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(WW) My first experience as a full-time pastor was in a village which boasted a population of 369. Everyone in our church was thrilled when a couple moved to town and joined the Baptist church. The wife was a dedicated musician and was determined that our little congregation become just like her previous church. She became very frustrated when our attempt at starting children’s choirs never took shape “the way we did it back home.” Our adult choir couldn’t pull off a cantata to her liking. Our deacons didn’t “deac” the way she expected. Our bereavement meals at funeral time weren’t organized correctly.

Doyle SagerLet me hasten to add: This lady loved the Lord deeply and was a tireless worker. She was committed to Christ and wanted to share his love with others. Her problem was that she never came to love the church she had. She only loved an idealized church in her mind.

Yes, our church had many flaws and shortcomings. We needed desperately to become more missional (even though that word wasn’t used back then). Did we need some new blood? Yes. Did we need a fresh set of eyes to see what we could not see? For sure. But we also needed to be loved just as we were.

Personally, I believe all churches (including mine) must courageously abandon outdated practices and attitudes. Congregations must change drastically in order to touch our world with God’s grace. But sometimes, amid all the pulse-taking, evaluations, strategy planning, and critiquing, we forget to love the church we have.

This does not mean we become complacent and resist change. It means we pay attention to the movement of God’s Spirit here and now, in our imperfect and disheveled condition.

The internet has made it possible for anyone to “attend church” virtually, exposing them to incredible music, relevant sermons, and effective outreach methods. Sometimes we are tempted to ask, “Why can’t my church be like that one?”

church window with heart

Image by Dagmar Räder from Pixabay

Yes, we can always learn from others. But at some point, our discontent with where we are breeds a contempt which keeps us from loving the church we have. The late Eugene Peterson said it well in Practice Resurrection: “If we don’t grasp church as Christ’s body, we will always be dissatisfied, impatient, angry, dismayed, or disgusted with what we see.”

The church I serve is blessed with very strong children and youth ministries. When high school seniors leave us for college, we occasionally hear one say, “I’m going to find a church just like this one.” Our reply is always, “No. You won’t find one like ours. You’ll find the one God has for you, one in which you will be challenged and grow in different ways. That church won’t do things the way we do them; it will do many things better.”

The Apostle Paul knew more about the church’s warts and blemishes than any other person of his time. Yet, when I read his letters to the Corinthians, Philippians, and Thessalonians, I hear him saying, “Despite the failures, impotence, and embarrassments of your church’s witness, never view your church with contempt or disgust. Love the church you have.”

During Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ministry, most of the German church was failing miserably, being co-opted by Hitler’s seductive pseudo-gospel. Bonhoeffer was frustrated by the compromise and cowardice. No one had more of a right to wash his hands of the church and walk away from orthodox faith.

But in Life Together, he wrote…

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I was a pastor, and yet I felt cynical about church.

I preached every week. I kept serving and loving the best that I could. But I had become an expert at spotting all that’s wrong with the church. I grew concerned over church politics, the way we spent money, how little we prayed, how little we seemed to rely on God’s power.

I had rightly identified some areas of legitimate concern, and yet my response was completely wrong. I had stopped loving God’s people and had started judging them instead.

The Danger of Cynicism

“Cynicism comes from a good place: high standards,” writes Peter Adam. “But cynicism is a dangerous way to express those standards. It gives us the luxury of being right without the responsibility of working for change … Cynicism is the worst response to high standards.”

Looking back, I’d been feeding on a diet of books critiquing the church. Cynicism is contagious. Hang around cynical people and read cynical books, and you will soon become a cynic yourself.

I’d also been hurt as a pastor. The right way to respond to hurt is to go to God for help, and to get help from others, confronting when necessary, and working toward forgiveness. Instead, I nursed those hurts. I became a cynic.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer warns what can happen when we respond wrongly to hurt. “The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own laws, and judges the brethren and God himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of the brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community as if his dream binds men together.”

“When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.”

But such disappointment is also an opportunity, according to Bonhoeffer. “The very hour of disillusionment with my brother becomes incomparably salutary, because it so thoroughly teaches me that neither of us can ever live by our own words and deeds, but only by the one Word and Deed which really binds us together — the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ. When the morning mists of dreams vanish, then dawns the bright day of Christian fellowship.”

Disappointment with the church is an opportunity. We can choose to become cynics, or we can remind ourselves of God’s grace and enter into deeper community.

I’ve lived out both options. The latter is much better.

What’s Changed

Slowly I started to repent of my cynicism. I found help in two places.

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“The First Service One Owes To Others In The Fellowship Consists In Listening To Them. Just As Love Of God Begins In Listening To His Word, So The Beginning Of Love For The Brethren Is Learning To Listen To Them. It Is God’s Love For Us That He Not Only Gives Us His Word But Lends Us His Ear. So It Is His Work That We Do For Our Brother When We Learn To Listen To Him.”

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer

“By judging others we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are.”

~ Dietrich BonhoefferThe Cost of Discipleship

Introduction:

       The second reason why Dietrich Bonhoeffer can impact twenty-first preaching is the importance he placed on Christian fellowship. Bonhoeffer was convinced that it was impossible to be a follower of Jesus Christ apart from life in the fellowship of local believers: “Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ.”[1] This was more than mere theory for Bonhoeffer because he had the opportunity to develop a community of believers while he was the director of the Preachers’ Seminary.

The Seminary was located at Zingsthof by the Baltic Sea when it opened on April 26, 1935. It relocated in Finkenwalde, near Stettin in Pomerania on June 24 of the same year. The Gestapo eventually closed the Seminary in September of 1937. During the period of its existence, Bonhoeffer desired a“genuine experiment in communal living.”[2] It was Bonhoeffer’s desire that the experiment in the Seminary would provide a foundation for the German church after the war. Bonhoeffer realized that biblical community would provide the fresh life the church would need.

This realization led to a burning desire to put the findings of this“experiment” into writing. This led to his classic book, Life Together, which was written a year after the Seminary was shut down. Bonheoffer wrote the book in only four weeks, while he stayed in the home of his twin sister,Sabine in Gottingen. The book was first published in 1939.

Biblical Foundation:

In Life Together, Bonhoeffer appealed to a variety of Biblical references that point to the fact that community with fellow followers of Jesus is a crucial element of Christianity. For example, chapter one begins with Psalm 133:1: “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity.” Psalm 133 is a song of ascents. That is, it spoke of pilgrims coming to Jerusalem to worship together.

An important component was that people of different backgrounds were to be united in fellowship. Derek Kinder writes that “all Israelites, including even debtors, slaves and offenders…were brothers in God’s sight. The psalm is surely singing…of living up to this ideal, giving depth and reality to the emphasized word, ‘together’.[3] Unity was a key to how Bonhoeffer understood the Church because Jesus died on the cross to secure such fellowship. The whole purpose of redemption in Jesus Christ was to save the enemies of God throughout the world, and in anticipation of eternal life, believers “are privileged to live in visible fellowship with other Christians.”[4] 

It is a privilege because “the physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer.”[5]  The early Christians understood this truth. Even before the Holy Spirit was poured out on the followers of Jesus on the day of Pentecost in the city of Jerusalem there was community for “they all joined together constantly in prayer”(Acts 1:14). This group included the eleven disciples (verse 13) “along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus and with his brothers.” 

It is significant that both genders were represented here because the cultural barrier between male and female was abolished through mutual participation in the church.[6] Verse 15 indicates that the total number of disciples was around one hundred and twenty. Thus, within weeks of the resurrection of Jesus, his people, made up of varied backgrounds, gathered waiting for the power of the Holy Spirit.

Then on the day of Pentecost, the brothers and sisters “were all together in one place” (Acts 2:1). The Holy Spirit came upon them with power. Peter, empowered with the Holy Spirit, stood before thousands and proclaimed the Good News about Jesus. The result was that about three thousand people turned to Jesus for salvation (Acts 2.41).

Among the foundational disciplines of the early church was a devotion to the “fellowship” (Acts 2.42). The Greek word for “fellowship” is“koinonia”. It means “fellowship”, “communion”, “participation”, “sharing in” and “close relationship”.[7] This “communion” is possible only because believers are united through their salvation in Jesus.

Bonhoeffer wrote:

…without Christ we would not know other Christians around us; not could we approach them. The way to them is blocked by our own ‘I’. Christ opened up the way to God and to one another. Now Christians can live with each other in peace; they can love and serve one another; they can become one.[8]

Thus, fellowship is much more than simply being together. Since Christians are joined together in Jesus, they are devoted to love and serve one another. The early believers modeled this kind of fellowship. Acts 2:44-47 gives us a beautiful picture of their fellowship: “All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”

This devotion to one another in the early church in Jerusalem is what the apostle Paul advocated in Ephesians 4:1-3: “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”  

Verse 3 is the punch line in this statement. Paul equated walking worthy of the calling we have received with making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

Application:

To Bonhoeffer, fellowship with our brothers and sisters within the church was a way for Jesus to minister to his people. Fellowship with God’s people provides opportunities to bless and serve and love others. The pastor and preacher in the twenty-first century must not only preach on the necessity of Christian fellowship, but he also must be personally devoted to the fellowship throughout the week.

A preacher who avoids people or is superficial in his relationships with church members will most likely earn the reputation of one does not really care about his people. This can eventually have an adverse affect on his preaching because the people in the pews may read into each message a lack of genuineness. Bonhoeffer was an example. While the students at the Preachers’ Seminary were not always thrilled about Bonhoeffer’s insistence that they spend time daily in scripture meditation, it was indisputable that he genuinely loved and cared for them.

As the preacher builds loving relationships with people in the church, his weekly proclamation of the word will be eagerly received because the man in the pulpit is seen as God’s spokesperson for them. Jesus made it clear that his followers were to be characterized by their love for one another. In John 13:34-35, he said, “a new commandment I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love another.”  

Francis A. Schaeffer describes this characteristic of loving one another as the “mark” of Christians “at all times and all places until Jesus returns.”[9] The pastor and preacher must set the example for the church to follow.

******************************************************************************************************

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1954),21.

[2] Kelly and Nelson, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Testament to Freedom, 27.

[3] Derek Kinder, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 73-150 (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1975), 452.

[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 18.

[5] Ibid., 19. 

[6] William J. Larkin Jr., IVP New Testament Commentary Series: Acts (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1995), 44

[7] Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1979), 438-439.

[8] Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 23-24.

[9] Francis A. Schaeffer, The Mark of the Christian (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1976), 8.

“Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Bundesarchiv Bild 146-1987-074-16, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.jpg
Dietrich Bonhoeffer on church

These are the reported last words of German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed in Flossenbürg concentration camp over seventy years ago.

Bonhoeffer didn’t only write about costly discipleship and grace. His life fully reflected his work and Scripture. It was a life he surrendered into the hands of Jesus, not just on the day he died, but years before that. As a pastor in Nazi Germany, he worked tirelessly to encourage the church to stand up for issues of social justice and human dignity.

Even now, Bonhoeffer’s works and ideas challenge church views of Jesus, grace and the Christian walk. May these quotes encourage those who minister to remember the purpose of the church: to preach and proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ.

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Bonhoeffer_Pray_Quote

“The more genuine and the deeper our community becomes, the more will everything else between us recede, the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing that is vital between us.  We have one another only through Christ, but through Christ we do have one another, wholly, and for all eternity.”

“The believer feels no shame, as though he were still living too much in the flesh, when he yearns for the physical presence of other Christians.”

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer Quote

I love this photo because Dietrich Bonhoeffer appears to be engaged in a conversation. What was important to Bonhoeffer was listening to the other person…

Photo of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The ministry of listening…

The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them. Just as love to God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them… Listening can be a greater service than speaking…

One who cannot listen long and patiently will presently be talking beside the point and be never really speaking to others… Anyone who thinks his time is too valuable to spend keeping quiet will eventually have no time for God and his brother, but only for himself and for his own follies…

We should listen with the ears of God that we may speak the Word of God.

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 97-99.

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