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A healthy church is a messy church


Church is messy. Spend only a few weeks in ministry leadership and this statement reveals itself to be true. A few years ago, I found myself dejected and discouraged, saying to the Lord, “I didn’t sign up for this.”

It was only a few years into our church plant in New Orleans, and I was already at the end of my rope. The main question running through my mind was, “What did I do wrong?”

I was preaching the Gospel, seeking Jesus and loving people as best as I could, but none of this absolved our new church from facing messy issues. My heart for planting a new church was to reach people with the Gospel, serve the city, and glorify Jesus.

In theory, I knew we would face problems and even difficult people, but never like this. I missed the reality that God redeems and heals the broken, but true sanctification is a messy process. If I am honest, I wanted a perfect church where everyone had matured, instead of a church God was maturing.

In a real sense, I left no room for the power of the Holy Spirit to work through the muck and mire in the lives of people. However, by His grace, instead of choosing to remain in discouragement, I found encouragement that our church was in good company and a candidate for God to work through for His glory.

To find a case study in Scripture of how to deal with mess – conflict, strife and sin – in the local church, I didn’t need to look any further than the church at Corinth.

Learning from Corinth

A quick reading of 1 Corinthians reveals a church dealing with Christians suing each other in a public court of law, arguments over spiritual gifts, sexual immorality and division over spiritual leaders. Paul wrote this letter a short two years after he had departed from Corinth after pouring into the believers and leaders there. This is what he said about the overall state of the church in Corinth: “For my part, brothers and sisters, I was not able to speak to you as spiritual people but as people of the flesh, as babies in Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:1, CSB).

Paul was writing to followers of Jesus, who, instead of modeling Christ in their behavior, were living as immature babies in Christ. While these seem like strong words, they were rooted in love for the believers at Corinth. Paul went on to state that they were still worldly, full of envy and strife, and not behaving like spiritual people but instead acting like mere humans. At this point, you may be saying, “Amen, my church could use a letter from Paul.”

Well, think of it another way. Even the apostle Paul had to deal with a messy church. No church is perfect, and every church, if it’s growing and the Spirit is working, is messy. God is in the business of taking the messy and working through it for His glory. Lest we forget, Jesus said, “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overpower it” (Matthew 16:18b, CSB).

The Lord Jesus is reaching the broken and restoring them. He has promised to finish the work He started in them. Instead of being discouraged by the messiness you see, consider these three truths and allow the Lord to give you a fresh view.

1. Know that the Spirit is at work in the messiness of the church

Maturity is a work of the Spirit, and if your church is anything like Corinth, the Lord is at work. If the Lord is at work, then your labor for Him is not in vain.

Take a moment and think about the members of your church. Think through the names and faces of lives that have been transformed by the Gospel. In that list of names, identify at least one person who once was immature but who you’ve witnessed God mature, and now they are a blessing to the church.

It may not feel like it, but the Spirit is at work. Don’t allow discouragement to blind you to God’s active and present work.

2. A messy church is a result of the power of the Gospel.

Jesus said, I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). The reality of reaching sinners with the Gospel comes with messy work. It takes time for lives to bear the fruit of love, joy, peace, and patience. So, the more a local church reaches sinners with the Gospel, the more lives will be continually being transformed into the image of Christ.

Corinth was a mix of merchants, freedmen, poor, wealthy and Roman citizens. This makeup alone would lead to dysfunction and tension among groups. The work of ministry is a labor of love, joy and long-suffering.

The apostle Paul sought to correct the behavior of the Corinthian believers by pointing them back to the cross. He pointed them back to the reality that could cut through the strife and the lack of Christian behavior. It was Christ and Him crucified. Pastor, continue to preach the Gospel, pointing your church back to the only source of healing and hope – Jesus Christ.

3. A messy church isn’t broken, but it needs faithful shepherding

Paul never gives a command to the leaders or members of the church at Corinth to find a new church. Instead, Paul continually calls them to mature, walk in love and root their lives in the finished work of Christ. See, the church in Corinth wasn’t just broken. It was a church Jesus loved. 

Pastor, your church is not broken. It is filled with people whom Jesus loves and died for. As pastors, we have a high calling to love the sheep, even when they get a little dirty. Paul loved the church at Corinth, as he told them: “I’m not writing this to shame you, but to warn you as my dear children” (1 Corinthians 4:14, CSB). I have four beautiful children, and I find myself repeating things over and over. Yet, my love for them will lead me to repeat it again and again, because I desire the best for them. So, pastor, don’t grow weary. Instead, shepherd the people whom God has put in your care.

We aren’t called to perfect churches, but messy ones filled with real people living out real lives. In this messy work, we are modeling the work of our Savior who left the glories of heaven and became a servant. He wore an apron, washed feet, wept at tombs, and healed the broken. Instead of being discouraged by the messiness of the church, rejoice in your labor and adopt the same attitude of Jesus, who humbled Himself and became a servant to all. Jesus is at work in the messiness of church, so rest today. It’s not all on your shoulders to clean it up. Jesus can handle that task alone – better than any of us.

This article originally appeared at lifewayresearch.com. For more insights on church and culture and practical ministry helps from Lifeway Research, sign up for their Daily Insights newsletter.

Ryan Rice is the lead pastor of Connect Church of Algiers in New Orleans, which was planted in 2014.

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  • Ryan Rice