By Esau McCaulley
I have two vocations that center on Christ and his Church. I am a priest, and I train clergy and laity committed to lifelong service. You might think that Sundays would function as something of a climax to the week, a time when my students and I go and do the work that we were trained to do. But that’s not case.
The Church and I have entered the middle years. Things that I dismissed as quirks during the fervor of conversion and recommitment threaten to grow into real hindrances to my faith. I am not alone in this. I have had conversations with friends who remained in the Church and those who left. These disappointments tend to cluster into three categories: the aesthetic (things we don’t like about Church), the personal (ways that Church has hurt us), and the scandalous (things the Church has done to dishonor its king). Space only permits me to tackle the one that, at first sight, might seem the most superficial: our stylistic or aesthetic disappointments with church.
We know that church isn’t about us or our emotions. It is about worshiping God. Nonetheless, we are human and as with anything else that we do regularly, people develop opinions on how church should be done. Our opinions can shift. We can encounter a liturgy that changes our understanding of what worship is, but even then we will develop a certain style of liturgy that we like. Vestments or no vestments, a formal or informal approach to liturgical actions. But no sooner than we figure out exactly what we like, we realize that almost no church does exactly what we want it to do. Perhaps the music is too contemporary or too traditional or performed poorly or lacks congregational participation.
I am not talking about the occasional song that you do not enjoy. (I think I am the only Christian who doesn’t like Days of Elijah.) I am speaking about differing convictions about what the music should do. If we do find a church that matches our musical tastes, there is still the problem of preaching. For one person a sermon will be too long, for another it will be too short, for a third it will either be too emotional or too intellectual.
Then there is the community. Are there people there with whom I can build a life? Will my kids be the only youth there? As an African American, I have an added set of questions. Is the church diverse? Does it show real concern for the concerns of people of color, or will it be my job to take up once again the wearying task of leading a conversation and pushing for change?
None of these problems are in and of themselves deal-breakers, but when one piles up on the other it can drain the joy from the church experience.
I know people who have not so much given up on church as simply drifted away because they were unable to find a community that felt like home. But these are not just the complaints of lay folks who have left. I know many clergy who wish that their churches were more diverse, that their preaching could be a little better, that the music would be top-notch or their congregation more welcoming to visitors. Our Mondays are often filled with reflections upon these aesthetic failures. We feel in our souls the weight of ushering folks into an encounter with God. It usually takes a day before we muster the strength to pursue the transcendent for yet another week.
Eschatology and Ecclesiology
What do we with our aesthetic disappointments? Some churches try to do better. We work hard to improve things. Other times we delude ourselves into believing that we are different. We put our trust in the attendance numbers or offerings. We protect ourselves by deeming the disaffected mere consumers who are not truly devout.
Some of this is healthy. We ought to pursue excellence, but each of us is made different. No matter how much we try, we cannot please everyone. Every church disappoints somebody.
What if you are disappointed as a layperson or staff member cut off from decision making? You can offer some insight, but do too much and you are considered a complainer.
Rather than trying to suppress our disappointments, we should face them. Let them teach us. Our disappointments have the power to help us realize the limitations of what the Church can be. At the root of many disappointments is the fact that the Church is not the kingdom. It cannot satisfy fully because it was not meant to. Our experience of church is an arrabōn (Eph. 1:13–14), a pledge or initial deposit toward some greater.
We long for justice, diversity, orthodoxy, and robust encounters with God in Word and sacrament. Often, we do not get it. But beneath all that longing is a longing for God and his kingdom. We are looking for a city whose builder and maker is God. Therefore, I am suggesting that we transfigure our disappointments into the most ancient of prayers: Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
We need to recover eschatology in our ecclesiology. Something wonderful happens when we do this. Once we regain a vision of what the Church will be when God reconciles all things to himself, we gain fresh appreciation of what the Church can be today. As long as we look at our human resources (preaching gifts, musical talent, communal spirit), we will be discouraged. But if our faces are turned toward God we can recognize that God can take our meager offerings and turn them into something beautiful.
The Church can fight for justice because God will right every wrong in his time. The Church can be multi-ethnic because God will gather a people from every ethnicity in his own time. We can worship with vigor because every knee will bow. The Church’s job is not to accomplish perfect worship or even perfect justice, but to testify and bear witness to the one who will.
But the resources for that type of church do not reside in us. Their origin is in God. We have experienced those moments when church transcends the natural abilities of those gathered and becomes a place where God and humanity meet, and we feel it. This is why Paul closes one of his better-known reflections on the Church with the following.
Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen (Eph. 3:20–21).
Christ is still at work in and through his Church, doing more than we think possible. What do I do with my disappointment with the Church? I tell the Church that Christ is risen, and now all things are possible.
If it’s any consolation, you are not alone about “Days of Elijah.” And you are not alone in your disappointment. I would add that we might think about lowering our expectations for the church as we await the kingdom.