During my time at Hermitage, while I was learning the Bible and some rudimentary theology, I was also learning a bit about how the church functioned. And I quickly learned that there was a difference between how the church was intended to function and how it sometimes fell short of that. From what I’d seen growing up in the Methodist church, this wasn’t a total surprise, but it continues to remind me that flawed people can be found in every church. One event has stuck pervasively in my mind even all these years later, and the lesson it taught me provided one of my strongest and abiding values.
I’d been a Christian about a year, I guess, when I came to know a young couple. As I recall, they were still in high school at the time (juniors or seniors, I think). I’m going to call them Don and CJ. They were boyfriend/girlfriend, and they were friends of Sperry Hogue’s kids (Sperry was the beloved minister at Hermitage, as you may remember if you’ve been following along). As I remember, neither had much of a church background, but they were great kids, and started coming to church. We all loved on them, and we enjoyed watching their bourgeoning faith blossom and grow. The two of them, like the rest of us, loved that little community and the warmth they found there. Faith always grows best in an environment of love and nurture, and it was a blessing to watch them grow.
Until one of God’s not-yet-fully-regenerated children decided they weren’t growing fast enough. One Sunday after church, an elderly, curmudgeonly woman cornered CJ and rebuked her regarding the skirt she was wearing which the old woman judged to be less modest than she would have preferred. CJ was so hurt by that encounter that she never came to church again. And neither did Don. We all tried to repair the hurt feelings, but to no avail.
That incident had a profound impact on me. Now, was her skirt really immodest? As I recall, it was pretty short that Sunday, certainly a fair bit shorter than would have been common in that church. But people change slowly. And if they’re moving in the right direction, encourage them. And if you can’t do that, leave them alone. Big picture, folks. Big picture.
My wife grew up in Papua New Guinea where her family was doing mission work. Polygamy was not uncommon there, and in cultures like that where Christianity is introduced, it often takes several generations before polygamy goes away. Big changes happen S L O W L Y.
Transformation is a slow, slow process in the hearts and minds of people, and involves a lot of God doing the hard work of untwisting all the twisted places within us, driving out the darkness and filling that space with his light. And some of us find ourselves more twisted up than others. In churches, we must allow people the time and the space to walk that journey with God at their own pace. The fact is that we cannot force growth in anyone. Regrettably, I can’t even force myself to grow.
I planted a garden this year for the first time in a long time. I’m putting a lot of effort into trying to create healthy soil, because I’ve learned that healthy soil makes healthy plants, and healthy plants produce large, luscious vegetables. One farmer I’ve read about says that when people ask him what he grows, he says, “I grow soil.” So I’m adding amendments to the soil like compost and beneficial fungi and organic fertilizer. And into that healthy soil, I will plant my vegetables. Once I plant, I can water and fertilize those plants a bit and I can watch for disease. But I cannot make any of them grow. The only thing I can really do is to help create a favorable environment in which they can grow.
That’s true in churches as well. And many churches, it seems to me, have very, very poor soil. And in those churches, before any meaningful growth will take place, the parched, sterile soil will need some attention.
In churches, our goal should be to create a favorable environment for growth. Good spiritual soil. I’ve developed some strong opinions over the years about what that looks like, which I’ll save for another post, but really, that’s all we can do. We can make the church a healthy environment for growth, we can be about the nurture and care of souls, and we can watch for disease. But we cannot make anyone grow. God alone causes growth (1 Corinthians 3:6).
The church, then, is merely an incubator of faith, a warm, safe place, full of life, that nurtures new life while it develops.
An Old Testament messianic passage that I have always found helpful is Isaiah 42:3. Typicaly thought to be speaking of God’s promised Messiah, it says, “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.”
Bruised reeds and dimly burning wicks are fragile things, and easily destroyed.
So are not-quite-formed Christians.
We must be gentle and patient with them, or we will destroy the delicate buds of faith before they bloom.
First, do no harm.
Don and CJ didn’t need to leave. They were growing. But because of one impatient, stagnant Christian lady who hadn’t fully embraced the grace of God in her own life, they left and never came back. And it broke many of our hearts. My only comfort is the knowledge that God himself went with them.
God through his grace has been patient with me, working to untwist the knots that have accumulated in my soul, and has continued to mature me, more so as I’ve yielded to his gentle hands, less so when I’ve been resistant to him. I’ve been a Christian now for 26 years, and he’s still working on me. We’re into some of the deeply twisted stuff these days, and it’s still a slow process. But Father is tender and gracious and I’ve relaxed into his gentle hands.
The experience of his grace has taught me, then, to be patient and gracious and gentle with others as they grow, and to take the long view of redemption and transformation.
This has become one of my governing values.
Of course if we can be gracious and patient with new Christians, it follows that we should be gracious and patient with all Christians.
Because we’re all still, always, growing.
Next: The Expectancy of Transformation