"The Good, the Bad the Ugly"—this isn't only the title of a 1966 Clint Eastwood film. It's also the story of our personal lives (if we're honest). There are some chapters in our own stories we'd prefer to remain unpublished. It would be convenient if those chapters were only in our greener years. Alas, a James put it, "We all stumble in many ways" (Jas 3:2). This passage applies to believers of all ages.
So it is with our churches. God has done, and is doing, amazing things. There are abundant victory stories: souls saved, lives changed, eyes opened, fires lit in the hearts of multitudes. But, to some extent, the awesome is tainted by the awful, the noble by the ignoble. People come in the front door, while others are exiting through the back. Many make a clean break from the world, yet a huge number are also reclaimed by it (2 Peter 2:20-22). One might be forgiven for thinking the pluses and minuses cancel each other out—for a net gain of precisely zero.
Which would be meaningless (vain). Yet I believe that isn't a proper conclusion. It isn't balanced. Nor is it biblical.
We have many examples of how God's people told their story. Consider the historical Psalms. These works celebrate / lament the situation of the covenant people of God. Israel was faithful to the covenant on many occasions, although the general picture emerging from the prophets and the historical books is more one of infidelity than fidelity.
Psalm 105 and Psalm 106 form an interesting juxtaposition. The first so positively depicts the Israelites that a cynic would see a case of massive whitewashing. Yet the second paints an entirely different picture, a nearly catastrophic chain of spiritual disaster. Neither is false, and yet neither is complete. We need both.
Putting on our "happy face"
When our (now adult) children were kids, we would sometimes tell them, "Put on your happy face." Probably we were shutting them down, at least in the full expression of their emotions. (Not that all emotions always need to be expressed.) One day one of the kids innocently inquired, "So it's wrong to ever be sad?" Even as adults we can feel we must always wear our "happy face"—what someone has referred to as "legislated optimism." Yet the Bible validates happy and sad feelings, times of rejoicing and times of pain—perhaps nowhere more visibly than in the Psalms.
Good news sharing?
Now in my fifth decade as a Christian, I've attended (or led) many sessions of "good news sharing," but never one of "bad news sharing." (I'm not actually recommending that!) Rarely have I led a session encouraging openness about how we're really doing. Only in the more intimate settings are most of us comfortable divulging the less-than-encouraging details of our lives, and many leaders (especially ones like me) are not spiritually equipped or emotionally wired to do this well. Besides, nobody applauds the bad news. For far too long I myself have tended to focus on the exciting and the stunning, unaware of how I was unwittingly advancing a theology of performance. I've also noticed how others (including non-Christians) feel closer to me—and I to them—when I'm open about my struggles and disappointments. Nor do they pull back when I'm honest about how our local fellowship is doing.
The problem isn't that good news sharing is bad. But it illustrates only one side of the story. Not to mention that it easily has the unintended consequence of being discouraging. We don't feel at liberty to share the full range of our lives. Yet the common metrics (growth, giving, attendance) tell only part of the story. They are even less meaningful when we compare ourselves with ourselves, ignoring the broader world of Christendom. We have much to learn from other groups. As Paul expressed it, "We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves. When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise" (2 Cor 10:12). This is a different sort of vanity (the egotistic variety).
God's Word encourages us to tell our narrative authentically—whether the arc of our life, the history of our local congregation, or the course of two millennia of church history. This does not mean we should play down or omit the good—we all thrive on and are inspired by stories of faith—but neither does it mean we should whitewash the bad. (Or even the ugly.)
We preach Him
Telling the whole story is a wholesome practice. Such openness also rings more true among those hearing the great news of the gospel from us—and who are right to observe the lives of those who claim to be following Christ. It's okay to be real, to let us others see our weakness. A strong focus on success and inspiration may draw some to the light, but lacks the depth that makes for perseverance in the long term
And openness about our lives should be matched by openness about our church. In a way, who cares?—why does it matter if others come to know us "warts and all"? After all, as Paul also insisted, "We preach not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake" (2 Cor 4:5).
I am indebted to Andrew Wilson of King's Church London for his insightful thoughts in "Old Testament Israel Can Do No Wrong. Except When It Can’t Do Anything Right." This article appeared in the December 2021 issue of Christianity Today.