Over the last several years, I have talked to many people about church, specifically, about why they no longer are, or have never been, a part of a church. The four most common responses are as follows:
#1: “Faith in God is something that is very personal. Thus, my relationship with God is a very private matter between God and me and no one else. I don’t have to go to church to be a Christian.”
Then there are all the criticisms.
#2: I used to go to church. But I kept hearing church people say that everything that happens in this world is God’s will; that God is in control of everything. Then, some very bad things started happening in my life.” They will then share something like: “Our child was killed in an automobile accident” or “my spouse was diagnosed with a chronic illness” and then they will say something like: “So, frankly, if the church thinks all of this bad stuff in my life is the will of God, then I don’t need the church in my life.”
#3: “The church is full of condescending, judgmental, mean people who think they are better than everyone else. I believe in God, and I love Jesus and his teachings, but I can worship and serve God better by myself while having a cup of coffee on my back porch, or on the beach, a mountain or a lake, than I can sitting in church all dressed up with a bunch of hypocrites.”
And lastly, #4: “Organized religion has always been bad. Much of the hate and violence that has been a part of our world, and is in our world today, is because of religion. Not only do I think the world is better off without church, I am better off without it too.”
Now, during the first half of my ministry, back in my good ol’ Baptist days, I used to defend and make all sorts of excuses for the church. I used to argue with people who said negative things about the church, telling them that they really did not know what they were talking about. But today, in what I hope is only the beginning of the second half of my ministry, I am no longer defending the church. As a Christian pastor who feels more free than ever to simply tell it like it is, I am no longer making excuses.
Because the truth is that almost everyone I have spoken with who has given up on the church has made some very valid points.
Of course, faith is very personal. For God is personal, and I believe God desires to have a very personal, intimate relationship with each one of us.
And yes, I cannot agree more that the church is guilty of preaching some very bad theology. Preaching that everything that happens in this fragmented world is God’s will has led many to believe that God is an uncaring, immovable, distant God who is sitting on some throne arbitrarily pushing buttons making some very bad things happen to some very good people.
And people are absolutely right when they say some church people are condescending, judgmental and mean-spirited people who really do think they are better than everyone else. Some are arrogant, rude, pretentious, and are just not any fun to be around.
And, to the charge that organized religion has done, and is doing, some very bad things in this world, I will be the first to say: “Amen!” After all, it was organized religion that killed Jesus.
I believe it is time for the church to stop making excuses and honestly acknowledge that the church is certainly at fault for the number of people who have decided once again to stay home this morning or go any place this morning except to a church. However, although I believe the criticisms about the church could not be more accurate, I believe the conclusions that these criticisms have led to cannot be more inaccurate.
When Jesus went into the Temple and saw some very bad things happening, he did not make excuses; however, nor did give up on the Temple and stay home on the Sabbath with a cup of coffee to worship and serve God on the back porch. Jesus confronted the badness by flipping a table or two, telling the religious folks that they had made “a house of prayer” into “a den of robbers.”
More than anything else, not only do I believe the church today needs to confess that we too have been “a den of robbers,” I believe the church needs to rediscover what it means to be “a house of prayer.” And I believe we need to be the house of prayer that Jesus taught us to be.
Of course, faith in God is personal. We worship and serve not a static thing, not some vague idea or some spiritual force, but a very personal God who desires more than anything else to get personal with us. However, one’s faith in God was never meant to be, and can never be, a private matter.
There’s a very good reason that when Jesus taught us to pray, he said pray: “Our Father who art in heaven,” and never: “My father who art in heaven.” There’s a reason Jesus said, pray “Give us this day our daily bread,” and never “give me this day my daily bread.” God wants us to pray, not alone on our back porches with a cup of coffee, not in the park or on the beach, but together, as a community, as partners in faith and ministry.
Of course, the church has taught and currently teaches bad theology, and no one needs bad theology in their life. However, I believe everyone who wants to have a relationship with God needs the church in their life. Church is where you can hear some bad theology, but it is also the only place in the world you can hear some very good theology, theology that helps us grow into the persons God is calling us to be.
In spite of what you may hear a few people say, church is where are reminded that everything that happens in this fragmented world is not the will of God, as Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” If everything that happens on earth is God’s will, then there would be no need to pray for it to be done. Church is where we pray for it together, where we seek to be the people God is calling us to be together, where we partner together to use our individual gifts and our talents to do the will of God together in our communities and in our world.
Of course, churches are full of people who can be mean; however, it is simply impossible for one to serve God better alone than it is being a part of a congregation with those mean people. Over and over in the gospels Jesus admonishes us to love our enemies and forgive others as we have been forgiven.
Jesus never said stay home away from people who get on your nerves, who push your buttons and pray: “Forgive me of my trespasses, period.” “Come into my life and save me, period.”
As we have seen for several weeks now, Jesus never calls us to a selfish, self-absorbed life. Jesus calls us to deny ourselves, give of ourselves, partner up with one another, and together, pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, (comma; not period) as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Being a part of a community, especially with people who have trespassed against us, is the only way we have the opportunity to practice forgiveness, to love our enemies, to live as Christ calls us to live, to move beyond a selfish, self-absorbed temporary religion into a selfless, sacrificial, eternal life.
And of course, organized religion is bad, and many churches are bad; however, I do not believe anyone one is better off without a church.
Like all human organizations, churches can give into the great temptations of the world: power, exclusivity, greed, hate. However, instead of sitting at home and complaining about how bad the church is, Jesus calls us to join the church, to partner with and pray with the church, “Lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Being the church that God is calling us to be requires all of us praying this prayer together. And sometimes it may require someone summoning the courage to flip a table or two.
Nowhere in the New Testament are we taught that one can be a Christian alone, at home, on a beach, mountain or lake. We were not given life, grace, and salvation so we could have some sort of private, self-absorbed relationship with God, but we were given life, grace, and salvation, and we were given certain gifts and talents to selflessly partner with others to do ministry. We are called to build up the Body of Christ, to share with all the life, grace and salvation that has been given to us.
So, next time you encounter someone who criticizes you for being a part of a church, or the next time someone gives you an excuse for why they no longer attend church, or the next time someone upsets you at church and you are tempted to start staying home on Sunday mornings, remember the words of Jesus that we have been talking about during these last four weeks.
Jesus said, if you want to be my disciples, you must deny yourself, pick up a cross and follow me. Jesus is continually calling us to give ourselves away, lose ourselves, die to ourselves. Jesus expects us to suffer with others. Last week we read a story about Jesus praising a woman for giving away everything that she had to something larger than herself, all that she had to live on. Now ask yourself: “Where else on this planet, other than the church, is this type of lifestyle being encouraged?” “What other group is asking you to give your life away?” “Where in this world does another group meet together in a room where a cross, a table, a loaf representing a broken body and a cup representing a life outpoured?”
The church is not perfect and will never be perfect. The church often teaches some bad theology and has some bad people. Organized religion has been and continues to be bad; at times it is even evil. However, despite all of its badness, I believe the church is the best way in this world we can truly be the people God is calling us to be.