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The real presence of Jesus in an imperfect church

As followers of Jesus, some of our most important learning and growing happens by way of our communal life together. Belonging to a church family is not just an option from a whole menu of fine possibilities: it’s an essential way that our faith and character are formed. Life together is not essential because it’s easy; it’s essential because it’s demanding. When people love each other, and are committed to a relationship together, there will be all kinds of reasons which require the fruit of the Holy Spirit’s presence. Patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control, perseverance – these are the kinds of things learned in community.

Church membership is on the decline. And if official membership lists are one thing, actual body-counts of those attending Sunday worship underline the point more clearly. A frequent explanation for such declines includes these two factors: the demands of volunteering and leadership are exhausting, and the experiences that Christians have within the church community are so disappointing that members become disillusioned with this “together-life.” Much simpler to withdraw, then, and reconsider things. So folks may begin a new pattern of intermittent attendance and less demanding volunteer roles; folks may begin attending a different congregation, in the hope that this new community will be better; folks may begin attending a larger (often more evangelical) church where it is possible to be part of a crowd; or folks may choose to nourish their spiritual hunger through accessing Bible teaching and preaching online.

It is the pattern of withdrawing from active engagement in the life of a particular congregation that is concerning. Christian life is body life. And although we often experience connection to a particular congregation as a choice we have made voluntarily – and a choice we can reconsider if we believe it necessary – there is also a deeper reality, a spiritual reality which the New Testament identifies in this way: we are the body of Christ. Often, we hear this phrase “body of Christ” and think of it as a comparison: the church is like, or similar to a physical body. Sometimes we go a step further and hear the phrase “body of Christ” as a metaphor, making the comparison stronger: symbolically true, so that the mystery of the human body is representative of the mystery of the church.

There is so much about that designation that is instructive for us: as the body of Christ, we are the flesh and blood, incarnate representation of Jesus in this world. And through the Spirit, Christ indwells us so that head and body are connected and in sync with each other. The body of Christ needs to have the mind of Christ – and when it does not, there is an element of Jekyll and Hyde.

Making room
A human body is comprised of many different systems such as respiratory, digestive, reproductive, sensory, nervous and so forth. The amazing thing is that for a human body to function well, the differences of body cells in these various systems are not only real – they are essential. The body/soul mystery is a mysterious unity which requires the presence of diversity and the infinitely amazing experience of this diversity providing a complex and complementary whole. That’s the deeply profound and simply true teaching of Paul’s words: “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be?” Dealing well with the reality of differences and owning this reality together is an essential mark of healthy body life. Some differences are obvious, such as age, gender, race and culture; others are less obvious to the eye, but just as real: personality styles, theological accents, learning capacities. The point is that not everyone sees, hears, feels, thinks or acts precisely the way I do – and it’s not helpful for me to judge others accordingly. We have our differences – and if we could own them together, making room for each other, we might become more hospitable images of God.

But what if we allowed ourselves to hear the phrase “body of Christ” in a still stronger sense? Barbara Brown Taylor asks the question “What if Paul was not speaking metaphorically when he wrote about the body? What if he was speaking metaphysically instead – not making a comparison at all but stating a solid reality?” The implications for how we think and speak about the church would be immense. And the implication for how we think and speak about each other within the church, would also be immense!

In fact, we would discover that growing in our relationship to God would involve not only the often encouraged pattern of times alone but would also involve the necessary pattern of times together. It is in our togetherness that we encounter the presence of the living Christ. We experience this in others and others experience this in us. We need to elevate our view of the church from mere voluntary gathering of like-minded individuals to the mysterious wonder of being the body of Christ incarnate.

This might encourage a starting point of thankfulness as we look at, listen to and interact with others in the church, as opposed to an instinctive sense of consumer choice. It might also inspire a sense of wonder: that those around us and we ourselves are a revelation of the living Christ. And it is precisely in this congregation and context of humanity that the paradox of grace is revealed and experienced. These human beings, so flawed, and so capable of producing fears and frustrations in us are precisely the human beings whose exasperating presence will tease out the fruits of the Holy Spirit’s presence. This is the landscape, the geography, in which these fruits grow best.

The body of Christ is healthier when we're honest about both the wonder
of its mystery and the weakness of its members.

Wonder and weakness
So often the frustrations of engaging with Christians who disappoint and hurt us lead to disillusion with the church. Shouldn’t we rightly expect better behaviour in the company of believers? If all of these people were deeply and truly committed to following Jesus, would they not be an ideal and attractive community? In fact, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s famous distinction between the ideal or dream church and the real church is right on point. We human beings are bundles of contradictions, so that the good and the evil are intertwined. The sooner we are honest about being disillusioned with others, and with ourselves, the better. Illusions are just that. The reality is that our experience of community will involve not only beauty and tenderness and strength; it will also include ugliness and unhappiness and pain. And this is the paradox of the present reality. We need to expect more from each other in this sense – that we see in each other the presence of the living Christ. And we need to expect less from each other in this sense – that this side of glory, we ourselves and every other, live by grace.

As Bonhoeffer observed, “Christian brotherhood is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.” The church is not a community which we create or which we design and improve. It’s a community which God has created. We are invited to open our eyes to see the wonder of it, and then to participate in this mysterious wonder with all the grace that has been given us. And surprisingly, this body of Christ will increase in health when we can be honest about both the wonder of its mystery and the weaknesses of its members.

Expect more from this community. And less.

Expect more from each other. And less.

Expect more from yourself. And less. In a congregation, we experience the presence of Christ – both spiritually and really, through the body of Christ.


These companion pieces are part of our ongoing series on church health. Previous articles, “Qualities essential for pastors today” and “Grace-filled living can overcome conflict in the church,” are available to share at christiancourier.ca.


  • Cecil Van Niejenhuis works for Pastor-Church Relations, engaging the stories of pastors, councils and congregations where they intersect within the still greater Story.

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