"Shouldn't the church be different?"
I have heard and uttered that question often throughout my ministry. I think I first thought about it when I got my first low grade from a seminary professor. I was hoping for more compassion.
Most frequently this question has arisen during church conflicts. Leon Jaworski, prosecutor during the Watergate scandal, once remarked that he learned all about the nastiness of politics by watching the conflicts in his father's church.
The church doesn't always behave like our image of church might require. Indeed the mean spiritedness that permeates much of our secular reality is present in church conflict too. Shouldn't the church be different?
This question arises as well when our aspirations and our realities seem to be far apart. Often the vision the church proclaims seems not embodied in the current realities of church life. Many studies have indicated that this is one reason many people, especially younger folks, have given up on the church.
An example in the UCC is our aspiration of being a multiracial and multicultural church. Although there has been some progress in moving toward that aspiration we are not where we want to be. Our strategies need to change. Shouldn't the church be different than that?
This question also arises when church leaders act in ways counter to the values expressed by the church, sometimes expressed by those very leaders themselves. For most church folks reactions to these events are usually in the category of disappointment and prayerful concern for the people involved. Often there are a few who see this as an indictment on the whole church. Shouldn't the church be different than that?
I think the answer to this important question is both a no and a yes. It is unrealistic to expect the church to be different because it is made up of people, people struggling with the needs for personal, as well as societal transition. The Gospels indicate that even Jesus' disciples were not without this reality.
Although the word sin has been used too much to bash and abuse people, the idea that humans have tendencies and impulses for decisions and behaviors that focus more on their needs and wants than on the common good should not be ignored or discarded. If the "church is the people" as the little song asserts, then the church is going to look like the rest of the world. So the church in that sense is not different.
But the church is different in how it recognizes its humanness and yet continues to aspire to the vision that God is calling it. It is our response to our humanness that should set us apart. That response is characterized by some familiar words: confession, forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing.
These are not empty words. Nor are they quickly or easily lived out. Yet they are words that make the church different. As long as we keep practicing these I think the church is different. I also believe the practice of these will lead us closer to aspirations too.
The Rev. Stephen Sterner is the UCC's executive minister for Local Church Ministries and a member of the UCC's five-person Collegium of Officers.