Loving your vision of church more than the church itself will ultimately destroy it

Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it rightly when he spoke about one’s wish-dreams for the church:

Every human wish-dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than they love the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial. God hates this wishful dreaming because it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. Those who dream of this idolized community demand that it be fulfilled by God, by others and by themselves. They enter the community of Christians with their demands set up by their own law, and judge one another and God accordingly. It is not we who build. Christ builds the church. Whoever is mindful to build the church is surely well on the way to destroying it, for he will build a temple to idols without wishing or knowing it. We must confess, he builds. We must proclaim, he builds. We must pray to him, and he will build. We do not know his plan. We cannot see whether he is building or pulling down. It may be that the times which by human standards are the times of collapse are for him the great times of construction. It may be that the times which from a human point are great times for the church are times when it’s pulled down. It is a great comfort which Jesus gives to his church. You confess, preach, bear witness to me, and I alone will build where it pleases me. Do not meddle in what is not your providence. Do what is given to you, and do it well, and you will have done enough.

Bonhoeffer was, in the first instance, directing this comment at pastors. He states:

This applies in a special way to the complaints often heard from pastors and zealous members about their congregations. A pastor should not complain about his congregations, certainly never to other people, but also not to God. A congregation has not been entrusted to him in order that he should become its accuser before God and men. When a person becomes alienated from a Christian community in which he has been placed and begins to raise complaints about it, he had better examine himself first to see whether the trouble is not due to his wish dream that should be shattered by God; and if this be the case, let him thank God for leading him into this predicament.

Bonhoeffer is warning against the desire to build a church in our own image. It is so easy to get taken up with our own vision of how the church ought to be that we come to despise the church as it is. In our desire for Christian community as we would have it, we end up despising the reality of the Christian community Christ has given to our care and soon end up destroying any form of community at all.

It is, however, a warning for all that would seek to create church in their own image. Just as pastors may be wont to form the church in the ways they would have it, so members can be prone to discontent when things aren’t as they would have it too. Just as pastors may destroy Christian community by forcing it into a particular mould of their own devising, so too church members can insist on the same based on their own predilections.

Bill Hybels – the arch-advocate of the vision-casting, programmatic, church-growth approach – admitted back in 2007 that they had got it all wrong. His vision for the church, whilst increasing participation in the church, did absolutely nothing to increase spiritual growth. Their vision for the church proved detrimental. Their wish-dream ended up destroying Christian community. Rather than focusing on teaching scripture, and encouraging others to read scripture for themselves, they poured millions into programmes. As Christianity Today paraphrased Hybels:

Spiritual growth doesn’t happen best by becoming dependent on elaborate church programs but through the age old spiritual practices of prayer, bible reading, and relationships. And, ironically, these basic disciplines do not require multi-million dollar facilities and hundreds of staff to manage.

The bottom line is this: let us drop our visions for the church and start implementing Christ’s. Let us stop chasing our our vision for how the church should be and simply love the church for what it is. Let us teach and preach the whole counsel of God and so let him work through the Word, by his Spirit, to build the church.