The Church of My Dreams. . . And Prayers
There is a growing trend and pursuit for one thing in the American church. It is a consuming desire from many in the church today. However, I must confess that it is foreign to me and my understanding of Christianity. It is not foreign because it has to do with focus or one thing, but what that focus and one thing are.
It is not a trend for passionate pursuit of the Lord. It is not to be holy before the Lord; or to seek Him, His will and Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. It is not to stand as one forgiven and healed and holy conformed to His will. It is instead a focused pursuit to be authentic, transparent and vulnerable. It is to identify with others among whom we live. It is to be open about brokenness rather than pursuing healing from the brokenness. Relationship is key. But, it is not relationship with God that will expose our weakness and powerfully and graciously eliminate it and empower us to help those with whom we are in relationship. But, it is simply building trusting relationship with people- not necessarily for their pursuit of Christ and life change, but for the sake of identification. That’s the aim: to be authentic, transparent and vulnerable.
It is foreign to me since it is focus on a byproduct of living the right life and a method of living rather than the life itself. As a parent, it would be similar to my saying, “My aim is to be authentic, transparent and vulnerable with my children.” Actually, though I fully expect to be all of those, I have a rather higher aim than that- to aid them in becoming all God created them to be. My aim is their wholeness, not the way I am perceived by them, though the latter should follow if the former is achieved. If they are saved, loved, secure and understand their significance, while I have demonstrated authenticity before them, then my goal is accomplished.
I don’t understand the form of Christianity that focuses more on a messenger than the message. Don’t get me wrong. I fully believe in being authentic, transparent and vulnerable. I have always lived with few if any secrets and am eager to expose my own weakness. But, we are broken people living in a broken world. My authenticity, as important as that is, will never fix the brokenness. I am Wesleyan for a reason. I believe in the empowering purification of the Holy Spirit that enables us to live transformed lives. I believe in transformation. I don’t believe that simply sharing mutual struggle with others, leaving God’s power out of that conversation, will ever lead to transformation. That is a path to frustration and ultimate shared capitulation to the wrong thing- our sinfulness and perpetual, unsatisfied need.
I want to be authentic, transparent and vulnerable just as much as anyone else. But, I would hope that my authenticity would reveal that there is a way and an answer; that God is powerful and does transform those who surrender. I want to authentically share and show that Jesus is the way the truth and the life, and an abundant one at that. I want to authentically, humbly and without masking show that I myself have experienced and perhaps even have caused deep hurt and that Jesus has brought healing, forgiveness and a new present and future.
I want to be transparent. In that transparency, I want to communicate that I am a sinner, saved by grace. I don’t want to hide from my sin or past or even present struggles. But, like Paul, who called himself a chief of sinners, I want to admit my own sinful legacy and then, like Paul, spend the rest of my time talking about what Jesus has done in me and others, living in a hopeful way in which I can confidently tell others to follow my example. I want the transparency to reveal that I am a humble sinner, but one who has experienced powerful deliverance. I want people to know that though I might struggle with some things in life as we all do that I no longer wrestle with everything with which I formerly wrestled. Otherwise my transparency is meager identification with others without offering hope to others.
I want to be vulnerable. And, I think I am. I can easily share about my failures as a parent, as a pastor and as a person who has stumbled many times. I have allowed all others to look into my pain as a father of a child who died of cancer. I think I let the world into that experience. As painful as it was and is, I have not shied away from that as a way to allow the church to minister to me and me to the church. Over the past 50 years or so, I have said, “I am sorry” and “I was wrong” and “please forgive me” more than I would have hoped I would- even as a bishop. And, if pressed by those who did not hear those words from me, I can spend time revealing those circumstances on request. My life is an open book. I think I have been quite transparent and vulnerable.
But, I also want my vulnerability to reveal something hopeful. With King David, I can say, “I sought the Lord and he answered me and delivered me from all my troubles” (Psalm 34). With Paul in one of his final testimonies I can say, “I have received God’s help to this very day.” I want transparency to reveal Christ in me, the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27).
This misguided focus concerns me for the church. It concerns me because if authenticity, transparency and vulnerability only reveal my struggle and no answers, then I am offering no hope, only placid and solutionless friendship. I cannot imagine a successful twelve step program led by even authentic people who have never been delivered from addictions but remain steeped in them and hopelessly trapped. I cannot image a successful counseling ministry where all of the counselors are transparent but worse off than those they counsel. I cannot image a successful parenting class led by someone who is vulnerable but whose children hate them, have all abandoned them and accuse them even now of substantial abuse that has not ceased and remains unconfessed and unforgiven. These are all solutionless offerings.
In the Free Methodist Church, we have typically ordained those who not only claim to know Christ but have demonstrated in their lives that Christ has Lordship over them. The goal is not authenticity, transparency and the ability to be vulnerable. It is holiness in Christ in an authentic, transparent and vulnerable way. We want leaders who understand that without which no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14) and live in constant pursuit of that holiness. It is when we are striving toward the right goal and achieving success by the forgiveness and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit that the manifestations (not goals in themselves) of authenticity, vulnerability and transparency bear any encouragement and helpful fruit.
So, make it your aim to be holy (2 Corinthians 7:1; I Peter 1:15-16; Matthew 5:48; Colossians 1:28-29; Hebrews 12:14; I Thessalonians 4:3,9). Seek to please God in every way (Colossians 1:10). This is a truly satisfying aim. It is only out of deliverance that we become helpful aids in the deliverance of others. It is only by being forgiven that we can paint a clear picture of what forgiveness feels and looks like. It is only out of recovery that we can show recovery’s possibility to those who have faint or no hope of its possibility.
I sat on a plane today with a new friend named Carl which prompted much of this thought. He shared his struggles. I shared mine. I shared how I have found hope and help. He thanked me and said something interesting. “My wife told me I needed to go to her church’s men’s group. I started going just before Thanksgiving. But, I am four meetings into this thing and everyone is as screwed up as I am. I don’t want people to simply identify with me and my hell, I want to know how to get out of it and be with someone who successfully has. I haven’t found that there. You are the first one who has said something that gives me hope.” He forgot my name but remembered my title. As we left the plane he said, “Thank-you very much Bishop Mike.” I don’t really care if he remembered my name as much as I cared that he met someone who has found what he needs and could steer him in the right direction.
I would be very encouraged by a church filled with folks (humble, with visible scars from the past, living in authenticity, transparency and vulnerability) who have found answers, solutions and help from Jesus Christ in their most deep and troubling areas of life. I would be encouraged by a church that has been saturated not only with stories of damage, but deliverance. I am thrilled to see churches where folks can come and find salvation from the horrible stuff. I am sure that it will require authentic experiences, transparent testimonies and unpretentious vulnerability. But, it will lead to Jesus and the demonstration of Jesus in us. That is a church for the ages and especially for today.
Authentically written by Bishop Matt (not Mike) Thomas.