By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
I’m a semester away from finishing my time at Westminster Theological Seminary. Unlike many, my seminary career has been slow and even plodding at times. When I enrolled, I was working part-time in a local church, doing office work on Wednesdays and helping lead worship on Sunday mornings. A couple years in, my focus flipped and I now worked full-time in the local church and attend seminary part-time. All in all, I will have been in seminary for six years.
But despite the exhaustion, I’m glad that I’ve had to study while working in the local church. My experiences there have shown me that the classroom work and the theological debates are purely preparatory. Of course, I should have known that going in. Seminary is a training ground, a theological boot camp. The real work is in hospital rooms and in floundering Bible Studies, in marathon Christmas Eve work days and late phone calls. As I’ve observed, the preaching and teaching is glamorous, but only a part. There are very few men and women who will only teach and preach. Thinking that’s going to be me? That’s a dream world.
I guess that’s what makes me so happy about the slow and even plodding track I’ve taken through my seminary career. I’ve learned under a senior pastor who is a professional in every sense of the word (I’ll be writing a post about him in the future). But more than that, I’ve had to work with people.
Novel concept, I know.
But seriously, I’ve had to work on committees, explain complicated theological concepts in everyday language, and deal with the everyday human drama that constitutes the church. It has disabused me of any false dreams I had when I went to seminary thinking that I would teach all day and party all night (well, maybe not party, but whatever…).
I had fabricated a dream of what the community of God’s people was going to be. The dream was a lie. Frankly, people aren’t all that impressed with how smart I am or how adept I am at winning debates. They want to know that I love them. They want to know that I accept them in the midst of their brokenness, even if I’m encouraging them toward repentance and righteous living. Sure, in the back of their mind they may be glad that I can identify the Piel form of a verb, but they’re much more concerned that I show up when they are in the hospital or that I’m willing to ask for forgiveness after I’ve put my foot in my mouth (again).
I’ve learned this because I’ve put in my time in the local church while I’ve been in seminary. This is a gift that a lot of seminarians don’t have. I treasure it. But, if you permit me to be incredibly judgmental for a moment, I worry for my brothers and sisters who are headed into local church ministry who haven’t had this. I worry that the handful of hours they put in teaching a Sunday school class or leading a youth group haven’t prepared them for the messy beauty of the local church.
I say this because of the way I hear some of my colleagues speak in the classroom. I hear idealism and dream-speech. Maybe that’s not a bad thing. I worry, though, that they will hit real-world ministry and get flattened by the sin of the Bride. I hear about future reading lists and theological research. I hear about iron-clad preaching calendars (seriously, one guy already has his laid out for the first five years of his preaching ministry) and the programs they want to start.
I’m scared that we seminarians live in a dream world.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was also concerned about Dreamers. In his classic work Life Together, he says as only he could:
God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. 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 law, and judges the brethren and God Himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of 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.
I pray daily that Bonhoeffer’s description wouldn’t fit me. I pray that I would stand opposed, refusing to fashion the local church according to my own desires, that she may instead be fashioned by Christ who is the builder of his church. The church of my dreams doesn’t exist, and if I’m relying on my ability to create it, I will walk away from ministry defeated and disillusioned.
This might not be unique to up-and-coming pastors. Maybe you, dear reader, have a dream about the church too. Maybe you thought you’d found the church of your dreams when you became a member. Or maybe you thought that you could fix the church into what you “know” it should be. And maybe you’re sitting there, right now, wondering what went wrong. Why didn’t the church match your dream?
Because your dream church doesn’t exist. Not yet. It will one day! One day Christ will return in power and glorify his Bride, washing her of all her impurities and ushering her into his eternal rest. But that Day isn’t here yet. And until that Day the church will fail to live up to your dreams. You can push, fight, bleed, and even cry but all your efforts will fail to make the church what you had hoped.
Instead, and more beautifully, she will be a place where broken sinners gather together at the foot of the cross for forgiveness. It will be a place of “sharp edges” as my pastor puts it. We will cut each other and sometimes the wound will go quite deep. But according to Bonhoeffer, such imperfection is a gift of God:
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 that one Word and Deed which really binds us together – the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ.
So I pray for you, fellow seminarians. I pray that God would frustrate any dream and stymie any vision that is not lined up with the will of God so that you may see the Church for what she is and be a better servant for it. I pray for you, church member, that you would not waste your hurt and pain on self-wallowing or retreat. I pray that you would use your hurt as an opportunity to grow closer to Christ and extend the forgiveness that has so graciously been extended to you by Jesus.
And pray for me, friends, that I would never fall prey to the Dream again, but love the Bride for who she is and who she will be one glorious Day.