So, I happened to get into several conversations with church people yesterday. Now, by church people, I don’t mean people who belong to a church or work for a church or love a church. I don’t even mean people who have accepted and are trying to live within the boundaries set by a church. When I say church people, I mean people whose identity is tied up in a church or some brand or denomination in the church or a particular theology or even just a bunch of cultural assumptions which are supported by part of the church.
Church people are people who will object to the way something is said rather than deal with the substance of what has been said. Or someone who keeps making arguments meant to address things you never actually said and don’t necessarily think. If they do listen, it’s only so they can look for footholds they can use to render what you say invalid. Or someone who, once they realize they can’t defeat the ideas they disagree with, falls back on looking for excuses to discredit and dismiss the messenger – “you’re obviously emotional/you don’t even belong to a church/you’re in rebellion” etc. Charges of hypocrisy are almost always involved. None of these behaviors are unique to church people. But that’s just the problem, isn’t it?
I don’t usually talk much with church people. I mean, I have spent plenty of time talking with and listening to church people in the past. And I’m plenty happy to engage with them on matters where we’re in broad agreement. But usually, I keep my interactions with church people to a minimum because at some point we’re going to disagree and I either need to just bite my tongue which after a while just means giving up your right to have your own voice. Or I can attempt to have a conversation about it. Which is pointless once everything that can be said has been said and rejected on all sides.
Plus, I have a sharp tongue and a thick hide, so I am often much ruder and blunter than I ought to be. I can be a bit much for a lot of church people to take. And I get that.
But yesterday seemed to be my day for dealing with church people. I would say I did my best to be nice, but I did have to apologize to someone for attributing his callous disregard for vulnerable human beings to his male genitalia. I have to give him props for accepting my apology and moving on. So maybe I didn’t do my best, but I tried my best. Which is all anyone can really ask.
Towards evening, I inadvertently got caught up in my third conversation with church people of the day. (I sometimes forget that just because something is obviously true, doesn’t mean it isn’t controversial and accidentally said something that got several people all riled up.) I think I handled that one pretty well. I’d be practicing all day so I wasn’t all emotionally wound up. But for at least the third time that day, people assumed that I was angry at the church or highly emotional about it or had been hurt by the church.
None of those things is remotely true, but then I went to my blog and noticed that on the front page are posts titled “Churches Don’t Like You When You’re Suffering”, “In the End Times, No One Listens to Their Pastor” and “The New Reformation”. And I realized that I may well be giving people the impression that I’m hostile to the church. Which is not the case at all. So perhaps some clarification is in order.
To start with, I do have kind of an odd church background. I have spent serious time in the Roman Catholic Church, Willow Creek Community church which is a moderate Evangelical mega church, a more conservative Evangelical mega church, the Episcopalian church and the Evangelical Covenant church. I have also attended services a few times at Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, AME and a progressive Evangelical mega church. And there were some others whose affiliation I don’t recall. And none of that includes the time I’ve spent studying the teachings of churches ranging from Eastern Orthodox to Independent Fundamentalist Baptist to Unitarian.
Now, on it’s face, my journey with the church sounds like a lot of church shopping. Some of it came from moving. The rest was the result of prayerful agreements between my husband and I that we were being lead in and out of different churches. Sometimes we stayed with the church for a few years. Others we stayed at for less than a year. We nearly always jumped in with both feet, volunteering, joining or leading bible studies and small groups, participated in couples and hospitality ministries, joined committees and praise teams. About the only thing I didn’t do was children’s ministry because I have 5 kids. No thanks.
After a while, we agreed that God seemed to want us to enter into a church for a season in order to learn what we could learn there. Once we’d learned what there was to learn, God would lead us out. If we ignored or resisted, thinking that perhaps it would be better to remain committed, we’d inevitably find ourselves right in the middle of all sorts of drama and conflict.
Weird things like a woman who successfully orchestrated a passive aggressive campaign against me because her daughter had beat up our son and I rejected her suggestion that I have an exorcism done on him. (That was the Episcopalian church.)
Or having the contents of private conversations show up in public prayers by people we didn’t even know. Because the leaders at that “community focused” church didn’t know my husband and I were married to each other and slipped up thinking no one who wasn’t part of the inner circle would know what they were talking about. Which would be me.
Then there was the one church we walked out of on our first visit. We sat uncomfortably through a prosperity gospel sermon but walked out when people started practically cartwheeling down aisle singing, “money coming to me/I’ve got money coming to me/thank the Lord God Almighty/money’s coming to me”, while the worship team sang along. (The person who invited us said we probably shouldn’t have visited on the day they were celebrating their fancy new building that they were halfway to paying off. Normally the teaching was very good.)
We had some bad experiences, sure. But nothing remarkable or any worse than experiences I’ve had with the local mom’s group or at the YMCA. Well, they may have been remarkable for their weirdness. When church goes wrong, it can get really weird. But we rarely left any church feeling hurt or disgruntled. To the extent that we did, it was strongly associated with us having drug our feet leaving some place we both knew God was calling us out of. I figure that some of the poor behavior we encountered was just God’s way of nudging us to do what he’d already told us to do.
While my relationship with the church is a bit unorthodox, that doesn’t mean I don’t love it. I do. And I’m not sure how many people have actually seen how beautiful the Bride of Christ actually is. We’re far more beautiful than we know. I can’t imagine anyone could see the church the way I sometimes have and not fall in love with her. I love the church.
I love the rituals of traditional churches. I love saying prayers that bind me to countless people across time and distance who have also said those prayers. Who stood and kneeled in just the same places even.
I love the beauty the church creates. The Eastern Orthodox icons and Roman Catholic statuary and even humble sanctuaries created by small church communities to be passed down through generations.
I love the energy and power of a rowdy praise and worship service where people dance in the aisles. I love that I can cry in church without embarrassing myself or anyone else. I love looking in wonder at some person who got the Holy Ghost and wondering what power on earth would make a person abandon all sense and inhibition like that.
I love learning from someone who knows the bible in more detail than I ever could. I love listening to sermons that open my eyes to new ways of reading and understanding scriptures. I love hearing people’s off the wall theology and listening to what need that theology is meeting on their journey to God through Jesus.
I love the wisdom passed down by the old Catholic saints and mystics. I love having access to the conversations and debates and research taking place among scholars about theology and scripture. I love that there are Christian books that have revolutionized my understanding of the faith and illuminated mysteries I hadn’t understood.
I love that if I need to, I can call someone from every church I’ve ever attended, and even though we may not have spoken for years, they will pray for me. I love the beautiful brothers and sisters I have met who I cannot think of without smiling. I love having conversations about our prayer life and faith walk with people who know exactly what I’m talking about.
I love the church more deeply than I’ve ever loved anything besides people and God. I am not angry at the church. I am in awe of it. I don’t think the church is a bad thing. I think it’s stunning. Everything you could ever need to equip you to follow God is present in the church. How could I not love it?
So why do I sometimes appear to be hostile to the church? Because I feel no need to defend the church. The church is fine. But it does need pruning. Which both Jesus and Paul spoke extensively about. There are things which have grown from this vine of ours which need to be removed in order to ensure our long term health and viability.
Now, if you’ve ever severely pruned a bush or a perennial fruiting plant like a grape vine, you know that it looks rather alarming. Some plants won’t even flower or set fruit after a serious pruning. I know that when I’m cutting a plant way back, I’m constantly worried that I’m cutting off too much, even though logically I know I’m not. It’s not for the faint of heart, at least if you care about your plants. And it’s no different with the church.
I started off by saying that church people are people whose identity is tied up with the church in one way or another. They are people who are marked by a need to defend the church. If you are a church person, watching as someone comes and starts pruning off branches that you have put your faith is going to be painful and alarming. The felt need to come to the defense of those things is going to be very strong. I do get it. But that’s why it’s so important that you ground your identity in Jesus and nothing else. Not even the church.
This pruning process is a God thing. It can be resisted, but it can’t be stopped. It will go on with or without church people’s consent. And as I’ve mentioned a time or two before, God is quite ruthless when it comes to doing what needs to be done in order for us to experience salvation. It may be alarming, but we’re in good hands.
“And I also say to thee, that thou art a rock, and upon this rock I will build my assembly, and gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” ~ Matthew 16:18 (Young’s Literal Translation.