I am at my church’s annual camp. Tonight, during the first talk, my pastor and friend Mark, said that many of us are looking for COOI, the Church Of Our Imagination. It’s the ecclesiastical holy grail, the perfect church where we truly belong.
It’s the church that accepts us for who we are yet challenges us to grow. It has the intimacy of a church of 30 and the efficiency and range of services of a church of 3,000. The people are friendly and caring but make no demands on us. The pastors are always available but are also generals in God’s army leading the church to victory after victory for Jesus. The leaders are top biblical scholars and bible expositors who also cast out demons and heal the
sick when they are not out evangelising, feeding the poor, and agitating for societal change. Welcome to COOI, the church that exists only in our imagination.
Many of us will feel insulted if we are thought to be so unrealistic. Yes we know the perfected and perfect church awaits us in heaven. Yes we know that if we do find the perfect church, not to join it so that we won’t spoil it. And no, we will not be guilty of “realised eschatology.” And yet many of us still do the circuit, subconsciously perhaps, but still looking for COOI. And even if we do not go church shopping, we still are haunted, using up precious energies nurturing the suspicion that COOI must be out there.
Perhaps it is a symptom of the consumer society we live in today. At every turn we are led to believe that there is a better product out there or a newer, better version of the same product that we just must have. Our hearts are trained to have minimal loyalty to the things in our lives so that we will go looking for that perfect service or product. So we are always wondering, always fantasizing, about the next best thing. Why shouldn’t we have the same restlessness about something as important as our faith community? Because it cheats us of being part of God’s purposes in the here and now.
Indeed the perfect and perfected church is in the life to come. In many ways the COOI is actually the COTE, the Church Of The Eschaton, the church that will be there at the reconciliation and renewal of all things when time shall be no more. There is nothing in the New Testament that remotely encourages us to expect a perfect church on earth before Christ’s second coming. Indeed so much of the New Testament is made up of documents written to correct various serious problems in the churches.
The biblical teaching is that the church this side of heaven is work in progress. The dynamic for this transformation is God’s own Spirit. Talking about the Spirit’s work of transformation, Paul is clear that it is a process. He writes in 2 Corinthians 3:17-18:
“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (TNIV)
Instead of any encouragement to look for the perfect church, we are instead commanded to be part of God’s programme of building His church.
“So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors, and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the head, that is Christ. >From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” (Ephesians 4:11-16 TNIV)
Paul wants to see the church mature and he is clear that a key way the church grows is when all Christians do their part and commit themselves to “works of service.”
Some time ago one of my mentors became very frustrated with his denomination and seriously considered switching to another denomination. He took a long hard look at the other denominations and realized that they had as many problems as his denomination if not more. He decided to stay within his denomination and work for renewal from within.
I am not saying that we should never leave a church. For example there are times when a church has become dysfunctional and to stay is to risk emotional and spiritual collapse. There are times when our major doctrinal convictions have changed and are now at odds with the church where we hold membership. There are occasions when we have good biblical reasons not to submit to the authority of the people in leadership in the church. In other words, there will be times when we must leave a church.
But our bias must be to stay and help in the building of God’s church. And definitely we are not to embark on any quest for COOI and end up hopping from church to church, spiritual tourists who never lay down roots in any community. We end up not only not participating in God’s purposes in helping the church to grow, and there is great joy in that, we also cheat ourselves of our own growth.
If we truly love the Lord we must love His church and that means loving the real church, warts and all, not some fantasy church that exists only in our imagination. No, there is no COOI but there is the church and there is work to be done.