Learn to embrace mess

I’ll be honest, I really hate mess. Our house is currently undergoing some building works. It essentially means there is a fair bit of mess. Even apart from all the mess caused by the building work itself, we can’t even put our pictures on the wall and have various piles of things around the house that simply have nowhere go. It’ll be great when it’s done but, right now, it is driving me absolutely insane.

But it’s not just on major things like that. I get annoyed when I walk into the lounge because my kids have decided their toys are best strewn all over the floor. They were recently gifted some art boxes. Needless to say, they absolutely love them. I have more mixed feelings about them. On the one hand, I absolutely love it that they so enjoy drawing pictures and cutting up bits of paper. On the other hand, I loathe clearing it up and was not best pleased when my daughter decided it would be a good idea to draw directly onto the carpet. I’ve tried instilling a ‘one toy at a time’ policy, but as you can imagine, it has the same force and efficacy as the government’s so-called ‘war on drugs’.

With a concerted effort, I could curtail the mess. I’ve seen people do such things. If you keep on top of it, you can insist on a one-toy-in-one-toy-out system and the particularly messy stuff – like paint and whatnot – can just be removed. It also bears remembering that TV isn’t messy (at least, not like that and CBeebies not really in any way). It is certainly doable.

But, of course, to impose such a system is to curtail other things. Yes, my children would make less mess and my life would be a bit easier. But the truth of the matter is, it would stifle my children’s creativity. They would never learn how to draw or paint – and would certainly never be encouraged in it – because I prefer things to be neat and tidy. Their imagination would be impeded as I insist they can only play with one toy at a time. There is certainly a limit to the number of different games you can play, and ideas you can realise, with one toy on its own. The system would certainly serve me in the short term, but it wouldn’t serve either them or me in the longer term.

I was set to thinking much the same about the church. All too often our tendency is to decry the mess and do all that we can to curtail it. If we’re being honest, that tendency is usually because mess makes us uncomfortable. It is awkward and we would rather insist on policies that make our lives immediately easier.

In the church, as in the home, there are different types of mess. There is the ‘mess’ of congregational participation that sometimes goes off-beam, preachers who deliver less than A-grade sermons, the music quality being sub-optimal and the slides being bodged together and telling in the middle of the service. Whilst these things may be messy to some, they are not major things. They are like small spillages that can readily be mopped up.

Then there are the big types of messes that stem from sin in the church. There are the issues that attend much of modern life. When people are coming into the church and being saved, they bring with them their own mess. There are difficult living circumstances to navigate, longstanding issues of sin that the Lord (entirely unsurprisingly) didn’t zap away the moment they came to faith and clashes of culture as people from wildly different backgrounds with vastly divergent experiences try to be a family together.

Now, there are easy ways to curtail that mess. We can insist people become exactly like us when they enter the church to limit the mess. We can refuse to admit people who don’t have their lives entirely together. We can refuse to let anybody preach who can’t do it like a seminary lecturer of some 20+ years experience. We can allow only those with a PhD in Music into the group. We can read people the riot act when they step through the door so that they know exactly how they are to behave in church. All of those things would at least limit the mess.

The problem with this, of course, is that while it may make our life more comfortable in the immediate term, if we’re not prepared to put up with any mess, we will impede the growth of the church. If we won’t make way for those to preach who might be less competent than the pastor, we will never train anybody to preach at all and will stifle our people in testing any gifting in this area. If we won’t allow people to play in the group unless they are concert pianists, we will soon find ourselves without a group as nobody is deemed good enough. If we insist that people must have their lives together before they come to church, few people would be admitted at the door. If we aren’t prepared to put up with people behaving in ways that seem a bit chaotic to us, vast swathes of our country (not to mention those from other countries) will not hear the gospel in our church.

Now, lots of us will read this and snort. How ridiculous to set such high standards! Of course, we want to welcome people and see them trained. We wouldn’t do that, would we? But routinely, we do.

All too often, the way things look from the front takes precedent over giving our people room to grow. We refuse to sacrifice any quality in the preaching, music or leading because we fear it will put people off coming. But that decision, right or wrong as it may be, comes with another implicit decision – there is no room for learning to preach, play or lead in your service.

Similarly, we are very quick to make people conform to the culture of our church. We claim people are welcome as they are but are swift to point out when the way they are is not how we do things around here. We also tag a lot of ‘how we do things around here’ – that is our church culture – onto scripture as though our particular church culture is the definitive outworking of any given principle. This tends to mean anybody who doesn’t toe the line, or appear the same way, is viewed as behaving unbiblically (as opposed to what they are actually doing, which is challenging our church culture). When it is made apparent that they don’t fit in – and similarly clear that they are in the wrong for not fitting in – we are surprised when they don’t stick around.

If we want to see people saved, and our members growing, we will have to embrace the mess. People will come into the church – that the Lord himself is bringing – who don’t fit in. He will bring people with problems that are messy. We will similarly have to accept that some of our stuff will not be as slick and excellent as it might be for the greater purpose of seeing people grow and develop their gifts.