For the past two months, I’ve been pushing into the tension I’m feeling with church, trying to find the words to articulate what seems off… whether that’s with me, or with the collective church (most likely both). And yesterday, as I sat in the laundromat with my husband, thanks to a broken washer, it hit me like a freight train. Truth be told, it’s been sitting right in front of me for years, decades really. But, it required me to string together a reoccurring theme, or maybe it’s more of an ever-present variable, which IRONICALLY wasn’t me.
Let me explain.
If you’ve read anything about our journey, you know our family has wrestled with the contemporary, westernized version of church for over a decade. It’s always seemed weirdly “non-biblical” to me and whenever I would ask questions about it to leadership, at best I’d be dismissed. When I persisted in my questioning, I became labeled “problematic”, or my personal favorite: Radical. But, as I sat in the laundromat yesterday, looking back at the common variables in all of those church experiences, it was really hard to NOT see myself as the one thing that remained constant. However, after spending a year on the road talking to other people, hearing their similar experiences, I also knew I wasn’t alone. The things we saw and experienced weren’t isolated events; they were systemic problems within an institution so far removed from some tenets of true Christian faith that it became hard to tell if, collectively, we had become a church committed to the work of Jesus, or a business looking to elevate ourselves… in the name of Jesus.
And then it hit me: THAT was the common variable.
And this is where it get’s nuanced, complicated, nit-picky… the adjective we choose might shine a light on any pre-conceived ideas or judgments we’re clinging to. In some (most) of our pervious church experiences, this elevation of self was obviously self-serving. Whether it was the church that intentionally decided to NOT give away its Christmas tithe to the Christian youth center struggling to make its monthly payroll, instead opting for the well funded children’s hospital in town because they though catching a few doctors in their proverbial net would be advantageous for the bottom line, or the multi-million dollar capital campaigns to construct some of the biggest buildings in our local towns, that ironically would be empty most days of the week, all while homeless shelters continue to bust at the seems and tent villages start populating urban areas.
In both cases, rationalization ran deep. I mean, you can make almost anything look good, and, I dare say, sound biblical. But, are we in the business, pun intended, of doing good… when it could mean forsaking what is better, or best? What is gospel-centered, Holy Spirit inspired and fully-immersed in the love of Jesus. And this is why that light-bulb moment sitting in the laundromat yesterday was so important. These examples are so obviously off the mark that they make other EQUALLY off-centered ideas seem good, I dare-say biblical… when they might not be.
I had a professor in seminary who used a great visual representation to explain the pit-falls of settling for the good option and forsaking the best. He asked us to imagine a straight line from Point A to Point B. This represents a life in complete obedience to our faith in Jesus. (At this point, you might be remembering all the memes of zig-zagged lines that more accurately illustrate our lives of disobedience through the years!) While perfection, this side of eternity, isn’t attainable, the sentiment behind the analogy is important: Any deviation off that line, no matter how acute, over time, will lead you far away from the final destination. (Jump to ALL those sermons talking about how it’s never too late to course correct! This is true. BUT, what we’re talking about here is more than an individual making a mistake, or falling into sin. We’re talking about collectively moving in a direction that elevates man, more importantly our individual agendas as a small body of believers, over the kingdom agenda of elevating Christ by collectively, in unity, working together to be His hands and feet to the most marginalized in our communities.
What if our mindset has been wrong this whole time?
It didn’t hit me until recently when I heard a pastor say, “At the end of the day, if we no longer exist as a church body (understand this to mean: as a registered tax-exempt organization… a specific local church body that differentiates itself from another local body thanks to branding), our loss should be felt in the community.” At the time, I 100% agreed with the sentiment… and, in a way, I still do. But, there’s something deeper here we NEED to dig into because, at the end of the day, the ideology is no different than the examples given above if what we want them to miss is our “small banner” church and not the BIG C church… if it’s not Jesus.
Over the years, our frustration with the institution of church has been its insular practices and programming. There’s a temptation to adopt an “us vs them” mentality as we focus more on bringing people INTO our buildings and not going OUT into the world, if you will. And, just to be clear, I don’t think most of that is ill-intended. On the contrary. But, I also don’t think it’s what Jesus intended the Church to be. When I read the gospels and the Book of Acts, I see a desire to grow so fast and furious that no building COULD contain it, so why bother trying. But, there’s also a second part to this.
While I know there are exceptions to every rule and generalizations are neither fair, nor totally accurate, there are some common characteristics, or themes, we’ve seen far too often that also need to be addressed because together they paint a more accurate picture of our predicament. Generally speaking, we have become a Church that is known more for what its against than what its for. We’ve become more outspoken about our pseudo-political inclinations than our Holy Spirit, Jesus-centered proclamations. We’ve confused sacrificial living with comfortable (and convenient) giving. We’ve raised the banners of small c churches looking to make their mark in society, while trampling the banner of Jesus… that really isn’t a banner at all because humility doesn’t subscribe to recognition.
So, this is where we land. Looking at the landscape. Starting with this foundation.