It could be argued that there is something very wrong with the prevailing subculture of much evangelicalism today. We preach the brokenness of life in a messed-up world, but expect our churches to be full of near perfect people.
The story is told of a church, outside of which was the following notice: ‘Workshop downstairs; showroom upstairs’. In other words, down here we’re all works-in-progress; in heaven we’ll be the finished products. And workshops are messy places.
Yet many people in our churches are struggling massively. The pressure is to keep up appearances. So long as that is achieved, it’s assumed all is well. But, behind the masks, things are often far from what they seem.
It’s true in the pulpits. The drop-out rate from pastoral ministry seems to be spiralling out of control. Sometimes it’s moral failure; other times it’s burnout. Almost always it’s a huge shock. ‘No one saw it coming’, we say to ourselves.
Pastoral ministry is often lonely, especially in small churches or isolated situations. Without the support of fellow church leaders or the friendship of other local ministers, pastors easily become introverted and frustrated. In addition, they live in a goldfish bowl.
Like no one else in church life, the pastor, his wife and children are regarded as public property. Everyone has an opinion, and many are quick to make their views known. A manse can become a painful place to live.
All pastors know at times that they’re struggling. They don’t like to admit it to themselves. Once that hurdle is overcome, they feel they can’t admit it to others. Aren’t they meant to be strong? Isn’t weakness evidence of failure?
And it’s true in the pews. People wear their Sunday faces. They’re in the right place at the right time, so what could be seriously wrong? But marriages break down, families fall apart, children are scarred, and individuals drift away.
Living the kingdom life in a fallen world has never been easy and, in today’s society, only gets harder. Pressures, real or imagined, to have the best marriage, most well-adjusted family, tidiest house and happiest home only make things worse.
Singles often despair of their singleness and marrieds of their marriages. Childless couples regularly struggle with their childlessness, and parents with their children. The care of young children or elderly parents is a privilege, but rarely straightforward and often draining.
Church should be part of the solution, but to many seems part of the problem. The expectations of others simply increase the pressure. Everyone else seems to be managing. But few are coping as well as we tend to imagine.
The problem is at root theological. Therefore, it requires nothing less than a theological solution. The pressure many Christians feel always to be on top of the world has more to do with self-righteousness than the gospel of grace.
Every Christian is a recovering Pharisee, and often more Pharisee than recovered. We know we’re saved by God’s grace, but so easily look to our own works for satisfaction and security. That’s why we’re often so desperately insecure and dissatisfied.
Of course, there’s a balance. The Christian life demands effort. We’re to struggle and strive after holiness and likeness to Jesus, and will often disappoint ourselves, feeling utterly ashamed. But we must beware of unrealistic expectations of ourselves and others.
The progress of every pilgrim begins, continues and ends with grace. And our pilgrimage doesn’t end until we reach the golden shore. There is no such thing as heaven on earth. Rather, life here may more often resemble another place.
In the words of the highly acclaimed Christianity Explored course, ‘The bad news is worse than you thought; the good news is greater than you ever imagined’. We discover that first at conversion, but it’s a discovery that will never end.
Even in heaven we’ll constantly be plumbing new depths and scaling fresh heights of God’s mercy to us in Jesus. Likewise, here and now, we come time and again to an end of ourselves, and find grace anew and afresh.
As Christians, we’re designed to live in loving community with one another, warts and all. The church should be the easiest place in the world to confess failures and admit struggles. We need eyes that inspire not looks that kill.
We should listen more than we talk. Most of us are better talkers than listeners, which is why the Bible instructs us to ‘Be swift to hear, [and] slow to speak’ (James 1:19). More than good advice, that’s a command.
We should breathe the oxygen of encouragement. Sometimes the greatest encouragement is to know that someone else has walked your road — they know, feel, sympathise, empathise and understand. We must be real, if we’re either to help or be helped.
We need pastors who feel their own need of the Saviour, rather than wanting to be a messiah themselves; not calling people to look to their pastor for the answers, but to look with him to the Man of Calvary.
And we need churches that are workshops made up of imperfect people; places where love reigns; communities of people helping one another on our pilgrim pathway to glory; linking arms and holding hands, determined to see one another safe home.
Jeremy Brooks is pastor of Welcome Hall Evangelical Church, Bromsgrove. He chairs the Dudley Reformed Ministers’ Fraternal, teaches ethics at the European School of Biblical Studies, and is vice-chair of EP Books. Married to Lydia, they are blessed with eight children.