When To Wash Your Church’s Dirty Laundry In Public

Everything seemed to be progressing as you well as you would imagine a 40th church anniversary to be. We had a video covering the history of the church (with ugly bits left out). Previous church leaders were either present or had sent congratulatory messages that were read out. Then suddenly things took a turn. We were told that unless a wound from the past was dealt with we couldn’t move forward. What happened next was one of the most powerful things I’ve seen in a church, and it gave me hope that we can make better headway as an evangelistic church.

I’ll keep a no names and no pack drill approach, as the only the key events matter. 40 years ago our church was planted out of one of the oldest churches in the city. The young pastor sent out to plant a church quickly made headway and a nascent congregation was formed. It met first in the most insalubrious of venues: an ex chicken slaughterhouse. (This history has been descriptive of many a church meeting since then..).

The young congregation grew to a point where they were keen to be duly constituted as their own congregation, but this met with resistance from the sending church. Harsh words were spoken and the sending church cut off support from the plant. Each church went their separate ways. The church plant grew from strength to strength and eventually was able to secure their own parcel of land, which now sits at a key intersection around which there has been significant growth.

The disagreement and subsequent actions were never accounted for, but they were remembered. I was told of the history when I first arrived at the church.

Fast forward to the anniversary service, an unexpected transaction took place. The current pastor and an elder from the sending church were invited to the stage. The pastor through tears talked about the discovery of this event in history. After being invited to attend the anniversary service the history books were looked at and this 40-year-old wound was discovered. The pastor of the sending church asked forgiveness on behalf of his whole church. This was accepted and the planted church leaders reciprocated by asking forgiveness for the degree to which they contributed towards the schism.

Leaders of both churches embraced and through tears prayed asking forgiveness of God and to cement the act of repentance, forgiveness and restoration that had just occurred.

Despite there being many guests present (including a local member of parliament) I had no issue with the washing of 40-year-old dirty laundry in public.

In our current Australian context the church has a massive credibility crisis. As I write there is a Royal Commission into child sexual abuse, much of it focussing on the role of the church and church leaders as perpetrators. I can go on for pages citing reasons as to why in popular perception the church lacks credibility.

This powerful event showed two churches that were humble enough to acknowledge wrongs from the past and deal with them in public. The act modeled forgiveness and restoration. It spoke of churches keen to examine themselves and to right old wrongs, bind up old wounds, heal broken hearts and secure a better future by being able to walk into it with more credibility. It spoke of churches that are cognizant of the stain of past conflict and the need for restoration.

The current leadership of the sending church weren’t personally responsible but nevertheless felt that they needed to transact this restoration as a matter of importance for both churches as they move forward.

So what has this to do with evangelism? The quality, caliber and credibility of the community others and I invite new believers into is critically important. The capacity of the church to restore trust and credibility is greatly enhanced by the powerful moments like this.

Having been around the church for decades and having served as a pastor I’m well aware of countless events that happen in the life of churches, which reflect badly on believers, and of the congregated church. Moments like the once I was privileged to witness are few and far between, but it never the less gave me hope.

I would have no problem with this becoming commonplace. It would be great for people to see a community of people who keep a short account with one another and with God; to see a community who keep high standards when it comes to how they treat people, and to seek forgiveness and restoration when they mess up. This can only help an evangelistic church as it reaches out to a skeptical community. This can only help with building trust. The seeds of the Gospel grow better in a context of credibility and trust.