Years ago, I ordered a Beef n’ Cheddar sandwich from Arby’s. If I go to Arby’s, this was what I get. It is about the only thing I ever eat there. Roast beef, melted cheddar, onion roll, Arby’s sauce, and a little horseradish sauce thrown in for good measure.
But on this particular occasion, things were about to go horribly wrong. I bit into the sandwich. My taste buds savored the taste of the onion roll, then the cheese, then the beef….
Suddenly, my taste buds recoiled in horror. I’m sure at that moment my tongue became a flat surface as the buds all retreated somewhere.
The meat had gone bad. VERY bad. I spewed the sandwich out of my mouth and fought off the urge to vomit for nearly an hour.
And that was it for me. No more Arby’s. Ever.
After that, I could not even drive by an Arby’s restaurant without feeling nauseated. The memory of a once-loved sandwich gone bad was etched into my soul. I felt doomed to burgers and chicken sandwiches for the rest of my life. The “I’m thinking Arby’s” ad campaign they ran on TV had a whole different meaning for me as I’d *almost* head to the medicine cabinet for some Dramamine at the mere thought of the experience.
And that was the problem. It was just that one experience. But it was enough. Never mind the countless good experiences that came before it. All it took was the ONE time to sour the taste.
Fortunately, this anecdote has a happy ending. I was forced to go to Arby’s by some friends of mine (meaning, I was not the one driving and I had to go there or nowhere). I risked my usual order, and was pleasantly surprised to rediscover the sweet taste of the Beef n’ Cheddar all over again. Restored unto me, it was, the joy of my consumption of Arby’s food.
Bad experiences leave lasting marks. They leave scars. And few places are worse when this happens in the church.
You know, the church? That place that is supposed to be made up of loving people? The place that we have been told is a place to grow spiritually and find community with others? A place often described as being “safe?”
Love people, they say. Find acceptance and forgiveness, they say. Many churches have even tried to break down the walls of legalism, create relaxed atmospheres, and pull off incredible productions all designed to make people who visit feel comfortable and accepted. They offer Sunday school classes and life groups and student ministries and ministries to young adults – all designed to make people feel like they belong.
And it can be very good. What a joy it is to laugh (or cry) among a group of friends who are growing together in their relationship with Christ! How powerful it can be when a group comes together to worship, or – better yet – serve! It is awesome to find a place you want to call “home.”
But, sadly, it can all go very, very wrong.
After all, a church is made up of broken people. No one in a church is perfect. But too often, our brokenness can serve to BREAK others. As I’ve heard it said, wounded people often wound others.
Maybe legalism sets in, and we hold people to rules and standards that no one can truly keep without lying to maintain the facade that they are doing okay. And if we see past their facade and realize that they have failed to live up to our standards, we ostracize them.
Maybe ego invades the leadership of the church. Pastors or other leaders within the body assume a position where they will not allow themselves to be held accountable. Any protest must be quelled immediately, and the “divisive ones” must be cast out of the church.
Maybe the gospel has become buried behind the burden of the Sunday morning production. Everything – all time, energy, and resources – pushes people hard to make sure the quality of the production does not suffer. People burn out, but they are not allowed to burn out. So they fizzle in their faith and their energy, left wondering if keeping the Sunday machine going is all there ever will be to serving their Lord and Savior.
And there’s so much more: Cliques. Gossip. Leaders who mask their “bullying” behind the facade of being “real” and what it means to be a “real leader.” Divisive people who would tear a church down from the inside. Overworked volunteers and underpaid staff all guilt-tripped into accepting their place because it is such a “privilege” to serve God AT THAT CHURCH.
I could go on. I should go on. But I think I have made my point.
Before you think I’m stuck in some sort of hyper-critical mode, please make note of the title of this post. It is “why I still love the church.” I always have loved the church, and I always will. And I will tell you why.
But we have to take a sobering look at what has happened. We need to come together and admit where things have gone wrong. We have to be willing to no longer cower in the corner licking our wounds. We need to stand up and say, “This is not the way it’s supposed to be.” If we see abuse, we have to call it abuse. If we see a lack of love, we need to call it a lack of love. If our leaders have become whitewashed tombs, then we need to – dare I say – question their ability to lead us.
I do not approach this topic as a rookie. I have been involved in “professional” ministry for 21 years. I have worked in middle school ministry, high school ministry, college ministry, and worship ministry. I have a seminary degree (and I don’t mention that to brag, but to merely say that I went through a pretty grueling education to prepare myself – or so I thought – to orient my life around ministry). I have been on the staff of 4 different churches. I have been to countless church conferences where I have been “fired up.” I have attempted to plant a church (and failed). I am attempting it again.
In ministry itself, I’ve seen addicts not only go clean, but find faith in Christ. I have been part of worship experiences where you feel like you could leap out of the front row (or off the stage) into heaven itself. I have had the incredible joy and honor of leading people to Christ (mostly OFF stage, by the way) and baptizing them. I have seen my own children baptized. I have wept deeply with friends who have gone through unimaginable tragedies. I have experienced the joy of some incredible friendships in this thing we call “the body of Christ.”
But I have also been burned.
There, I admit it. And it hurts. Deeply. I have had friends completely turn against me. I have been gossiped about. There are people who will not look me in the eye for no reason other than that I no longer go to “their” church. I have been micro-managed. I’ve had my career hopes dangled over my head like a carrot as bait to get me to do whatever was asked of me, only to find empty promises of roles and opportunities that would never materialize. I’ve had my reputation questioned without cause. I even had another pastor that I’m acquainted with recently tell me on Facebook that I deserved to get my “ass kicked” (his words) because I disagreed with something he said/did.
So it hurts.
But I can deal with it. I sorta knew ministry could get messed up before I ever went into it. And I can forgive those that hurt me. I constantly pray for reconciliation, even if they do not.
But what I cannot deal with is watching it happen over and over again to others. For every story like mine, there are hundreds more. I have seen people attacked by church. I’ve seen leaders act like bullies and reach out and threaten their former staff. I have talked with people who suddenly go silent the moment you dare utter the word “church,” because their wounds run so deep.
“I don’t ever want to set foot inside a church again.” “I don’t want to be around Christians anymore.” “I may go to church, but I will never get ‘involved’ again by serving.” “I would rather stay at home with my family.” “I don’t need church to have a relationship with God.” “How could God let this happen, anyway?” “I’m not sure I even believe in God anymore.” “Why should I trust you?” And on and on and on…
I hear people say these things over and over and over again. And these are not words coming from strangers. These are words coming from those I have served alongside IN the church. And while I’m sure there are well-intentioned people who would oversimplify their situation by saying they should just “man-up and move on,” this does not absolve the church of the wounds it has inflicted. You don’t punch someone in the teeth and demand they stop bleeding.
So I am not only hurt. I am angry. I am angry at what many churches have become. And while I will be cautious and go on the record saying I do not intend to typecast every church or every leader (I’m sure there are many healthy communities out there), we cannot pretend this wounding is not happening. None of us can. Our witness – our role as living examples of the love and grace of Jesus Christ – depends on our ability not just to embody those things, but to stamp out the abuse and the bullying and the lovelessness where we see it. Did you ever notice in Scripture that Jesus only got angry at people using their religiosity to neglect or abuse others? So why do we not get angry at it?
Many people I have talked to have EVERY reason to not love the church anymore. While there are indeed a few that I think do merely need a kick in the butt, most are not lazy, bad, butt-hurt people who just need to grow up. Most are truly wounded, and they are wondering what happened to the communities they once loved so dearly. They are wondering why places OUTSIDE the church began to feel safer than being INSIDE the church. They are also wandering aimlessly, not sure of what it is they are looking for when it comes to church. Or worse, they are too afraid to ever look for it again.
It is because of these people that I still love the church. It is because of them that I want – more than ever – for the church to once again be what it can and should be: A community charged with the task of spreading the love of Christ into the world.
What has happened to us and to others is not a reason to turn tail and run. It ought to be the driving force for us to stand up and once again to be the body of Christ – to show love and grace to people who have forgotten what it feels like and to people who have never experienced it at all. it is an opportunity to not merely say we love people, but actually love them. It’s an opportunity to help people heal. It’s a chance to BE the body of Christ as it is intended – to be his hands and feet.
This will not be an easy task. People who have been wounded do not want to get fooled again. For us, this means that BEING the church won’t be about throwing open the doors so that people come in looking for a new variation of the same old thing. This means that we will have to open ourselves up and get into the lives of those who have been wounded. It will mean patience and long-term investments in people. It will also mean that we will become advocates for those that other churches have cast out or do not want. We will stand up for them when they cannot stand on their own. We will challenge them, but we will earn that right by loving them. We will have to let Scripture guide us, and resist the urge to blindly adopt the latest ministry trends or anything else that suddenly builds a lot of “hype” that can quickly turn into an idol. As leaders, we cannot be rock stars or celebrities. We need to be pastors. We need to be caretakers. If we are to be known, then let it be because we love people. Nothing more.
Why do I still love the church?
I still love the church because I still believe in the love of Christ. It is that simple for me. I do not have all the answers, and forging a new path ahead will bring all-new obstacles and trappings that will need to be dealt with.
But the task ahead is clear. People need love. Our Savior has charged us with the task of loving them.
So let us do it. Let us do that AS THE church.