I will, on rare occasion, hear a person actually put into words what many church-goers are likely thinking about a person like me: “So what exactly is your problem with church?” Unfortunately what follows from there can rarely lay claim to being legitimate communication. It seems to me that most of the time the questioner isn’t asking that question in an entirely honest way, but more from a curious amusement. So when I found this online:
“At (name of church), one of our core values is to be relational. This means we care about each other. It means we believe in each other, rejoice with each other and walk through difficult things together. Relational means that this place is a family, and YOU are a part of that family! We want to create an environment where you are safe to heal and to grow, where you can work through your pain and where you can use your God-given gifts. We want people to be drawn here because they sense something here (Jesus in each of us!) that they don’t sense anywhere else! In a relational church everyone matters and everyone is valuable. In fact at (name of church), we say that “everyone is invaluable and irreplaceable!”
The problem is, when you aren’t here, you aren’t building relationships. When you aren’t here, you aren’t caring for each other, rejoicing with each other and walking through difficult things together. When you aren’t physically present at church, you aren’t emotionally or spiritually present either. You may care about what is happening, but you aren’t here to demonstrate it. And when the healthy people aren’t here, the broken don’t have family to lean on, and when the broken people aren’t here, the healthy don’t have the opportunity to encourage the hurting and utilize their gifts. It is how God intended for us to operate; in community; in RELATIONSHIP. Of course I should give all sorts of disclaimers, like “I know you go on vacation, attend your kids’ sporting events, get sick and sometimes are exhausted. “ But I shouldn’t have to give those disclaimers, because if relationships are important to you, you’ll be here as much as you can, and that will be more than once a month. Don’t be a once a month Christian with piles of excuses for why you are only at church once a month. Help us create a community that has authentic, caring relationships. It is good for you, and for everyone else. We all need relationships and we need each other. You were destined to join your family more than once a month!
…I decided to use it as an example of status quo evangelical thinking, and to offer an alternative way of thinking about relationships, community and other types of things that normal people value.
I don’t imagine that there are too many churches where, if the quote above were proclaimed from the pulpit, there would not be a hearty response of “AMEN!” I wonder if it ever occurs to the people who are quick to hop on that bandwagon that, while they are busy affirming themselves so ardently, they are simultaneously alienating anyone and everyone who does not fit neatly into their own mold. This brings me to…
Critique #1: “If you can’t say anything nice (especially about people who are unlike yourself), then don’t say anything at all.” Imagine a university ad that read, “If you don’t attend classes here, you are not smart, you are not spirited and proud, you are not excellent, you are not investing in your future and you are not the best.”
I believe the primary reason the evangelical church has been unable to view itself with humility – as simply one option among other good options – is that it has failed to see how methodology and theology are separate from the person of Jesus Christ. Modern evangelicals have largely fostered what I call the “sprint to consent” that has tripped over poor logic and been guilty of mental gymnastics to attempt to prove that Jesus “clearly teaches” us to do exactly what they do, exactly the way they do it, and even according to their schedule for doing it.
To remedy this in the excerpt above, I would recommend dropping the entire second paragraph. Even then, there are a lot of lingering questions about the first paragraph. But at least one can chalk all that up to individual preference. If what your organization has going on is so great, then it will speak for itself. You don’t need to introduce guilt as a motivator (e.g. “When you aren’t physically present at church, you aren’t emotionally or spiritually present either”). In fact, by doing so you are really undermining the presumed relational/communal focus for which you applaud yourselves. Is there limitless grace available for me – right up until I don’t show up for two Sundays in a row?
Critique #2: Organizations are not as important as individuals. There is nothing inherently more relational, healthier or nearer to God’s heart about people who are loyal to organizations *first*. In the same way that Jesus is not synonymous with methodology and/or theology, organizations are not synonymous with souls. The Bible never discusses loving an organization (the global, timeless church IS the Bride of Christ, but it is NOT an organization). Jesus teaches that the willingness of a person to die for the good of another is the greatest kind of love, but he is very silent on loyalty to 501(c)3 groups. While many of the goals of evangelical organizations are admirable, I question whether organizations are really the best/only tool for facilitating those goals. If I come to the conclusion that organizations are not so great when it comes to living the Christian life, am I still welcome among the people who are loyal to the organization? That is to say, do they still value me though I am not part of their organization? Can we still have a relationship? Or must I join their formal organization in order to be granted admittance to their inner circle?
An alternative approach might be to simply… be. Be all those good things we value, and be them to real people – without the extra-biblical boundaries and expectations that limit those things to a specific organization. Stop waving your organization’s banner so hard. It makes it difficult to tell what you truly care about. Who cares if good is being done in a particular organization’s name or on its timeline? If organizations are just your thing, that’s great. But don’t make the mistake of loving a thing more than loving a person.
Critique #3: I doubt the claim that regular attendance of church meetings (more than once a month) is the primary key to achieving a healthier community (i.e. deeper relationships, safety, healing, personal growth, etc). The reason for this is very simple. The norm for almost all church meetings (whether Sunday morning, Sunday night or Wednesday night) is teaching in the lecture format (questions and comments are sometimes allowed). Yes, there are a few minutes before and after the service for people to relate to one another. There will inevitably be church-related groups that go out to lunch afterward or plan extra-cirrucular activities together. But the actual attendance of lectures, the receiving of 2-3 hours of “life instruction” per week is far from a guaranteed way for healthy relationships to grow.
It is, however, a pretty good way for an organization to grow. The logic of the organization has long been that, because the organization is the best tool for God to work in people’s lives, then anything that benefits the organization can lay claim not only to divine approval but also to the benefit of the largest possible number of individuals. This thinking is so ingrained in many evangelicals that they will ignore any and all evidence to the contrary, while finding fault with EVERY SINGLE PERSON who leaves their organization.
I would suggest that the best way to remedy the issue here is to limit the amount of time spent in lecture. Limit the amount of teaching in general. The truth is, there is only one Bible, and it isn’t much longer than War and Peace. While the argument exists that the Bible is an immeasurably deeper work, and therefore has the potential to be dynamically taught from for all eternity (e.g. an inexhaustible well of truth) we can at least agree that the human ability to reason has a limit. If a person never strays from their initial school of theology, they will eventually hear it all. The only way that it makes sense to sit under lecture indefinitely is if one is sampling every identifiable Christian tradition known to man (Russian Orthodox, anyone?). Besides, isn’t the point of being taught something so that you will eventually implement all that knowledge in some way? You don’t go to school in order to achieve the goal of staying in school forever, right? So, with all that time that we’ve freed up by capping the endless sermons through endless decades, how about people just live the Christian life together? If iron is to sharpen iron, it must be equal. I don’t think one guy can sharpen the Body as well as the Body can sharpen itself.
In conclusion, there is one thing that stands out to me as truly amazing. I may be of the Christian faith. I may even pursue it with a seriousness and determination that surpasses most evangelicals. But because I do not support an “organization first” paradigm, many evangelicals will quickly dismiss me as “lost.” In fact, my pursuit of Christ has been the very thing that has impeded my ability to affirm what the bible-belt culture is so busy eulogizing. But none of that is what I find amazing. What really stands out to me is that, when it comes down to it, the average evangelical is so sold out to their litmus test of the organizational-loyalty “proof “of faith that they don’t really care if an individual is honestly seeking God. God… the organization… it’s all the same thing in their mind. This makes “seeking God” really, really simple: just attend the majority of lectures occurring in their building.
So church-goers… I’m sorry. That just doesn’t cut it for me. I’m happy for you if you’ve found what you’re looking for. As for me, what I saw in the organized church was poor decision after poor decision based on whatever leaders deemed “best” for the organization. I saw family after family lose out to the “good of the organization.” I saw people endure unkind words and mischaracterization from organizational leadership, just to make sure there was no confusion over who was in the right and who was in the wrong.
Now, if you don’t see it that way, then you are NOT guilty of supporting a very man-made image/idol as something divine. But because I DO see it that way, then I would be guilty – were I to lend it my public support… which I do not.
That, I guess, is my problem – in a nutshell.