These are my ponderings on the "popular issues" the church in America faces today.
These days, spirituality is hot, religion is not. Community is hip, but the church is lame. Both inside the church and out, organized religion is seen as oppressive and irrelevant. Outsiders "like Jesus" but not the church. And insiders have been taught they'll do just dandy with God apart from the church.
Through my 20 years of conversations I've come to the conclusion that the young tend to be the most disillusioned about religion. (If you just took offense and are about to close out this window because I used the dreaded "r" word, you're the perfect person to keep reading. So keep reading.) It is unquestionable that the youngest generation is impressionable and idealistic. I would say that the young are much less interested in church and religion. But if you think about it, this makes sense. The young have always questioned the old, big and institutional and they have latched onto the eccentric, unique and independent. So it's a natural reaction for the young to be suspect of the historic faith.
Over the past year I've heard the same sentence an incredible amount. I'd heard people say it before, but never this much, and never with this much angst and anger behind the words.
"I mean, I like Jesus, I just don't like the church."
I call BALDERDASH.
I've heard this from the mouth of both the outsider and the one raised in the church (which is even more sad). Karen Ward, an emergent church leader in Seattle (Can I get a "what what" from my hispters!?) was quoted in a book about creating churches in the postmodern culture. She said 95 percent of the nonchurched in her area have a favorable view of Jesus. She also said, "so Jesus is not the problem. It's the church they dislike." First Karen, why are you leading a church? Second, hold the freaking phone Karen. The Jesus that those nonchurched people like is certainly not the Jesus who calls sinners to repentance, the Jesus who claimed to be the Son of the Most High, or the Jesus who died for our sins.
If you think you like Jesus, think again.
You've hijacked him into some hippie, whale-saving, dread-having, open-minded, spiritually ambiguous guy, who loved lesbians and preached peace. This Jesus is pretty much Bono in a bathrobe. This Jesus is more "hang out" than holy. This Jesus has simply taken a razor to the harsh edges of the gospel so that it's not so offensive to you. I don't want a hijacked Jesus who is openhearted and never-offending. Jesus was transcendent and personal, but He warned of judgement and demanded repentance. Sin, salvation and the necessity for new birth were what he preached. The apostles preached Christ dead, buried and raised for our justification.
That was their message and the world hated them for it.
It's wrong when the church wears unpopularity as a badge of faithfulness. But, on the flip side, we cannot assume that we have failed because outsiders dislike us. I fear that in our self-esteem-oriented, easily offended, suffering-averse world, the church is too eager to be liked. Christianity has an image problem. Sometimes, this is our own dang fault. At other times, our lack of an image problem has been just as damning. We're indistinct from the world. Nothing sets us apart! Nothing suggests we have a transformed life or renewed thinking bound by the Word of God! We lust after academic recognition and cultural validation. We fancy ourselves fashionable and look around hoping the world will take notice of us. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 4: 3-4 says, "But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. I am now aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me." We need to fall on our faces before the Lord Most High and beg Him to show us our sin. Where sin is, there repentance should follow. Where sin isn't, we need to keep doing church whether it makes us popular or not.
Ok ok ok. So I get it. Outsiders are unhappy with the church. But why the heck are Christians sick of it!? I have a couple thoughts on this.
1. Church is boring. Sermons are either too long and dogmatic or too breezy and superficial. Worship has become formulaic and services are monotonous.
2. They are tired of the outdated Christian subculture. Today's young adults (that 'young' populace I spoke to earlier) feel left out. The church imbibed one generation's tastes and now we, the offspring, want to spit it out like a baby who doesn't like processed spinach (but who could blame the baby?). It's one thing for the church to feel like a time warp to take you back one hundred years. It's another thing entirely when it brings you back to the 1990's with the Fresh Prince of Bel Air. The church tried too hard to be relevant a generation ago and now we are paying the price.
3. Church-leavers hate the megachurch. They disdain the orange-vested parking lot attendants and the ubiquitous greeters around every corner. You show up, sing songs with a group of people you don't recognize and sip coffee from your Starbucks to-go mug. The megachurch made suburbia king and pastors godlike CEOs. This may seem harsh. It is. But this is what many have come to know as church over the past few decades.
4. Disgruntled insiders feel like church is abusive. We could fill entire stadiums with people hurt by the church. Let's clear one thing: church abuse doesn't mean physical harm or even verbal tirades. Abuse for the "church-is-lame" crew is when someone claims to speak the Word of God without reference to the wider community, when difference is demonized, and when control is exercised to maintain the institution.
5. The Church seems inauthentic. People are just going through the motions. The smiles are as fake as the designer shoes. Greeting-card theology passes for spiritual meat. Doubt, denial, questions and suffering are all embarrassments. The church just isn't real.
All of this said, I want to caution you. I would never try to refute people's individual experiences with the church. Some people have been hurt bad. But I believe that some of the church-leavers angst may be self-induced. I think it's possible that a good deal of the problem for church-leavers rests with the one leaving and not just the church. I've been hurt by the church. I've been disheartened. But in the end, the biggest problems came from my own heart. I'm not discounting external pressures, or difficult situations or the many ways believers hurt each other. But I feel bad for myself. I lose faith. I doubt the Word of God. I don't want to forgive. I get embittered. I grow lazy. But these are sins in my heart. Others can make life difficult for me. I'm the one who can make it unbearable. But before you write off the church completely, think about this.
Are you rejecting the institutional church or the faith?
If "Christians" are interested in a Christianity free from doctrine, demands, and damnation, they aren't just sick of the institutional church and its unflattering quirks; they're tired of the Christian faith altogether. That gets real dangerous.
Is a car still a car without an engine? Is a head still a head if it doesn't have a body? Is a friend still a friend if he can't stand your wife? The church is God's building with Jesus Christ as the foundation. Christ loves the church and gave himself up for her. He makes her beautiful. She is his bride. She may be a lying, no good, double-crossing poor excuse for a wife, but she's his wife. Who wants a friend who rolls his eyes and sighs every time their wife walks into the room? From what I see in this day and age, some people think Jesus wants friends like that. They roll their eyes and sigh over the church. The church we love is as flawed and screwed up as we are but she is Christ's bride nonetheless. And I might as well have a car without an engine, or a head without a body as despise the wife my Savior loves.