August 10, 2020

The Unresolved Tensions of Evangelicalism part 3: Christian Community

I am continuing my look at the sources of disillusionment within evangelicalism. This will be a five part series, with four posts on the sources of personal disillusionment and one on responding to these personal sources.

Here is part 1 and part 2.

3. The Disillusionment of Christian Community

[I want to be very clear that there are a lot of quality experiences of Christian community in evangelicalism, and many good people who practice it. I live in one good example. I know that many, many people have experienced the kindness of God in and through churches that demonstrated the reality of community in the Spirit. But it’s from working in churches for almost 20 years and living in a Christian community for 16 that I have developed an appreciation for what so many are going through in their own painful experience of dysfunctioning community. Despite many examples of the body of Christ being beautiful, this subject- disillusionment because of Christian community- is continually relevant.]

Does anyone really need to write this post?

Do we really need to spend even five minutes establishing that many current and former evangelicals are disillusioned because of their experience of Christian community? Or that evangelical apologists are fully stocked with responses that overwhelmingly place the blame for the failure of Christian community on the person who says Christian community is failing?

Is anyone going to argue that evangelicalism is that branch of Christianity most likely to change the church sign or ad to say “A Friendly Church” or “A Caring Community” or “A Family of Love and Acceptance” or a dozen other rhetorical announcements promising a great experience of community?

It was evangelicals that invented “Now stand and shake the hands of everyone around you,” replacing passing the peace of Christ with pretending to be friendly. (And I’ve got nothing against being friendly, but being coerced to do so is a bad idea.)

This particular kind of disillusionment presents such a warehouse of evidence that the problem is how to make sense of it all.

Let’s start with this: Most churches haven’t thought much about what community means. There’s very little distinctively Christian definition of why the church is different from the Rotary or the girls meeting at the local hair salon. How is the church different from a team? How is it different from an audience gathered to hear their favorite band or celebrity speaker?

The church has the problem that even secularists and Muslims have some idea of the kind of community that Jesus would have formed. They may be completely wrong on what that ideal means or why Christians can or cannot achieve it, but it’s pretty hard to miss the basics of what community would be like if Jesus is involved.

The church’s failure has been the failure to follow Jesus on this rather clear path. Instead, churches and Christians default to other kinds of relationships within culture, work, family, geography, history, etc. So you have Bob Jones University apologizing in 2008 for its race based admissions and dating policies.

Really people, how hard is this one if you are paying attention to Jesus?

But that’s the point. The culture, history, family, tribalism- they all trumped Jesus-shaped community on that issue. When it comes to going wrong on the issue of how to treat people, it’s hard to exceed the church.

So when we actually ask and answer the question “What does a Jesus-shaped, Spirit-empowered, Biblical community look and act like?” we’re going to get in trouble. It’s completely predictable. A lot of religious people simply are not interested in following Jesus on the “who is my neighbor?” question. We want Jesus to define religion, and we’ll decide what the club will look like.

I show my classes a documentary on the life and work of Southern Baptist scholar and civil rights leader Clarence Jordan. Jordan’s work of building an inter-racial Christian community in Georgia during the 1960’s just about got him and dozens of other people killed. It did inspire shootings, bombings, terroristic threatening and Klan intimidation. And, of course, the local Baptist churches were right in the middle of it, making a huge issue out of Jordan’s insistence on bringing persons of color into these churches.

You watch this and you can’t believe it, but I am old enough to remember it. Culture ruled. Christ didn’t shape the idea of community in most churches in the south. Integrated worship services had nothing to do with Jesus. Go with your own kind. (Contemporary evangelicals seems to be retrying out that idea with their various consumer shaped worship options and ministries.)

The church has largely repented of this failure of community, but it’s instructive. It tells me that the church really can’t be trusted to know what Christian community means, and whenever other sources of community definition are in the neighborhood, they will likely be heeded. Enter dress codes, economic snubbing, second classing women and singles, generational tyranny, denominational and stylistic narrowmindedness and so on.

Julie Duin’s stories of how her experiences as a single woman in evangelicalism are enough to make you wonder if we’re, literally, suffering some kind of mental disorder.

And then we have the actual failures of Christian community that are all around us. The list is daunting and we need to hear it. We need to hear it so we won’t be surprised at all that so many people have said “so long” and “good-bye” to evangelicalism and the church altogether.

-There are those sexually abused in the context of church. And what they endure later from Christians – especially those in authority-for saying so.

-There are persons used over and over again until they are used up and burned out.

-There are persons who simply cannot break into a church’s fellowship structure, no matter how hard they try.

-There are the experiences of single men and women.

-There are the experiences of the divorced and the divorcing.

-There are people who disagreed with a leader and were labelled as “divisive.”

-There are persons with questions, who often have trouble accepting the accepted “answers” as satisfying.

-There are person who can’t adjust to changes in pastoral style, and are told they should leave.

-There are persons who despise the dumbing down of preaching, the loss of hymns and the abandonment of liturgy.

-There are persons who don’t make friends easily.

-There are people who need rides to get to church, but who can’t find dependable transportation.

-There are persons who were abandoned when they lost their family, spouse or child.

-There are people who feel they are being avoided (and blamed) because of a tragedy or loss they’ve suffered.

-There are persons with physical limitations who struggle with the slowness of the church to recognize their situation in some way.

-There are those people who don’t want to spend more money on buildings and are told they are opposing God’s vision for the church.

-There are the poor who feel embarrassed with all the financial posturing and preening that goes on in church.

-They are the people who are shunned by pastors and leaders for reasons that are never clear.

-There are persons whose views on science, politics, gender, sexual and social issues cause them to be rejected.

-There are those whose interactions with Christians have been painful, dishonest or violent.

-There are people who want the church to identify with the suffering, the powerless and the excluded, not the powerful and the privileged.

Writing- and I hope, reading- such a list is a litany of disillusionment. It brings back many painful memories of situations that seems so unnecessary, but are so common.

There is no conspiracy to disillusion these people. Many Christians would quickly respond to these things if they could or if they knew about the situations that exist. But these situations exist throughout evangelicalism.

Well, if you didn’t know these things exist, you do now. There are thousands and thousands of Christians who have been disillusioned by the church in these ways and many others. The unresolved tension of Christian community has been very, very costly.

One last comment, easily the most painful of all.

The arrogance of many Christians in regard to these matters is one of the most disillusioning experiences of all.

How many people have left the church when they discovered that once the hurtful and painful experience was known, they were blamed and the church exonerated the guilty or ignored the need for change?

I realize that many defenders of evangelicalism have a ready script on this one. The church is just doing its best. These critics are hostile. You can’t please some people. Don’t believe their story. These are spiritually immature people, even tools of the devil. If leaders paid attention to all of this sort of thing, nothing would get done.

I know these responses because I have often given them. I’ve been a major apologist for the terrible experience of failed Christian community. I understand why Christians want to be given credit for what they are doing and not criticized for what they have done poorly or failed to do.

I simply leave it with you. This is a major issue of disillusionment. It is a door that is open all the time.

I need to change my attitude about those who have gone out this door. How about you?

Next, I’ll look at disillusionment with Christian commitment itself. (And yes, I will be writing a post suggesting responses to these sources of personal disillusionment.)

Comments

  1. I’ve been an urban youth worker for more than six years now and in the last year have become really disillusioned with the church. I moved to a new city and it has been incredibly difficult finding a church to join. Your recent posts have been really refreshing and encouraging – because I find myself saying in response, “This is so true!” Especially as a single woman in her 30s, I feel that this is the most awkward age. Too old for “college and career” not married with kids and not retired. I have visited many, many churches and felt really alienated and unvalued.

    So, do I go to church because it’s my ‘spiritual duty’? Or do I drop out? As an Evangelical I WANT to tithe and attend church a few times a week, I want to be loyal to my denomination, etc. But, I find myself increasingly frustrated with being out of touch with where I am in life.

    (And to clarify, I don’t believe in “church hopping” and I know that no church is perfect and sometimes it’s better to commit to a church and journey through the rough places together. )

  2. I don’t talk or write much about why I was essentially ‘anti-Christian’ in my young adult years or why I picked the church I picked when I half-heartedly decided to give Christianity another chance and picked the church I thought most likely to confirm my worst expectations.

    As a young teen transplanted from Houston to a very small town in the Ozarks, I found that change (just one of myriad changes growing up) somewhat difficult. Along the way I developed some sort of relationship with the Southern Baptist church just down the hill from our house. I’m not sure I even know exactly where I was. But it did help. I thought. For a while.

    Until I became a teen father.

    The clincher was when I tried attending the church again after my infant daughter had had a slight bout of pneumonia. (Something which scared me to death at the time.) Very shortly after the service started I was told from the pulpit to remove my sleeping daughter because she was disturbing the service.

    I mostly stayed out of Christian churches for the next 12 years of my life.

    To greater or lesser extents, stories like that permeate Christian “community”.

    Honestly, I think I have two friends in our Church. I don’t make friends easily in any context. But they are also the only two who actually know what I think and how I respond to many things. I don’t run into so many of the other problems on the list because I just don’t say anything most of the time. I guess I’m guarded. But I’ve seen what has happened to other people who are less guarded. I’m not interested in reliving anything vaguely like my teenage experience.

  3. Thanks for writing these posts, Michael. I believe they have been starting some interesting conversations. Let me preface my statements by saying that some of the things you pointed out are valid, and I am only speaking from my own experience.

    I have also been disillusioned in the past with the church that I am involved in. I now see that the problem was at least as much my fault as the rest of the church’s. As a single guy, I always felt very awkward attending church as there were very few people who were my age to begin with and the ones who were my age were married. It seemed weird going to events where I was the only unmarried, childless person present. I also didn’t feel that any of the people around me were reaching out to me. There were times that I felt less spiritually mature than those around me or that I was a second-class Christian.

    Eventually, I was able to build a great friendship with an older, married guy. After talking to him about it, I was able to step back and try to put myself in the shoes of those around me. I always felt awkward around the married couples so I didn’t know how to reach out to them. In the same way, they were unsure of how to reach out to me. It wasn’t that they were uncaring; they were just experiencing the same doubts and issues I was. I now know that many of the people I felt were the coldest were actually the ones who cared the most and just didn’t know how to express it.

    All that to say, it is always a good idea to look at the situation from the other view. More importantly, we have to extend to others the same grace and patience that we want for ourselves. Will this get rid of all of our problems? Of course not. Can we expect the world to do that when our churches don’t treat them appropriately? No. Many of the issues you mention are difficult, and there aren’t simple answers for them all. However, if the church is supposed to be a community built on the grace and love we have received through Christ then part of the solution to any problem is to make sure we are exhibiting these qualities in our own lives.

    I apologize for the length of this comment especially since I’m not sure that it directly addresses your post now that I’m looking back over it. Feel free to edit it as you see fit or delete it entirely.

  4. Scott M,
    Sad to hear that you would be called out from the pulpit about your sleeping daughter.

    Wow! Those folks would not stay in the church I pastor for very long, I’m guessing. I have had more than one 2 or 3 yr. old crawl up on the platform when I am preaching. We are a small church, so maybe it is different than having a room full of them up with me, but I don’t mind. Most the time mom slips up and gets the little urchin, or if things get to far gone, I pick-um up and take-um back to mom and dad.

    I’d say that the preacher didn’t have much courage when he kicked out your “sleeping” daughter. He he had he would have kicked out all the sleeping adults too. Oops, can do that, they tithe.
    fishon

  5. Christopher Lake says

    As a single, 35-year-old man with a physical disability, the happiest that I have ever been in “Christian community” was when I found a church that emphasized the Gospel more than anything else– more than age differences, more than marital status, more than taste of music in worship services, and more than physical differences.

    After a cross-country move (that has been filled with heartache), I am now in another congregation where the elders *want* the church to be Gospel-focused above all else… but… part of the problem seems to be that there are simply so many married couples, and so much time is spent addressing their concerns, that the whole sense of “physical families” threatens to overwhelm the Gospel.

    It also probably doesn’t help that the previous, aforementioned church was solidly, consciously Reformed, with a high view of God and a serious view of sin, while this new church *leans* Reformed, in terms of the teaching, but the congregation is much more broadly “evangelical.” For example, during a recent sermon series on sexuality, temptation, and lust, the elders recommended books by Douglas Wilson and John Piper, while at least one small group leader was recommending “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus”… sigh.

    Anyway, I joined this church to love, serve, and learn, and I want to do so, even as my heart longs for a more “joyfully Gospel-centric” atmosphere to develop. It is in this sort of atmosphere that strong, deeply rooted Christian community can develop. I pray that I may be a part of that development and that I may do so with a humble heart, thinking of my own imperfections first.

  6. Christopher Lake says

    Also, add “vulnerable and transparent” to “joyfully Gospel-centric,” because community cannot flourish, among a body of believers, when we will not take off our self-protective masks. With as many people as have been hurt by churches, it is understandable that very few do let down their guards– but as long as that is the case, genuine community either will not grow or will take a much longer time.

  7. A question about my experience:

    At a borderline fundamentalist (dress code, no alcohol even in the town, curfew, dispensational, church attendance requirement, – I’m including all of these because depending on where you are from, fundamentalist may mean one or several of these), I had a roommate who was an almost 4.0 Bible major, RA, inner-city evangelism team leader, you name it. Senior year, he was kicked out of the school for something (I do not know all of the details) that most people involved thought was relatively minor – the Bible department petitioned the administration to overlook the offense but was ignored. He left the school, went back home, and got involved with a less evangelical crowd. Due to the “community” that he experienced there, he ended up going to a definitively non-evangelical school, got his masters degree, and in the process became a practicing homosexual and is running as fast and as far away from orthodox Christianity as he can.
    My question is this: how do yo think God views all of this? Will the administration at my college be held accountable by God for being, as someone put it, the only army that shoots its wounded? And yet my friend made his own decisions – he’s a smart guy and a grown man and he decided how he wanted to live his life.
    thoughts?

  8. I appreciate this post. Making a community is something I really struggled with as a member, and eventual leader, in the youth ministry of an upper middle class Evangelical church. We would always encourage our membership to “play nice” with visitors, but many of them ended up as you’ve described: persons who simply cannot break into a church’s fellowship structure, no matter how hard they try. If these young people weren’t among the “cool Christian kids” at the “good school”, they stood very little chance of ever really being a part of the community. In that sense, it wasn’t very much of a community at all.

    I now do work with impoverished families dealing with child neglect, substance abuse, and a host of other issues and because I spent so many years in the church, often wonder how any of these people could have possibly been invited into the congregation that I was a part of. And I mean REALLY invited, and not just the recipients of some handout around Christmas time every year.

  9. I hate to say this, but out here on the mission field there are plenty of single missionaries that have dedicated their lives to foreign missions partly because they were outcasts back in the States. Now, I think they are some of our best missionaries and are called by God, but at the same time I know their exclusion for being 30 and single helped inspire their calling to the field.

  10. I agree with Caleb. We are so blessed to have so many choices in this country (or most of this country). In many places in the world, Christians don’t have a choice and they must work hard at church, being a community with other imperfect believers, rather than walk away (even while suffering from deep wounds). While there are many legitimate reasons for leaving a church, I really do believe that being Christ-like and striving to create community begins with the individual, lest we fall to a consumerist vision of church. To paraphrase JFK’s speechwriter, ask not what your church can do for you, ask what you can do for your church.

  11. FYI,

    This problem isn’t confined to the evangelical branch of Christianity. I’m in the middle of leaving a small group where I feel the same way. (and feeling very guilty about wanting some understanding when everyone else is busy with families, and new borns etc.)

  12. “Mike”: I really don’t feel good about saying how God evaluates. He’s holy, all knowing and gracious. I usually err on the side of God’s forgiveness in life. But legalistic expulsions are often exactly the kinds of things Jesus condemned (Plank in eye, straining at gnats, etc.) Especially of concern is representing Jesus with institutional rules and then being ungracious. God does hold his people responsible for being a people of mercy, not legalistic control.

    But Pharisees think just the opposite. Glorify God by putting the hammer down on every jot, etc.

    As to the young man’s own decisions, again, they are his, and God knows and loves him perfectly. He knows his struggles and weaknesses. Certainly a lot of peole lose the battle of sexual faithfulness because of the choice of community.

  13. Mike, your story resonates with me. I saw a pretty similar story unfold myself. I feel like, on the periphery, the homosexual subplot running through Christianity is actually an issue that intersects with more than most people recognize. Somebody desperately needs to write a book on this.

  14. How many people have left the church when they discovered that once the hurtful and painful experience was known, they were blamed and the church exonerated the guilty or ignored the need for change?

    Count me under this heading. After trying to come to grips with all the human failings of the congregation I was a part of–and wanting to stay–an incident you describe here was the back-breaker. I could set aside the other things as the mistakes of people trying to honor God with sincere hearts. But, in this was an overt choice to exclude and show favoritism, without apology.

    I haven’t been back.

  15. We are imperfect beings. Even so, how can these failures happen on a regular basis in our churches? I propose that most churches are more social club than church. My wife and I have been part of many dance clubs over the years, and find the parallels with churches amazing.

    I could take your list, replace the word church with dance club, the word Christian with dancer, the word pastor with club president, etc., print out the list and ask our dancing friends if they think it describes dance clubs. I know their answer, because I’ve heard them discussing these things.

    Does this mean that churches and dance clubs share these characteristics because “people are people wherever they are”, or because churches are more social club than church? Undoubtedly there is some of both, but in my opinion it is very much of the latter.

    A sociologist tells me that people tend to organize social groups around perceived common interests. After the initial stages of group formation, the common interest often serves as an “excuse” for the group’s existence. Hence, the parable of the life saving station. The group has largely departed from the common interest, and now exists primarily to socialize. (Although certain individuals in the group may be there because of a paycheck, position of power, etc.)

    We have friends who have left the church and are now part of the gay community who tell us the gay community is much more accepting than the church community. Become gay = instant community. As a straight, married, heterosexual couple, we find the gay community more accepting of us than are church communities. Here’s the kicker – We know people who pretend they are gay so they will have a community.

  16. As a friend of mine once stated:

    ‘In Biblical times, the greatest institution upheld was that of the family, and therefore God’s people were referred to and functioned as a family. In 21st century America, the greatest institution of our culture is that of the business, and thus, the Church tends to function as such.’

    That we might walk out the community that Christ has called us to. I think Larry Crabb’s two books, Connecting and The Safest Place on Earth give a very healthy perspective, at least from an evangelical. 🙂

  17. I miss my old church. When we lived in GA, I had no misgivings about telling people we belonged to the best church anywhere ever. It was all the things about community that I believe a church should be. I wish every church everywhere followed their model. Sadly, I don’t know what the future holds for this particular church.

    This church cared for individuals and families. The people of this church went on mission trips, took church retreats together into the mountains, ran a bus route to bring children in, visited the nursing homes, sponsered Christian clubs in the local public schools, and on and on I could go. They supported us (my wife and I) on more than one occasion. When my mother had a heart attack and went from the ER to emergence surgery, I called my pastor on his cell so he could pray. He came to the hospital and waited with the rest of my family for the 3 hour surgery to be over. When my wife carried a child for 3 months and miscarried, all of the church was sympathetic. But the associate pastor and his wife came by one afternoon, and brought us a meal. They came to our house, and brought food. That’s community.

    That associate pastor has gone on to pastor a church himself. My wife and I also went into full time ministry, and moved out of state. Each time we go back, it seems others have left, or quit, or something, and that few new people have come in. I don’t get, but that church that I feel so highly of as being exactly what every community needs may someday just disappear. That’s apparently not what the world is looking for in a church.

  18. As a late 20s single guy in the church myself, I can backup a lot of these points as true. But, at the same time, there is no benefit to being offended or allowing my feelings to be hurt by any of this. Christ has called us to serve and provide leadership, and I’m not going to be able to do that if I’m always focused on & worrying about how the church makes me feel.

    The main point of this is being a witness to the lost who walk inside the church and then realize they are very unwelcome. That is what’s unforgiveable here. The only way this will change is if we become part of a church and act differently. I’ve seen some families in the church that are living a healthy Christian community of their own to the full. It’s when these families are leading the church that you can see a difference. Ever experienced just one family who took you into dinner one night, welcoming you into something completely different – where you could tell they were doing something right? – that’s what we all should aspire to.

  19. Christopher Lake says

    J.P.,

    Thank you for the good words. Feelings are real, including hurt feelings, but we have to be careful with how much we allow them to impact our view of our local church (or just churches in general).

    I sometimes feel like the odd man out at my current church, because I am 35, single, and longing to be married, when most of the other singles are either teenagers or 50 and older and divorced with kids. However, that doesn’t change the fact that this church has a good, healthy focus on the Gospel and what I believe to be Biblical views on baptism and the Lord’s Supper. These are no small matters; rather, they are important parts of a healthy church.

    My personal pain over being single and feeling slightly alienated, at times, in my church cannot compare to the *good* things that the church has to offer. I can’t expect my brothers and sisters to always understand me and my individual pain. Those feelings are certainly there, and I can’t just ignore them, but I have to care more about loving and serving than I do about always being “understood” or “affirmed” in my feelings. That is part of basic Christianity. Thank you for reminding me.

  20. Jake Fierberg says

    Churches that started small and grew large have the inital core members that experience good fellowship. New attenders cannot break into that fellowship of the core and are left out unless they are able to gather around themselves group of people. This seems to be where the idea of “small groups” got it’s genesis. So the church becomes a collection of small groups and fractured attenders instead of a united body.

    We ought to be going out to the world to “reap the harvest” rather than simply opening the doors and see who comes in. I think to some degree, the Catholic parrish system works like that. The smaller a congregation is, the greater the fellowship and community. This opens the lives of the people to each other. It’s messy, disturbing at times and uncomfortable but it is where we can love and be loved. It is where Jesus is.

  21. “I now do work with impoverished families dealing with child neglect, substance abuse, and a host of other issues and because I spent so many years in the church, often wonder how any of these people could have possibly been invited into the congregation that I was a part of. And I mean REALLY invited, and not just the recipients of some handout around Christmas time every year.”

    Short answer: They aren’t.

    Long ranty answer: In my experience poor people are there to help rich people feel more christ-like. Messed up family background + povery = pity friend. The “other” isn’t equal so there’s no basis for actual friendship. If they’re “teachable” then you can mentor them and feel really super spiritual and awesome. But that’s about it. Oh, and it’s a time-limited thing. Pity-friends are good for seasons, like Christmas, not day to day. Then they morph into what’s commonly known as “work”.

    In all fairness, it’s very difficult for most people from the outside to understand where they are coming from. And I think that this is the cause for many disillusionments _on all sides_. If only we spent more time building bridges and entering into each other’s lives in a meaningful nonjudgemental way… but it’s not easy for any of us.

    After all, it goes against our natural human tendencies, it disrupts homogeny – which leadership can feel threatened by, it rests on trusting God in our day to day actions in a very real way, and it often leads us to reevaluate ourselves – traditions, culture and culturally based theology included.

    As far as I can tell it’s all cultural and the church dynamics are cultural and that pretty much explains everything. The transcendent spiritual community of faith seems more myth than anything to me at this point. (Please let me be wrong.) And churches are full of the same problems any other institution is. C’est la vie.

  22. Indirectly said, “And churches are full of the same problems any other institution is. C’est la vie.” It’s so true and so hard for me to swallow. Having working in both the secular world and a Christian environment, I can tell you that there is so little difference, it would be laughable if it weren’t so sad. Honestly, I enjoyed the secular world much more; there was the same pettiness, envy, attempts to get out of work, etc. but without people being nearly so judgemental. I can’t imagine why a non-Christian would want to be part of this type of environment, and if churches are the same or no better than the rest of the world, why bother? The poster that said the church has become a social club is soooooo right; but it’s not a social club that apppeals to many people.

  23. Christopher – yeah man, I don’t mean to make light of hurt that occurs within the Christian community – some people are actually hurt and trying to deal with real trials in their lives, and the current state of evangelicalism regularly fails here – which saddens me.

    I guess I found myself once thinking of the church community’s purpose as being to meet my needs. But that’s pretty laughable, isn’t it? Things get much clearer focusing, not on how the social circles in the church make me feel, but on what I can do in the church for others & for God. Not trying to sound JFKesque though, darn it.

    peace bro – God gave us our desires for a reason

  24. J.P.

    Without being contentious, let me dialog a bit on the “the church isn’t supposed to meet my needs” thought.

    It’s simply not the case, is it? Is the following passage about a church that meets my need to grow into a Jesus-shaped spirituality/discipleship or is it about the church being a place where I serve God and others?

    Ephesians 4:11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

    I have no doubt that followers of Jesus do imitate him in service, but if the purpose of the church isn’t to build up me so I can follow Christ, then I’m confused.

    This is the problem many megachurches are having. They are pulling in the audience with sex talks and bands, but they are telling their core people that church ISN’T FOR THEM AT ALL, but that it is an evangelistic outreach where they run the nursery and coach Upwards Soccer. I’m glad for those nursery workers and coaches, but when they decide they’ve worked themselves to exhaustion and their own spiritual life is empty, even burnt out, then what?

    Wicker and Duin says they are going to leave, and I agree.

    If they church isn’t for me- if it doesn’t give me Christ and his Gospel, give me a community and take my spirituality seriously, why, as a Christian, am I there?

    peace

    MS

  25. I have to agree with Indirectly. I grew up urban non-Christian dysfunctional poor. I was ostracized through most of my childhood and teen years. Consequently I lack some normal social graces (think weird homeschooler syndrome). When I entered the church as a teenager none of the youth really accepted me, only a few weird ones. A couple of adults took me under their wings. I was very much an outsider in the church until I left my home city after getting married.

    In my new church I started conforming to upper class ideals until I realized that I was selling my soul to the devil. I also remember snubbing some of the difficult people in the church in a vain attempt to fit in. Shame on me.

    After rejecting upper middle class values I realized that I would probably never fit in again. Partly, this is my doing. I can’t congratulate people on their house upgrades or go out for dinner with them in good conscience.

    I’m a part of a house church now. My husband and I have few friends and I’m lonely at times. We try to find the needy and lonely and connect with them too but truth be told we’re still often too selfish to give them the time and energy that they need. 1% the solution is knowing the problem and the rest is having the strength to actually do our part.

  26. Nicholas Anton says

    It seems to me that the subject of your blog is constantly wallowing in and becoming submerged in the despair of the eternal nihilist equation.
    Where is the faith of Abraham who believed the seeming irrational and impossible?
    Where is the faithfulness of Jeremiah who persevered without results?
    Where are the seven thousand who have not bowed to Baal?
    Where is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?

    While your assessment of the physical church is quite accurate, where is the Spiritual Church, the True Church, the Body of Christ?
    Where is Jesus Christ, the Head and Hope of the Church?

    I believe the time has come to build up and not to tear down.
    To look ahead and not to grovel and despair in the present.
    To admit, though struggling with doubt, “I believe, help my unbelief”.
    To be able to say with Daniel’s friends; “Dan 3:17-18;
    “If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.”

    To be able to say with Job, (Job 13:15); “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him”?

    Both the True church and Jesus Christ are sure and secure.
    May we have faith to believe and follow.

    Martin Luther was correct when he stated:
    “If I profess with loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at the moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved, and to be steady on all the battlefield besides, is merely flight and disgrace it he flinches at THAT point.”

  27. Christopher Lake says

    Michael,

    I think that the needs you are talking about being met in a church– hearing the Gospel regularly and with power and conviction, being built up into spiritual maturity through genuine discipleship– truly are our real *needs,* as Christians. They *should* be met within the community of the church.

    The “needs” (as some would call them) that J.P. and I are talking about– to feel more “understood” and “affirmed” in our struggles with singleness– are not actual *needs.* That is secular psychology speaking, plain and simple. They are, rather, very strong *desires*– desires that I am coming to accept are simply not always going to be met in a church full of sinners (like myself).

    This acceptance, too, is part of Christian maturity– as is getting on with loving and serving even the people (or perhaps *especially* the people) in my church who don’t “understand” and “affirm” my struggles, as a Christian man who is single and in his 30s.

  28. Nicholas Anton, you quoted a lot, but I’m not hearing any substance in what you’re saying. Surely you don’t think that Jesus us going to “save the day” in this mess we’ve made and inherited. If you do, I’m wondering where you’ve been the last 2000 years…

    If our religious community is an inhospitable, spiritless place that offers little understanding and few consolations, I don’t see what “the 7000 who have not bowed to Baal” have to say to us – when we’re ALL somehow part of the problem, and a solution continues to evade us.

    We all have advice, we all have obvious remedies – but I bet few-to-none of us have successfully convinced a church-growth booster to give up his shtick or managed to coax a person humiliated by the church back into the building without lying to them.

    These are, as far as I can tell, people-problems. “Spiritualizing” these issues doesn’t help – it obscures things, and again puts us at the point of naming scapegoats and passing out scarlet letters which we’re all trying to avoid doing on purpose.

    All the rousing Martin Luther quotes in the world aren’t going to lead anybody to actually DO anything differently if we can’t change the system we’ve made.

    I say we can’t because Evangelicalism has spawned an entertainment industry, and given its cultural impra mater to that – how many people do you know who feel “called” to Christian music ministry? How many of them are annoying? We’ll never solve this problem until we develop a rhetoric that convinces people, all at once, to give up their dreams and stop their bullshit and accept their childishness and start over from the very beginning. Once upon a time, I think the prophets did stuff like this. Unfortunately, lots of Evangelicals have an embarrassingly transparent love affair with “Spiritual Gifts” – we all know people who’ve claimed to be prophets, who skulk the peripheries and try to ‘disciple’ people, freelance. IS there any real credibility left to be had in the Evangelical culture, or have homely Midwestern values really gone “Hollywood” and are never going back?

    For my part, I don’t see this as “wallowing” and “despair”. Imonk’s doing some good writing on a tough topic. There’s a time for talking and a time for praying, and when it comes to Christian culture, it’s time for some real talk.

  29. Hmm… In my time at one church, I saw and heard

    – The “senior pastor” (and others) refuse to acknowledge a colleague who had been divorced and remarried. His wife (a former member of the church) was with him. Very few people spoke to them.

    – one of the “elders” breathing a sigh of relief over the fact that there was no need to install an elevator for the handicapped. Problem was (still is), the sanctuary at this church is on the 2nd floor. Nobody who uses a walker, wheelchair, scooter or other assistive device can get up there unless someone literally carries them. (Stairs are treacherous.)

    – Those whose spouses had died were not really (I think) cared for; very similar situation with those who were divorced.

    – I have a disability which is not apparent to the eye, yet it’s real. I am on SSA disability, fairly won. Yet this same church kicked me out for supposedly lying about my physical condition to the SSA. The “senior pastor” refused to read articles about the illness I have, saying that he “didn’t have time.” I was told that I should immediately move to my elderly mother’s home (in another state) to care for her because I clearly needed “discipline” in my life. My membership in the church’s music ministry was revoked and I was told that I could not play at a friend’s wedding. Further, the members of the music ministry were instructed to literally not speak with me, either in person or on the phone. And yet, the “leadership” insisted that they had done nothing wrong, and that they just wanted me to “chill out.”

    – People being told that psychological problems were a result of unrepented and/or demonic activity.

    And so on.

    And yet, for many years, I believed this congregation to be a good – even safe – place.

    We do shoot our own wounded.

  30. Patrick Lynch, I think you missed the point Nicholas Anton was making

    I too have been agonizing over the state of the church/community for years and what to do about it and am finally starting to realize its just the very nature of the beast. It can’t be changed. We keep trying to build the church/community, that Jesus said he would build, instead preaching the gospel of the kingdom and making disciples of all men which is what we are called to do. Christians keep trying to build an organization or institution to do on their behalf what they are supposed to do themselves (the point Nicholas was making I think)

    A friend and mentor told me something very interesting. Having come through AA and getting his life back, having come to know the Lord and having been discipled came up with the idea that AA would be a great place to go and evangelize, where upon the Holy Spirit severally rebuked him with these words “You can take the AA concept into church but don’t you dare take church into ‘my’ AA”.

    Food for thought, got curious and looked a bit into how AA is structured and run and yes we could learn a lot

    Anyone for Sinners Anonymous

    Cheers

  31. It’s a vexing conundrum, to say the least.

    One thing that bothers me, about most of the criticisms of the church, is how rarely the critics consider that the people failing to welcome the hurting, outcasts, and doubters, etc., are often just as needy and broken as those claiming to have been shunned or neglected. Why are “outsiders” pitied, but “insiders” blamed?

    Expectations that believers should be changed in some way, are invariably met with cries of being “too legalistic” or “not forgiving enough”. But, if we’re not to judge the “sins” of the few, how dare we judge the “sins” of the many?

    If someone starts attending church with their gay partner, and expects to be treated just like any heterosexual couple, then what? If an unmarried girl gets pregnant (or a boy gets a girl pregnant), but there’s no sense of having done anything wrong, then what? If someone is an incessant gossip, and is always sowing discord, then what? If a man is constantly being cruel to his wife and kids, then what? And what of racists, drunkards, and registered sex offenders???

    It’s not that christians should have to be good enough to come to church. But how do we behave towards unrepentant sinners in the church, in light of 1 Corinthians 5?

    I think the easily shocked, our way or the highway, clique-ish social club behaviour of so many congregations is disgusting. But so seems the idea that judgment shouldn’t be passed on the few, but it’s okay to judge the many.

    It’s messed up, and I honestly have no clue, as to how to fix it. Maybe the patient has to die and be raised from the dead.

    Excellent (and infuriatingly thought-provoking) posts.

  32. I fail to see why someone who only believes in the spiritual church invests so much time at this blog. It’s your nickle as we say here in the states, but if I didn’t believe in praying, it would be a manifestation of a particularly kind of hostility to constantly comment at a blog on prayer.

  33. hans, let me make myself clearer.

    I think our churches are organizational methods through which we Christians gather to attempt all the things that Bible says we should.

    Our problem, as e2c pretty much definitively points out, is that the structure often betrays us, and as others have noted, we often betray others within it.

    Unlike AA, there is no ‘success rate’ with church. If there was, it would probably be somewhere near zero for a depressing number of churches.

    The thing is, hans – it CAN be changed. We all know of nicer communities, or have been a part of nicer communities, more Gospel-informed ones, ones more peaceable and open. Many of us have watched our churches change from one thing to another.

    If this was “the nature of the beast”, who would care about Christianity? If all churches were equally bad, Christian life would be meaningless. Would you believe in Jesus if everybody who testified to Him was a douchebag? I wouldn’t. Why would you?

    Saying that God’s got it isn’t enough. Praying isn’t action. Praying is ongoing – action is needed. Its empty piety that borders on quietism to just say “hey, we’re sinners, this is God’s problem and he’ll fix it when he wants to, just like he did with [insert favorite Bible story]”. Fact is, there won’t be a Revival unless we think it up. The Reformation and the Counter-Reformation and every revival before and since started with an idea.

    Lots of people are hostile to thinking about church. They don’t like to be told about the men behind the curtain. Religion shouldn’t be a suspension of disbelief. We’re supposed to love God with our minds, and not get squeamish with where our thoughts take us if the ground beneath our Holy Spirit Show starts to quake. Faith should give us strength to see through our illusions and into the body of our Church, not keep in holy fretfulness over our personal dedication to God. That’s childish.

  34. Thank you for this post. I have lived in Christian community most of my adult life and as an evangelical Christian am dismayed at how little attention most evangelicals give to the formation of Christian community. However I think that in the last few years there has been far more discussion about this. My husband and I live in a small community in Seattle called the Mustard Seed House. We are seeking to authentically live out the gospel in community but are struggling to really understand what that means.
    I have been reading a lot lately – everything from Jean Vanier to Organic Community by Joe Myers and I must say that the most helpful books are those written by Catholics or non Christians not by evangelicals.

  35. Bob Sacamento says

    Couple of quibbles with the post, but you are 99% right on target. Reading that long list, and thinking of all the people who have been through all that, it makes me wonder, Who the heck is left?

    And I had a real, “So it’s not just me” moment when I read …

    How many people have left the church when they discovered that once the hurtful and painful experience was known, they were blamed and the church exonerated the guilty or ignored the need for change?

    If I only had a nickel for every time ….

  36. Bob Sacamento says

    To all of those who talked about how difficult it is being single: I was almost 40 when I finally got married. So I know you are right: it sucks. Tempted to tell a few stories, but I don’t have time. And you’ve lived most of them yourselves anyway. For what it’s worth, if I had it to do all over again, I wouldn’t worry so much about “fitting in” to a “community.” I would have concentrated on making friends with individuals I liked and found I had things in common with, and would have built “my own community” with them. I would not have given up on church at all, but I would have actively looked for other places to engage in addition — maybe Habitat for Humanity or a soup kitchen or something. Just my two cents.

  37. The biggest problem when there is a significant number of people who are experience “disillusionment” is that it begins to look more and more like you have some real “illusionment” to begin with.

    I think that’s certainly become the case with Evangelical culture – the illusion of perfect families, the illusion of a certain ecstatic state being achieved ever Sunday in worship, the illusion of a universally-devoted Bible-reading faithful, the illusion of a group of people who don’t troll for porn on the internet, yell at their husbands and wives or live in houses they are embarrassed of, etc., etc., etc.

  38. Ky boy but not now says

    As to singles fitting in.

    In many ways you just can’t unless the church is large enough to have a singles group.

    I got married at 33. Until then I was with the “outcasts” and couldn’t figure out why. After getting married and having kids I figured it out.

    First your time is not your own. Being married means you can’t just walk out the door when someone calls and says “hey come over and watch the game”. You have to coordinate at a minimum and many times deal with commitments made to the spouse. And with kids it’s much more complicated. Which is why many of us have friends who also have kids in the same activities and schools we do. Because we around each other so much and our schedules are many times identical, why not find a friend in this group?

    Second, you have a large number of concerns that many singles don’t. Pediatricians. Schools. Homework. After school activities. Swim team. Car pools. Singles are rarely a part of any of this and if they are tend to be viewed suspiciously. (It only takes one molester to ruin it for 99,999 who are not.)

    And a take off on the second one, most singles don’t own their own house, condo, whatever, or at least not in numbers that rival couples. Which brings up an entire other set of interests that couples have than many singles don’t.

    Nothing against singles but you live in a very different universe than married couples. Especially married couples with kids.

    Now to counter what I’ve said, we’ve had at least one singles person in our small group most of the first 6 or so years of it’s 8 years of existence. But lately none. Which I think is an indication of the strength of the singles ministry. But then again, most singles we had were over 30 which might be an indication of something. Not sure what though.

  39. Christopher Lake says

    Ky boy,

    You make some valid points. Married couples with children are, generally, busy people– in some ways, by definition, in other ways, by choice and scheduling of activities. It definitely takes *intentionality* for married couples with children to include single people in their lives. However, it can be done. I have seen it done, and done intentionally, lovingly, within in a church body. For married people with children to have single friends requires a view of the local church that is careful, thoughtful, intentional, and inter-generational. Perhaps, most importantly, such a view prizes love for the brethren above the over-scheduling that crowds us out of each other’s lives.

  40. Great post once again Michael. So much resonated me, especially the list of experiences. I’ve had or known those who had a lot of them.

    A question for any takers: Have you ever seen genuine community grow out of a program imposed for that purpose by the church leadership, with lots of stringent requirements for the underling leaders, etc? I’ll spare you the details of my particular experience, but I am curious.

    Unrelated to the above question, one of the most insidious and pervasive trends I have seen are the misguided attempts to manufacture or maintain a sense of “community” through various manifestations of “spiritual” elitism, selectivity, clubishnes, or whatever you call it. Manifestations range from shunning the poor and the different, including making derogatory comments about their physical appearance or ailments, to being appalled that a mainline denomination is even investigating the possiblity of sexual abuse at its boarding schools for missionary kids, as if such a thing could never happen and to investigate it is not just absurd, but somehow sacreligious. It takes many, many other forms as well, none of them spiritual or communal in the Christian sense.

    Many things about current evangelicalism make me sad, but this misguided and unwarranted sense of social/relational exclusivity and pride is the only one that brings me close to despair.

  41. Ky boy,

    I agree that singles and married folks do have very different interests, but so many single groups seem designed to make married folks out of singles. Some of them have revolving doors, especially for men, who come in, take a look at the women and then leave. (Sorry if I sound cynical, but I’ve seen that way too much.)

    Another challenge is that many Christians, even those that I would consider mature, do not recognize that some of us are called to be single our whole life. (and that realization was a knock-down drag out fight that God and I had. 🙂 )

    I don’t expect to fit in perfectly, but some reaching out would be nice. (and unfortunately this seems to be an area where Catholics need to learn from the Evangelicals).

  42. Ky boy but not now says

    As I said my social small group almost always has had at least one single in it. Mostly men. Mostly, for lack of a better phrase, emotionally mature.

    I can’t speak for women, but for many young single men, the life they lead doesn’t have much in common with married couples, especially couples with kids. Reaching out works too a point. But the ones who decide Friday night to drive 5 hours Saturday morning to some event and get home Saturday night / Sunday AM at say 2 AM, usually don’t have 2 pre-schoolers in the house.

    Yes it CAN work. But like a lot of what else is discussed here the key word is work. I.E. time invested. By both sides.

    A singles / college ministry pastor recently said one of his issues was the number of young MEN sitting around in their underwear all day playing video games on weekends. Marriage and kids gets you out of that routine very quickly.

  43. When I was a kid, our family had little money. We rarely went out to eat. Someone told my mom about a new diner and she convinced my dad to take us on a Sunday after church. Each of us ordered the three piece fried chicken dinner. We received the smallest pieces of chicken I have ever seen. It was dry & overcooked. The beans, potatoes and roll were also small, dry and overcooked. The meal was awful & we were very disappointed.

    The following year, someone opened a soft serve ice cream place across the street from the diner. The ice cream place also served burgers and similar items. The food was fine and so were the prices. That sealed the fate of the teeny tiny chicken diner.

    There is absolutely no need to “tear down” the church. I hear Someone is building a new place across the street. People can choose. Perhaps both will survive, but teeny tiny chicken diners with dry old chicken and snooty snotty churches with dry old religion could be in trouble. We don’t need to tear them down. They just dry up and blow away.

    For John: No, I have never “seen genuine community grow out of a program imposed for that purpose by the church leadership, with lots of stringent requirements for the underling leaders, etc.” The group may need a little help, but genuine community does not develop out of a program. On the other hand, the church leadership can certainly stand in the way of genuine community developing.

  44. I’ve also recently been reading Eugene Peterson’s ‘Christ Plays In Ten Thousand Places’. He looks at how Christ is revealed in the three areas of history, creation and community. It’s quite beautiful to ponder all that he is talking about. Anyways, the third part on the importance of community is very relevant the thoughts here.