I would argue there is one thing people want from church today. One thing people want from those who claim to follow Jesus, and that is real people who live in the real world, face real issues with real faith. I would argue that people today would not be walking away from a church with authentic people genuinely striving to live out their faith alongside one another knowing it isn’t always easy, expecting and experiencing challenges, existing in the messy middle, and emerging stronger, wiser, and better for having done it together. And being honest about it. People don’t need more sugar coated religious talk. People don’t need to be told how broken or messed up they are, how wrong they are, or how everything will be roses and rainbows if they just pray harder, read their bible more, or get to church. Is there accountability, yes. Responsibility, yes. Discipleship, yes. But people don’t need to be told how broken or messed up they or the world are. They already know.
In Acts 16 we see one of Paul and Silas’s early ministry experiences. Still in Philippi, they walked and talked among the people, challenging them and their beliefs and telling them the message of Jesus. We noticed a slave girl following them and proclaming who they are, mocking them as they interact with the people. We see the authorities watching closely. We see the girl’s owners trying to be conspicuous, keeping a distance yet observing what was happening. Then they shuffle to a side street and get the attention of a religious leader or maybe the Roman authorities. It is as if they are poking, prodding, and stirring up suspicion. All the while, all the other preachers and teachers of every kind were going about their business and persuading folks to follow them. Follow this god for better crops. Follow this god for wealth and prosperity. This god for fertility. This god for power.
In the midst of all that, in the midst of real life, there were the people; ordinary, hardworking, trying to live right and make a living, people. I wonder if they ever grew weary of it all. All the politics. All the conflicting messages from one group to another. The double standards, hidden agendas, and unfair and unjust rules. I wonder if they too were hungry for something real, something lasting.
The scene ends up with Paul and Silas beaten and in prison. It is there, behind bars, in the aftermath of walls shaking, and foundations cracking, that one of the most important questions anyone can ask, was spoken. “What do I have to do to be saved, to really live?” (vs 30) I love Eugene Peterson’s translation of the answer, “Put your entire trust in the Master Jesus. Then you’ll live as you were meant to live.” (vs. 31).
Paul met people where they were, dealing with real life and addressed their question, “what must I do?” He kept it simple. He kept it real. Just as Jesus taught the disciples before him. That was the call for the church then and the church now. I don’t have to tell you real life is all around us. That real life involves heartbreak, trauma, and tragedy. It includes poverty, illness, and food insecurity. It encompasses more than we can comprehend and demands more than we think we can give or endure. It is pain and suffering - beauty and ugliness - celebration and grief - victory and defeat. And there in the middle of it, is the sustaining presence of God. Weeping. Yelling. Grieving.
With all its flaws and shortcomings. With all its cynics, hypocrites, and it's slow to change attitude. With all that it gets wrong and all it gets right. With all the ways it can try my patience, I still love the church and the potential Jesus saw in it. I believe, if done well, the church does transform lives and yes, can even save the world. Keep faith. Keep it simple. Keep it real.