A Community of Sinners: the Smell of Church Planting

René Breuel, a native of Brazil, is planting a church in Rome, Italy.

One of the surprising pleasures I've discovered in the process of planting an urban church is getting in touch with sin. Shared sin, I mean. The sinfulness that binds us together, that makes us come as one body before Jesus, that creates authentic community out of confession and shared struggle. In our new urban church I’ve discovered a community of sinners, as Bonhoeffer puts it, that eclipses the churches I had come in contact with before in brokenness and poured grace. I’m really enjoying it.

Maybe this is just part of the pastor's role, knowing people’s wounds beneath the masks we wear to keep us presentable. Maybe it is part of Rome’s culture, where people come to me to confess their sins just as they previously went to the parish priest. (Actually, I wasn’t even aware I was doing my first confession when an elderly man told me how he mistreated prisoners 60 years ago, and I just told him I was sorry. The following day I realized he wanted absolution…) But I’m discovering how strong a faith is born out of acknowledged and forgiven sin. Nothing sounds as beautiful as a repentant sinner.

This knowing what's going on beneath the surface makes me anxious too, as a church planter. A first time visitor will see a good-looking group, vibrant, well-mannered, cosmopolitan. For me, however, things look more fragile: people battling sins that are socially acceptable or not, and the fear that sin may take hold of them. I see regrets, compromises, ambiguities, disillusionment. I see people hungry for grace and wondering how it can work in their lives.

In a sense, this sense of fragility makes me long for good ol’ fundamentalism, where lines are sharply drawn, light and darkness don’t enter the same room, and acknowledgment of sin is repressed or ostracized. I long for that sense of stable community, of leaving our problems outside the door, of pretending everything is fine. I miss victorious language, royal, prophetic and apostolic pronunciations and that simplicity that believes willpower can make our issues go away. Things looked pretty and manageable and Christian then; can we return to it?

Yet, when I think of Jesus, he relieves me. The dignified self-righteous folks were on the other side, after all, and with Jesus were the publicans and sinners, and the occasional Pharisee to mix things up a bit. Not a very respectable entourage, the wagging tongues would say. A first glimpse would clearly judge one side as much more honorable than the other; back then confessed sins were as shameful as not washing hands. Jesus’ traveling congregation, on the other hand, had a scent of scandal, of second chances and unresolved regrets. With him were big sinners, the type you can spot from a distance and hear from the gossip, the type that infects you with disgrace just by eating with them.

But I guess I’m experiencing now what those folks found out back then: those who are forgiven much, love much. Or that where sin abounds, grace superabounds. Or that a Christian is as great as his or her repentance. Or, as pastoral instinct may put it, that the church is only a community of saints when it is a community of sinners, and that out of acknowledged brokenness and forgiven sin a special kind of communion sprouts, stronger than repression, uglier but much prettier than masks, more intimate than blood ties, a communion forged by Jesus’ costly grace and his Spirit animating a group open and ready to be vulnerable.

I didn’t expect our church to be as sinful and fragile, but also as godly and beautiful, as it now is. But I’m just loving it. It has been a pastoral delight. It smells and smells of Jesus, and I don’t remember experiencing as much of either of these odors during the good ol’ days.