What comes to your mind when you hear the word “church”? What memories does that word evoke? What do you feel? What words—four-letter, faith-based, or otherwise—do you wish to say when you hear that word “church” (by four letter word, I OF COURSE mean “hope” or “love” or something else theological and “pure”…naturally)?
If any of you are like me, you might experience a mixture of emotions. In one moment, you may remember an experience you had at church camp when you were 13, and then in the next moment you may remember the greatest moment of emotional devastation you’ve ever felt. Let us consider some negative church experiences:
- Being Rejected By The Church. Many of us know the pain of rejection or perceived rejection (something we misunderstand causes us to feel rejected) that can be experienced in the Church. It changes the entire landscape of our lives. Afterwards, you build a new life, you meet new people, but it takes awhile for you to let down your guard again.
- We Feel We Have Never Really Met God. There have been two friends in my life that I’ve talked with about why they were walking away from their faith in Christ. They both told me, “When I decided to give up my faith, I thought about the fact that I would lose my friends, my social life, my worldview, but I realized that I wasn’t worried about losing God Himself. I don’t think I ever really loved or knew GOD.” In all of our striving after cool, relevant church and genuine community, have we forgotten that key ingredient of really, REALLY meeting God?
- Unhealthy, Controlling, and/or Hypocritical Leadership. If you’ve ever forbidden a congregant from attending another church’s event because YOU are their shepherd and they are YOUR sheep, you might be a controlling leader.
- Political Ambitions. I once heard a wise man say, “Whenever you mix religion and politics, you get politics.” Growing up in conservative, evangelical America, I am quite familiar with the terms “Moral Majority” and “Christian Right”. I myself in times past have been passionately behind attempts to get the GOP (God’s Official Party) into power so that they could bring about the Christian utopia in America that the Founding Fathers and Jesus could’ve only DREAMED of.
We may want to echo the words of St. Augustine here: “The Church is a whore.” Just don’t forget about the second part of that quote: “but she’s still my mother.”
While I have experienced some of my greatest hurts in the Church, I’ve also experienced some of my greatest joys. I have seen that when the Church—institutional, mega-church, house church, seeker-sensitive, charismatic, etc.—walks in step with her Lord and Husband, that she really is desirable. Let us consider some positive church experiences:
- Community. I have met some of my greatest friends and most influential relationships in the Church. When the Church has worked right, I have had the joy of being a part of a thriving community and have found a place within the people of God.
- Spiritual Experience. There’s an old Delirious song called Obsession. One of the lines says, “You’ve come and burned me with a kiss.” My experiences with the Holy Spirit have shaped me and molded me, and they are what keep me seeking after more of the God I first discovered in the Church.
- Good Leaders. While half of my personal trust issues with older people may come from negative church leadership experiences, some my greatest encouragers, supporters, and inspirations are people serving in ministry. Some of these people have even become “adjunct grandparents” to me. For your own sake, beware of holding onto bitterness against leadership.
- Social Altruism. Christianity has been a positive force for change in the world. Abolition, women’s suffrage, and caring for the poor are hallmarks of the church (in politics and in advocacy, or “lobbying”). Even the media’s favorite Christian Right “whipping boys”, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, were/are involved in positive social action, Falwell with his homes for unwed mothers and Robertson’s Operation Blessing.
Again, I apologize for and empathize with some of the negative experiences you may have had in Church. I’m sorry if you’ve never experienced some of the good things I’ve mentioned about Church. I’m sorry if you’ve never really experienced God’s presence or if you’ve never been under healthy leadership, or if you’ve been turned off by rejection or politics in the Church.
Sometimes we need to remember that God can redeem the negative experiences we’ve had not only so we can avoid making those same mistakes, but so that we can comfort others who have been hurt in the same way.
Some people reading this post have mistakenly thought that because the Church has seemingly given up on you that God has also given up on you (and honestly, some of you were rejected by some little sect of the Church that no one doing anything worthwhile for God really cares about anyway).
We need to look at the story of the Wheat and the Tares in Matthew 13:24-30. In this passage the farmer makes it clear that he will allow the tares (which look deceptively like wheat, except when you open them to find that they are a hollow shell) to grow with the wheat because otherwise, in ripping out the tares, he may mistakenly hurt some of the good wheat. The true judgment between wheat and tares won’t happen until Harvest time.
Likewise for us, as we live out life in the Church seeking for the Kingdom of God to come on earth as it is in Heaven, it would be prudent for us to consider that an experience we consider a tare today, we may see later as being from the hand of God. Jesus has promised that “stumbling blocks are bound to come,” but he also says, “Blessed are those who do not fall away on account of me” (Matthew 18:7; 11:6).