Several years ago I attended an ordination service where I heard McAfee professor Loyd Allen say something like this to the candidate: “Love the church but don't worship it.” His admonition has stayed with me. We worship God but we love the church that God’s Son established.
Darrell Gwaltney, dean of the School of Religion at Belmont University, convened a lunch meeting yesterday with six ministers, seven including him. Most are “retired” but still involved in some type of ongoing ministry. It was quickly determined that this group represented over 300 years in combined ministerial experience. As we talked about matters of mutual concern, it was very clear that each of these individuals loves the church.
Now these are not neophytes nor are they naive. As pastors, staff ministers, members, and interim pastors, they have seen the church at its worst as well as its best. They have seen the church when one rejoices at its ability to love and support and at times when you just have to stand there with mouth open saying, “I can't believe they just did that.”
I am not talking here about the Church Universal, the church made up of all the believers of the call the ages. These ministers do love that Church, but they also love the local congregations that are the Church on every continent today. After all, those local congregations are the ongoing manifestation of that Church of the Ages. Those churches are the ones that serve as the hands and feet of Christ in the world today.
All of these ministers have served local churches at one time or another as clergy. Although some moved into other areas of ministry, all have continued to invest themselves in local congregations. They know the importance of such involvement. This is another expression of their love for the church despite their familiarity with it.
They are also concerned about the health and the future of the church they love. In these changing times, they wonder how the church will fulfill its mission. In Christianity After Religion, Diane Butler Bass reports that only 14 to 22 percent of the population in the United States actually attends Sunday morning worship. In a recent blog, Dr. Gwaltney commented, “Even as churches need to rethink how they reach people and meet their spiritual needs, each of us needs to find a community of believers to hold us accountable, to encourage us, and to disciple us. Even Jesus established a community. You need one, too.” Each of these ministers would certainly agree with that observation.
The ministers who met for lunch realize that the church faces challenges each and every day that it sometimes fails to meet, but they also know that the church is God’s plan, the church is on God’s mission, and they have chosen to continue to invest their lives in it. They still love the church.