January 19, 2007

Searching For a Perfect Church

The first time I ever set foot inside the sanctuary of Fairview Community Christian Church, I was with a group of about four church members who were on the pastoral search committee. As we were walking up the sidewalk that leads to the doors of the small country church, I heard one of the members say to one of the others, "Should we tell him about our little problem?"

Uh oh. What had they been hiding from me? We had already had the interview, which took place at a home up the road. I could tell that they wanted me as their pastor, and even though I hadn't officially said or signed anything yet, I really wanted to be their pastor. A small, simple church in a farming community, containing a mixture of families and retired folks; a church that, despite its rural location, wasn't too conservative for me. It was only a half hour to Sacramento, and not too far from where my wife's parents lived. Plus, there was a beautiful parsonage shaded by tall trees on one acre of land across the street. It was, I thought, a perfect church.

Now, however, the truth was about to be revealed; I was about to discover the fly in the ointment, the "little problem" that could shatter the perfect image I had of this congregation. "Should we tell him?" she asked. I held my breath.

"Well, he's about to find out whether we tell him or not," came the reply. What could it be?

We climbed the steps. "Well," they explained to me, "we sort of have an unwanted visitor." A key was placed in the lock. "He's really hard to ignore." Someone opened the door. "...And we can't seem to figure out how to get rid of him." Afraid of what was about to be revealed to me, I stepped inside.

Immediately, I knew what they were talking about. Nevertheless, their explanation continued: "As you can tell, a skunk has taken up residence under the church."

Three months later, I preached the my first sermon in that old sanctuary. There were quite a few visitors present that first Sunday, people who came, no doubt, out of curiosity. Word had got around, and they wanted to check out the new preacher in the community. I wasn't yet able to distinguish the visitors from the members, but I did not hesitate to tell everyone how wonderful the congregation was, how it really was the perfect congregation, the perfect church. Not even a skunk could change my opinion on that. At least, not then.

Nearly seven years have gone by since then. I no longer tell people that we are a perfect church. I don't tell them, because they'd soon discover that I was lying. (It's not because of the skunk; he's long since moved on.)

A lot of people are looking for a perfect church, but over the past seven years, I've learned that we are anything but perfect. If someone comes here looking for that perfect church, I know they won't stick around for long. Soon they'll be driving 30 to 45 minutes on Sunday mornings, to Sacramento or Roseville or Lincoln, continuing their search for a perfect church.

We are not a perfect church. We sometimes sing off-key; more often than not, actually. We sometimes say things that we shouldn't. We've been known to put our own needs ahead of the needs of others.

We try to welcome everyone, but sometimes we struggle with that. A disagreement in the congregation last year caused two families to stop attending. We find it a challenge to meet our budget and pay our bills.

I want to tell people that, actually, there is no perfect church. However, those big churches with the professional musicians and top-of-the-line audio and video technology are a lot better at hiding their faults. Visitors, as well as adults who grew up in our church, tell me that they want more. So, they leave. I watch them go, on their quest to find the perfect church. "We love your church," they tell me as they leave, "but we're looking for better music, or a bigger youth program, or more opportunities for mission or Bible study or basketball on Friday nights." I want so badly to tell them that there is no perfect church, but they'd never believe me. This is something they need to find out for themselves. So I simply send them off with a blessing, praying that God's peace is with them, hoping they won't be too disappointed when they can't find what they're looking for.

Years pass by. Often I never see them again, at least not in church. I don't know if they've found a church that is acceptable to them, if they're still searching, or if they've given up the search.

Some, though, do return. When they do, I welcome them back, and then I ask them, "Why did you return?"

They respond by saying, "I searched and searched and searched for the perfect church, but couldn't find it. Every time I thought I'd found it, the mask would fall away, and the imperfections would be revealed. Finally I realized that a perfect church wasn't what I wanted after all. What I wanted—what I still want—is a good church, a church that is real and authentic, a church that, like a family, keeps on loving despite the imperfections. Once I realized what I wanted, I knew that what I was looking for was right here all along. This church is my family. This church is my home. This is where I belong."

"Even with the imperfections?" I ask.

"Even with the imperfections."

"Even with the mediocre music?"

"Even with the mediocre music."

"Even with our old building and quirky people?"

"Even with the old building and quirky people."

And then I smile and say, "Welcome home."


Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

the saga of the small church. First impressions aren't always the best, but if you come back you find that this little church with its mediocrity and off pitch singing, and all kind of grows on you!

But as you know, I face many of the same challenges in Lompoc!

Anita said...

You know, this makes me think of marriage! Neither Kevin or I are perfect ... FAR from it ... but we're comfortable, loving and we fit. Nothing fancy, just welcoming to each other!
It'll be 25 years this May ... can you believe it?! We can't!!

Purple Hydrangea said...

I actually kind of miss the skunk... gave us something tangible to make church unique!!