ever had a conversation a bit like this?

Person A: “Hey, how are you”

Person B: “Yeah, fine thanks, how are you?”

Person A: “Yeah, fine thanks”

In our current individualistic culture where the private persona, as portrayed publically (not least on social media such as FaceBook and Instagram) is shown in its best light, there is, as Paul Tripp (an American Pastor and counsellor) contends ‘a disconnect between our public reputation and our private struggles’. Sadly this is often no different in the life of the church community. ‘Church’ is so often thought of as a building, or a meeting, or an organisation, and so our approach to it is tainted by these inaccurate perceptions. The problem with accepting this lie is that it affects the way we relate within it, and how we see our role and purpose within it. Church just becomes a place we attend once a week and where we put on the same good show that we have presented on social media. Indeed, church does become a ‘museum of saints’ rather than a ‘hospital for sinners’.

It is clear that in order to turn this perspective on its head, God’s people need to regain the understanding that ‘our identity as Christians is defined by the gospel’ and as such the Christian is saved not only into an intimate relationship with the Father but, as a child of God, they are saved into his family. The church is a family- a community united by faith through their adoption. Not only that but as Tim Lane says:

‘The New Testament is clear that our acceptance into the family of God is not the end of God’s work in us, but the beginning… he calls us to a life of constant work, constant growth, and constant confession and repentance’

And it is the role of the church to support each other in this process. Wonderfully, we are not left to our own devices; Jesus has given us the Holy Spirit to work in and through us and he has given us the church community to support his work. God shows us that change and growth in grace happens best and primarily within community – when God calls you to himself, he also calls you to be a servant.

All of his children are called into ministry. We are called into ministry as part of the church to serve each other as a body and to be a light to the world outside of the church. We are called to love God with our whole hearts and to love our neighbours as ourselves. With Jesus as our model, God’s goal is that we would actually become more like him. Moreover, as we observe Jesus describe his communion with the Father and the Spirit (John 14) we see beautifully that God is, in himself, the perfect, loving and functioning community as trinity. And it is his longing that his people, the church, share in this experience, in commune with God and one another.

The difficulty with this is that, particularly in our British culture, we consider it intrusive to be a part of other people’s lives and to ask questions about how they are getting on. Though we dream of being in meaningful relationships we live with the opposing tension of ‘self-protective isolation’. Our Western culture encourages us to promote ourselves, to think of ourselves first, and to ‘follow our hearts’ if we want to be happy. The Bible paints a very different picture though; as mentioned previously, we are called to love our neighbour as ourselves, but as ever Jesus goes one step further in John 13:34-35 where he urges us ‘to love one another just as I have loved you.’ This is his new commandment, and a huge one at that, considering his love was such that he died for us! The self-centered love our world promotes acknowledges our desire for other people and our need for company, and it concedes we want them to return the love, but it does not truly serve them; it loves the other for the sake of itself. Spiritual love, however, comes from Jesus Christ; it serves him alone and loves others for the sake of Christ. This is the kind of love that once grasped, and then lived out, can make the church a ‘hospital for sinners’- a place of cure and care.

belleringer2

In his book ‘Life Together’, having built up a beautiful picture of what it looks like to live in loving Christian community, the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer says this:

‘Will not another Christian’s sin be an occasion for me ever anew to give thanks that both of us may live in the forgiving love of God in Jesus Christ?’

We are a community of sinners who live by grace alone, through faith alone (Eph 2:8-9) and so the sharing of our struggles with sin will lead on to the opportunity to present grace and forgiveness in Jesus to each other; we can encourage each other that the same gospel that saves us will keep us abiding in Christ. It should be joyful to share this continued grace with each other, and it should become the natural consequence of together understanding Jesus’ words,

 “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” (Mark 2:17)

Yet we must humble ourselves before Jesus and one another for this change to occur. It is only once we admit that we too are amongst the ‘spiritually sick’ that we can begin to develop such a culture and model of pastoral care and spiritual cure in our churches.

Sadly, the ‘museum of saints’ mentality perpetuates an assumption that all is well, and this assumption leads us both to misconceptions about others’ ‘happiness’, and at times to fail to understand their personal situation more deeply. A common example of this is that typical British and most common ‘conversation’ we heard at the beginning

We tend to have permanently casual relationships that never grow into real intimacy. We are predisposed towards never really sharing our struggles with sin and temptation. However, an open and honest culture within our church community, where it is normal to share one’s struggles, is the result of a changed perspective which has understood, by the grace of God through his word to us, that the problem we all share is our sinful hearts (Mark 7:21, Romans 3:9-20, Hebrews 4:12). This in turn leads to the kind of joy that Bonhoeffer describes.

It is essential practice for the church to be accountable to each other because we have a responsibility for each other as a family (James 5:20, 1 John 5:16).

So in order to develop a church community in which individuals thrive and grow spiritually, church needs to be a place of honesty, where people are not afraid to share their lives, their struggles, worries and sins. They need to be places of humility where we are prepared to be challenged, rebuked, to forgive and be forgiven. And they need to be a place where everyone is listening to each other, serving, actively helping and bearing one another’s burdens in love; a place where Christ is at the centre of every conversation.

Wouldn’t it be a wonderful sight, after a service on a Sunday (when we are without Covid restrictions), to look around and see people spontaneously praying for each other as they share their lives honestly with one another?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to build relationships where we meet up regularly to share our struggles and temptations, to pray for each other and offer counsel to one another. Home groups are a great place for this, but even better, small prayer triplets, quartets where you can really get real and open up.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the one place we could be honest and open was amongst Christ’s people- the Church- our family!

Ephesians 4:15

‘…speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.’

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