Do you ever watch the news or overhear a conversation and think “Oh Lord, what is happening to your church?” I find myself in this position particularly when I hear of ways that the Gospel is being distorted into Law and bondage, and when what should be the “hospital for sinners” is turned into an exclusive club of the self-righteous and proud.
If I’m being honest, I often grow discouraged when I look at the state of the church in America. As a general trajectory, those who call themselves Christians in this country are compromising on mission for the sake of popularity, emphasizing moralism over Gospel transformation, abandoning basic biblical ethics and beliefs, undermining the authority of Scripture, and giving into hypocrisy. I’m sure many of you have seen these things in your own experience and on the news. We cringe, we weep, and we defeatedly accept it’s “just the way things are.”
It can become easy to bash the church—either the whole or our current individual one—criticizing its flaws and imperfections. We pick up and leave because such-and-such a church wasn’t “meeting our needs.” We give up on corporate fellowship entirely, and consider occasional online sermons, walks in the woods, or our own personal piety sufficient.
And so we abandon the Bride of Christ—and run her name through the muck.
But the discouraging things we see are not the end of the story. In the midst of faithlessness and hypocrisy, there are still faithful disciples of Christ who are thoughtfully and creatively engaging our world. And in much of the rest of the world, the Christian church is exploding in Acts-like proportions.
Part of the problem arises when we look only at our particular church, town, or nation. We are prone to this sort of individual close-to-home sort of focus. But when we look higher and more globally, we get a clearer picture of what God is up to.
For example, we often hear Jeremiah 29:11 used for graduation cards and personal comfort, as people claim its promise of “a hope and a future” for their own individual life. This rather individualistic reading can lend to disappointment and disillusionment, as careers fail, marriages fall apart, or dreams don’t work out as we’d hoped. But when we take this promise and see it more appropriately, as a message of God’s ongoing work in his corporate, communal, worldwide people, it becomes a beautiful encouragement for our time.
Like the Israelites in Jeremiah 29, the church is “God’s elect, exiles scattered throughout” the world (1 Pet 1:1). A more likely application of Jeremiah 29:11, then, is that God is working to prosper his church. Though at times it appears the church cannot resist its enemies—whether hostile governments or worldviews or the unfaithfulness of its own people—God is committed to making it grow, like the mustard seed. He has promised the total consummation of his church. But until that day, we labor faithfully, knowing that God is working his purposes for his church…
— E. Randolph Richards & Brandon J. O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes
So when we see what appears to be a floundering church, losing sight of her mission, or when we wonder what God is up to, we can be encouraged. He has not left us. He remains faithful to His worldwide church, and He will prepare and draw together His Bride until she arrives brilliantly arrayed at His Wedding Feast.