As I often state, my guiding question is “How shall we live together when our stories are so different?” Most often I take this question up in the context of church community. This is a result of two factors–most obvious is my involvement with various churches, but equally important is that churches seem to be hotbeds for disagreement between people passionate about conflicting stories of “church.”
Today, I’ve been thinking about this in terms of expectations. Some of you may know that I host a Friday night discussion group at my house. We generally focus on Biblical topics and questions, although the discussion wanders widely from time to time. In a recent discussion, a new attendee expressed her understanding that Christ’s miracles probably never took place and he probably wasn’t the son of God. That deeply unsettled me. I think I reacted as much out of surprise as fear, but my questions followed the lines of “why are you here if you don’t accept the Bible?” I later realized a few expectations which I had not made clear. The first was that she would understand the Bible the same way I do. She obviously didn’t. The second was that we were gathered to study and discuss the Bible (based upon that understanding). She seemed to expect more abstract philosophical and theological discussion. Unfortunately, she has never been back. Part of the reason is that I was uncomfortable inviting her again because my expectations had been unsettled. Being able to identify my expectations has made me realize they should have been expressed at that time. It would have deepened the conversation and allayed my fears. Now that I understand myself better, I would like to continue the conversation someday.
Relationship experts commonly point to differing and/or unmet expectations as being a source of conflict in close relationships. I think we too often neglect this in our church relationships; we have a tendency to focus on church as a building, club or organization rather than as a community of people following God together. We commonly neglect the language and difficult practice of relationship. I have some ideas of what that might look like in practice, but before that, I want to address a couple of common and overarching expectations which are destined for failure.
Most of our problems begin with the expectation that church is supposed to make us happy. Gary Thomas makes a strong argument that marriage is not designed to make us happy, but to make us holy. Certainly happiness is part of the journey, but it is not the point. I think the same argument can be made for church. Church is not designed to make us happy; it is designed to make us holy. What this means in practice is varied. Significantly it means that things at church or in church may make us unhappy and may challenge us. Church happens when we work through those things together, not when we resort to fight or flight reflexes. That’s what fear looks like, not love–not healthy relationships.
If church is to make us holy, then disagreement is okay. Disagreement is part of the process, not the end of it. What makes a relationship work is how we disagree, not whether we do. Even two people married for decades remain distinct and different in some respects. They will still disagree from time to time. We are naive if we think church should be any different. Church produces holiness as we learn to work through our differences in love, not as we impose conformity to our (“inspired”) will. That’s Babylon. Too often we harbor an expectation that everyone at church must agree with us. That is a doomed expectation.
If church is to make us holy, then we (and it) can grow and change as our lives change. What was normal and good in one time or place may not be normal or good in another. In marriage, what we spend our time and energy on will shift as we change locations, change jobs, have children, discover new passions, travel and so on. Likewise with church. Our music, our understanding of God, our involvement in the community, our shared activities and so on will change over time. This is not wrong. We must be thoughtful and deliberate–at least as much as possible–but change comes upon us all. This is part of why church is important; this is part of why church exists; this is part of what church must be open to. Too often, we harbor an expectation that church should never change. That is a doomed expectation.
There are certainly many more points I could address, but I think I’ve covered the main ones. Of course, all this leaves a difficult question: how do we practice church in a way that expects it to make us holy, rather than happy? To begin with, I think we need to start being more explicit about our expectations. That isn’t easy.
Being explicit requires us to spend time searching our hearts to discern our motivations and expectations. This is an ongoing process of discovery. Sometimes we won’t realize we have an expectation until it is unmet and we find ourselves hurt. That is frightening, but if we are pursuing holiness, we cannot react from that fear.
Being explicit requires courage and compassion. Stating our expectations makes us vulnerable–others may disregard or contravene our expectations. However, as we respect and value others in our church and handle their expectations carefully (even if we cannot or do not always meet them), we create an environment wherein our own expectations will likewise be treated well.
Being explicit requires an openness to change. One the one hand, as we learn to speak more honestly and openly, we may find ourselves in the position of having to surrender and/or change our expectations. We may find them to be unsatisfactory or unsustainable, or we may simply realize they are not as important as being in a church community, as pursuing holiness. On the other hand, as we encourage honesty and openness, we may find that other peoples’ expectations challenge and unsettle ours. We may decide that their expectations are more important than our own. We may decide to adopt their expectations. Or we may merely discover a loving desire to fulfill their expectations at the expense of our own. Most often these discoveries will entail a change in our personal (and even corporate) status quo.
I think this same principle might prove fruitful in other discussions. Consider current church debates over women’s ordination, homosexuality, music or hell. One common expectation is that everyone in a church should agree on these topics. Underlying this is the expectation that all church attendees have the same or similar understanding of scripture. One expectation in the debates about homosexuality is that people should stop sinning when they join a church, or that church leaders at least must stop sinning. We could have some interesting and fruitful discussion about those expectations. Some expect that culture should inform our church practices. That expectation can differ in degree from person to person. In the hell debate, some expect that church doctrine is eternal. Some expect we will continually learn. Regarding music, many seem to expect church music and worship practices to make them happy. Some expect those practices to stay the same forever.
While I certainly have opinions of my own in each of these discussions and I think some expectations are more reasonable than others, that is not the point. The point is that we converse. The point is that we open ourselves to dialogue and discussion. The point is that we stop acting as if our own expectations were the most important and/or the most “true.” Sometimes they might be, sometimes not. But living together means working through our different expectations together. Being a church means working through our different expectations together. It also means remembering that church is for holiness, not happiness. All this depends on our being courageous and compassionate enough to begin a discussion about what those expectations are.