I’ve been in church my whole life. I’m grateful for that, but I’m also not. I love Jesus and I think my parents did a great job raising us in the church, but the grace and knowledge I received growing up in the church has also made me take some things for granted. There is a chip that I have to work hard to keep off my shoulder; a chip that comes with some big expectations from my experiences and preferences I’ve learned over time from churches I’ve been a part of.

For those of us who grew up on the inside of the church, we can sometimes feel like we’ve been “over-churched.” Biblical knowledge we’ve heard our whole lives can feed our pride. Stories we’ve read in the Bible 1,000 times can lose their beauty. The ugly parts of the church that we naturally see deep within it can make us question our commitment to it. Admittedly, these tendencies are a credit to our depravity, not our Christianity. The chips we carry on our shoulders are signs of immaturity and pride rooted deeply in our preferences rather than the grace God has given to us and to His church.

Spending the majority of my life being heavily involved with church has allowed me to see behind the curtain so to speak. I’ve witnessed first hand how decisions have been made, how vision can change from one direction to another and even how interpersonal conflicts can go from challenging to bad. And in many of those situations I have been tempted to forget that imperfect people who are just as much of a sinner as I am lead the church.  

For those of us who have spent much of our lives in the church, we must be willing to ask ourselves the question: How does a Christian participate in the church with gracious (rather than soured) expectations?   

Here is what I have learned as I have had to answer this over time . . . 

Remember your own sin. “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” The best way to change expectations we hold towards others is to see our own sin. Recognition of our own shortcomings and sin gives a dose of reality that stabilizes our perception. Repentance softens our hearts in a way that makes us genuine with other people. If we truly recognize that we are dust (Ps 103:14), then it isn’t shocking when others are dust as well. Repentance starts with remembering.

Give of the grace you have received. People (even leadership) within the church may be a representation of Christ, but they are not actually Him. They never will be and it is only by his grace that any of us conform to his image even in the slightest. Don’t confuse godly people (or people in God-ordained positions) with being God himself. When you do, you place unrealistic expectation on them, thus making it impossible for these people to repent of their own sin so that they may receive grace and help during their time of need (Heb 4:16). Withholding grace is a red flag of your own sin rather than an appropriate response to “others” not getting it right.

Be the solution to the problem. Experience is obviously valuable. But experience separate from wisdom and grace is worthless. While we can easily see the negative in the people-filled institution of church, value can come from these imperfect experiences as well. You will never work at a perfect job, sit in the pew at the perfect church or experience a perfect anything until heaven. But regardless, if you are a Christian, God commands you to be a part of his body (Heb 10:25). With grace, wisdom and a reasonable expectation of the time it takes to work and grow in a problematic area within the church, you should seek to be a part of the solution . . . not grumble in frustration or withdraw in apathy. Being part of the solution means being willing to sacrifice your own time and gifts for the glory of God and for the good of the body.

Pray for your church leadership. If we are willing to criticize our church leadership, yet not willing to pray for our church leadership, may God have mercy on us. Prayer is not only part of the means by which God moves, it is also a sign of deep trust in Him. If you don’t trust God in the midst of your experiences with church, then you are likely trusting in something (or someone) that is going to fail you. 

Grow in maturity. When we effectively speak the truth in love, it shows the work of grace in our own hearts. This same work of grace results in humility, patience, self-sacrifice and the resignation of our own wills to the Lordship of Christ. If the church belongs to Christ and He is the head, we couldn’t possibly care more for it than He does. Growing in maturity means we become sober-minded that this church is not ours, but Jesus’. This type of sober maturity happens by the power of the Spirit working through the effective Word of God (Heb 4:12). If you aren’t personally learning and reading the Word of God, then you will not grow in spiritual maturity.

Being “over-churched” is likely not even a thing since God actually calls us to always and forever be a part of the church. But our hearts can quickly and sinfully misappropriate our experiences in the church to plant seeds of bitterness rather than gratefulness. The good news is that while God opposes the proud, He gives grace to the humble (James 4:6). So we must humble ourselves in approaching and living within the church, remembering that the collective body of Christ can be no less broken than its members, and that includes you and me. 

Rebekah Hannah is a biblical counselor at The Grace Center for Biblical Counseling in Jacksonville, Florida. She is married to Andrew and has three daughters.