Longsuffering in the church

A key component to the personal preference sin so prevalent in the United States evangelical church is a lack of respect for the word, longsuffering.

Now, there are plenty of proponents of the idea of short-suffering. In other words, if a church or ministry or job or anything in your life doesn’t meet your exacting specifications you need to bail on it immediately. Their argument is that life is too short to longsuffer and the church shouldn’t be patient enough to pay you while you longsuffer. They somehow tie personal preferences into integrity… so if you stick it out at a job or a church because you believe you need to stay, you are somehow violating your integrity because you are not working or attending that church with a 100% joyful heart. They deny that there is anything spiritual in enduring something unpleasant if there is a pleasant alternative.

An Example for Relationships

Friends, this lack of longsuffering as a spiritual discipline is also a major lie that has led to the elongation of adolescence in America. If you’ve done student ministry in the last decade you’ve seen it first hand. God gives Christians a single requirement for getting married, that person must be a believer in Jesus.

Yet, over and over, I see perfectly eligible men and women elongate singleness (and in many cases adolescent dependency on parents) because they don’t trust God beyond their personal preferences. They need someone a certain height, weight, and cultural background. They need someone driven towards certain goals or career aspirations, who want a certain number of children, and want to live in a certain location.

In fact, we’ve all seen our friends bend God’s single requirement for us in order to get what we want! So they will find “Mr. Right” and completely decimate their walk with Christ in the process only to later discover that he was “Mr. Wrong.” Or, they let their personal preferences get in the way of finding the man or woman God has made for them or allowing that relationship to get to the altar. It’s sad to see personal preferences get in the way of fulfillment in finding a spouse. Kristen and I have joked about this for a long time, but I think it is true. If we just randomly assigned people to one another based solely on “Do you love Jesus more than anything else” we think we could pair up about anyone. We are all imperfect. We are all unloveable. None of us are ideal. When we chose to love someone because they love Jesus… then you will experience what true love and romance really are. Surfacey stuff is ultimately just crap that won’t lead to happiness, anyway. Learning to love someone despite your own personal preferences is what leads to true love!

Those of us who have been married a few years know that long suffering and marriage go hand in hand. (Heard an Amen! coming from Kristen‘s direction when I wrote that.) In other words, if what you like about your spouse is that they meet your personal preferences, your marriage is doomed! Here’s a hint, the more you trust God that He provided a spouse who completes your weaknesses the happier you’ll be in marriage. (It’s about trusting God more than you trust yourself.) When I see couples whose sole connection is wrapped around a personal preference... I can only hope that their marriage will last beyond that. One of the most powerful and loving things a spouse can ever do for the other is to love you despite your inability to meet their personal preferences.

If we think of ourselves as the Bride of Christ, we immediately see the stupidity of personal preferences in the church dividing us. We, singular and corporately, are the Bride. In our towns there is a sole bride, not brides. And yet Jesus has to love us all how we want to be loved? Who is long suffering now? Who is having 2,000 communions on Sunday morning instead of one? Whose name is lifted up in a thousand styles instead of one?

I look at belonging to a church a lot like a marriage.

1. Let’s say, right now, you go to a church which is fine doctrinally but you hate the music. If this were a marriage would you leave? You would feel pretty childish telling a divorce attorney that you can’t stay married to your husband because he likes rap music. Now, country music, I’ll give you that… But no one would leave a spouse because of a musical preference. But people do it in church every day.

2. Let’s say you go to a church who killed a program you loved. If this were a marriage and your spouse changed date night from Wednesday to Sunday, would you leave him? I doubt it. But people leave churches for stupid stuff like that every day.

3. Let’s say you go to a church who mismanaged some money. If every marriage in America were in divorce court because of this, we’d be a in a heap of mess.

4. Let’s say you go to a church where you didn’t like the liturgy. Would you divorce a person because they didn’t read the same Bible translation as you?

5. One commenter said she couldn’t go to a church because she disagreed with how the church practiced communion. If that were a marriage and your spouse wanted “communion” in a way you didn’t like… you’d probably head to counseling before divorce court.

Think of all the personal preference reasons people leave a church! There are hundreds of them. Church leaders are going bald trying to figure out how to keep everyone happy instead of trying to lead people in worship! I’ve been in dozens of staff meetings where the leaders were more worried about keeping congregants pleased than taking the worship service a direction we felt God was calling it to. In other words, we repeatedly compromised our convictions for the High Holy Calling of the personal preference god so many worship on Sunday mornings.

What am I asking “the evangelical church” to do?

Time to cut to the chase. I’m not naive. I know that there are divisions in place today and it is silly to say we should all come together as a single body. I know it is insane to dream of a united church community who worships together on Sunday mornings, in Spirit and Truth, despite the fact that some like rock music and some like choir. I know it is impossible to dream of a church who worshiped together despite the fact that some are white or black or Hispanic. I know it is ludicrous to think that churches could bundle their buildings together for Kingdom work beyond the realm of what they want their buildings to be used for. I know it is preposterous to think that churches could start talking about reaching communities instead of birthing more baptists or presenting more Presbyterians. I know it is arrogant to think that one church leader should willfully submit his congregation to another. I know it is crazy to dream of one church in one city reaching the 95% of lost souls despite tiny doctrinal differences.

But my hope is that it can happen.

And I dream and think these things because followers of Jesus are overpowered with a silly, insane, impossible, ludicrous, preposterous, arrogant, and crazy love that comes from a Risen Savior. He came to unite. He came to break down barriers. And he wants us to long suffer with one another as an act of worship of Him.

That’s my hope. That’s my dream. And that’s what I think the evangelical church should be about in America.

I’m nailing this thesis to my wall. Thoughts?

By Adam McLane

Kristen and Adam live in Ahwahnee, California.

13 comments

  1. But letting your personal preferences not be your primary guide requires a maturity that is too often lacking individually and corporately in our churches.

  2. Too often we have immaturity in the church and it is something we continually battle. I don’t think it will change overnight. We need people who have the guts to say to people – Don’t like us – We don’t need whiners …we want people to work not whine!

  3. Interesting how both of you jump on the word “maturity” in your comments. I think that just grazes the core issues. Certainly, the leaders who are the biggest proponents of “short-suffering” most people would label mature.

  4. Adam you are right on. I saw this play out in my last student ministry. Parents from our church pulled their students becuase it wasn’t “meeting their needs” and they bailed and some eventually ailed on the church too. This post is spot on.

  5. I still put greater significance and theological weight on the proper observance of the Lord’s Supper than music or the type of children’s ministry or whatever. 😉 But regardless, I think this a great post and an important message! The marriage analogy is a good one.
    At my church, to become a full member of the church, you have to go through a class, and then at the end of the class you make a public acknowledgment to the entire congregation that God has brought you and this particular community into relationship, and so there is mutual commitment and responsibility. You promise to submit to the authority of the elders (in a biblical way, of course) and you promise not to leave the congregation without prayer and consultation with the church.
    Part of the lack of longsuffering, I think, is also attached to the highly individualized nature of American Evangelicalism – many Christians (and churches) have minimized or lost entirely the concept of authority and mutual submission in a church setting.

  6. Excellent thoughts…and the marriage/divorce part could be a post all of its own…

    I think the first step in the right direction would be to correct our definition of “Christian”. We think it means church on Sunday, communion so many times a month, Bible study, traditions and politics, but that’s not it at all! It’s about true life (I actually just made that up, but I like to think of “true life” as true love, only BIGGER)

  7. @amy- just a quick sidenote. I intentionally used the word “belong” instead of “member” because, having been in church leadership a long time, I know that many more people belong to a particular church than take the time to join one. Likewise, many people who are members of a church don’t truly belong. Hope that nuance makes sense. 🙂

    I do agree with what you said though. I love the beauty of agreeing to submit and to talk to leaders before leaving.

    How is that working for you?

  8. @adam – I totally understand your distinction, and I am glad you included ‘belongers’ as well as members. I can totally understand reasons why people would hesitate to officially join a church. Though I think hesitation usually is due either to some sin or some wound that should eventually, in proper time, be addressed and healed. And on the flip side, members who don’t fully engage are also probably in need of repentance and/or healing.

    The practice of making a promise of commitment before God and the congregation is awesome, because it helps to bind you all together in love! As humans made in God’s image our greatest happiness lies in service and loving submission to each others, not in self-serving and self-protection. Making such a promise also motivates you to look past and work through the problems and foibles and disappointments of your church – just like the binding power of a marriage vow. You realize that you are also responsible for the state of things in your church, rather than passing the blame to the pastor or youth minister, etc. I think this works so well for us 1) because its a small church and 2) because we have been blessed by God with two very loving, gifted and Godly pastors. Such a commitment would be more challenging in a different setting, but I stand by the principle.

    One last note about consulting the leaders before leaving the church – the beauty of that is you can get further confirmation that you truly are following God’s will rather than just your own inclination. Provided of course that the leaders are also listening to the Spirit and not just trying to keep you in the church for whatever selfish reason.

    Gah, I am the queen of long comments!

  9. Adam,

    While I still believe that God hard wires us with personal preferences, I gotta say I’m totally with you on this post! Preferences are just that…preferences. The Body of Christ must be able to yield/submit those preferences, and not just leave or give up when they (read: I) don’t get their (read: my) way.

    This I-want-church-done-my-way epidemic is one of the results of how the seeker movement has done church for the last 25 years…a movement I still believe in (mostly).

    The personal preference sin is a symptom of a greater disease, and that is a “No-Cost Discipleship” fueled by “Cheap Grace”.

  10. Here’s a question:
    My pastor likes to tell me (and our staff) that we–the staff–don’t have “problems” when we deal with the congregation. They’re aren’t here to worry about us, they are here to meet Jesus. While I know there’s a TON of issues with that statement, I’ve discovered that people value authenticity. (That doesn’t mean I get to vent and complain and whine, it’s means using discernment and being honest with certain people when it’s needed.)

    What it’s created is a Staff vs. Church Leadership Team vs. Average Congregant mentality.

    I think his belief is that by presenting a ‘front of unification’ we will draw people closer to God (like Paul writes about all over the NT). I tell him, “Not if we’re fake.” In his view, I’m almost positive that Long-suffering would equal “God is putting up stumbling blocks so we should try something new.”

    How do I (or anyone else) encourage their church leadership not to give up and muddle through the Bad/boring on the way to the Good? I have my own thoughts and examples, but decided it’d’ be interesting to see what others have done or tried.

  11. Lots and lots of great things to think about here. Been thinking about the marriage parallels a lot. I don’t know if it’s a 100% fair comparison as Jesus and the NT is silent about changing churches. Seems like Paul moved only when he got his butt kicked.

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