In Defence of the Church
One of the questions I have come to dread over the years is the “so what do you do for a living?” question. It’s not that I am ashamed to be a pastor, it’s simply that very often the discovery that I am “religious” can be something of a conversation-stopper. Pastors are strange creatures, to be sure, and many people seem unclear about what to do when encountering one outside of their natural habitats (i.e., a church). At the very least, disclosing that I am a pastor often makes the conversation instantly stranger, as people either a) hastily and awkwardly change the topic; b) begin to laboriously and not altogether coherently demonstrate how they are religious too; c) explain why they don’t go to church anymore; or d) stop talking altogether.
Option b was the preferred one this weekend at the hockey rink where the above scenario played out. At first my interlocutor seemed genuinely puzzled to discover that I was a pastor. Whatever her conceptions of this strange category of humanity may have been, I clearly didn’t fit the bill. Nonetheless, the questions began to come thick and fast: “So, are you like, Christian?” “Is Mennonite the same as Mormon?” “Are you allowed to drink?” After establishing a few of these baseline parameters, she proceeded to tell me that she wasn’t “religious” but she was “spiritual.” She believed in science and tolerance and liked a place called the “Centre for Positive Living” where they did yoga and discovered how we are all connected. She thought it was cool that I was a pastor but, for her, the church was clearly yesterday’s news, swept aside in the sea of relativism, science, and general positivity.
I’ve had other conversations over the last few days where similar themes of negativity toward the church come out. The church is full of hypocrites, it doesn’t accept me, it is judgmental, it is boring and irrelevant, it is anti-science and outdated, it is more interested in maintaining an institutional structure than it is with encountering the living God. The litany of exasperation and impatience and “fed-up-with-it-ness” goes on and on. To whatever extent “the church” can be spoken of as a monolithic entity, it surely cuts a rather beleaguered figure in the postmodern wasteland of Western culture.
Truth be told, I resonate, at least in part, with many of these sentiments expressed in recent conversations. The church has much to be ashamed of. Her sins are so well-rehearsed that there is little point in repeating them here. Grace and acceptance are often rare commodities in the very places where they should be automatic. So often, rather than providing a foretaste of the kingdom of God, the church simply leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths. Often when people complain about the church, I simply find myself nodding in agreement. There is little to be gained, after all, in defending the indefensible.
But lately I have also found myself growing somewhat impatient with people’s impatience with the church. It’s easy to pile on to the church these days, and quite fashionable too. From the bestsellers lists at bookstores to the free-for-all that is the blogosphere to conversations at the rink, there seem to be a virtually endless amount and variety of anti-church rhetoric, people virtually queuing up to demonstrate their intellectual and moral superiority to the church and its people, these fossils of a bygone age.
Too often, though, the perceived or real failures of the church are simply a way to avoid honest engagement with either the ideas or the history of the church and its role in Western culture. Too often, a vague sense that the church is bad prevents anything like a genuine attempt to learn more about the story the church claims to tell and what this story might have to say to and for our own stories. It’s always easier to be against something when that something is understood poorly or presented in caricatured form.
More importantly, though, the sins of the church provide a convenient excuse to avoid dealing with the claims of Christ, the questions he asks of us, and the call he extends to die to ourselves, to risk commitment to God and neighbour—to line up with other sinners and hypocrites at the trough of grace, and together learn of fear and failure, sin and salvation, mercy and truth, and a forgiveness and hope that transcends all of our failures, religious or otherwise.
“On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it” (Mat. 16:18). Jesus’ famous words to Peter remind us that the nature and mission of the church do not, finally, depend upon our ability to correctly implement the reality of the kingdom of God. If even the gates of hell will not overcome the church, then presumably neither the stumbling and misguided efforts of the faithful to keep the story of Christ alive in these cynical times nor the skepticism and suspicions of the jaded and uninterested are up to the task either.
I like Kathleen Norris’s comment (somewhere) that when people say they don’t like the church what they are really saying is that they don’t like other people.
Lord knows I’ve complained a lot about the church over the years… and lately. But I have come to see that God has me in the church in order to save my soul. Being in church is essential to my salvation, for only in church am I purged of my sins — pride, judgmentalism, and a sense of superiority. Only in church could I learn the painful lessons of humility, acceptance, grace, faith, and forgiveness.
Norris’s comment is great—so very true. I think that, like you, God has me in the church to learn lessons that I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) learn anywhere else.
I think Lesslie Newbigin said that there is no salvation except one in which we are saved together. It seems to me that this is exactly what many of us (including myself, some days) are resisting.
Yup, this is a big one. Private spirituality is quite a bit more attractive (and easy) than corporate salvation…
Ryan I’m sure you could have written a whole book on this subject and there has been some in recent years. I’m surprised there’s more commentary on your Steve Jobs post than this one. This one is definitely closer to my heart. I’ve had so many mixed experiences in the church ranging from pentacostal, missionary, baptist and mennonite demoninations. It’s hard to begin commenting without getting into a novel. For the sake of being over simplistic – I will go to a church where I feel I belong – and I think that’s true for many people. If anyone wants to truly understand what church is about for those seeking or leaving, try going to a brand new church you’ve never been to, nobody knows you and you don’t know anyone. See how you feel after that experience and if you’d return that church. If you’d return then there is indeed hope. Not to be too judgmental, but some long-time Christians have never had that experience and wonder why their church is empty. It definitely changed my perspective on the church and how I view it.
Yes, I think you’ve identified something important here. I remember when we moved to Vancouver after worshiping at one church for our entire lives. It was extremely intimidating to try to find our way in a new place, and very disheartening to walk out of a church where there was no welcome. As you say, it’s a valuable experience—one that undoubtedly affects if/how we help others find a place of belonging. For all of the gimmicks the church can and does experiment with in order to attract people, the most attractive thing for most people is simply a a place where they feel welcome.
I read these words from blogger Richard Beck this morning (the context is a post about why he is a member of the Church of Christ):
I might have a few questions for Mr. Beck—I’d like to think, for example, that theological distinctives matter more than he indicates here, although I realize I am in the minority :)—but I think he’s largely correct.
Just thought I should clarify something for Ryan. Thank you for your warm welcoming heart at LMC. LMC is definitely a place we’ve found a growing hope and belonging.
Thanks—it’s so good to hear this!
Great commentary, Ryan. I’ve pondered this as well (when people ask me what I do, listing “being very involved in my church” slides right down to the bottom of the list, if I mention it at all! It does sound like a little old lady thing, somehow….) And yet, as you mention, some of these folks have a valid point, and I wonder if it’s because we are “churching” instead of “Christing”, if that makes sense. Are we looking to see God working, or are we busy running our programs (going with the ‘good’ rather than striving for the ‘excellent’)? Being outwardly focused takes a fair bit of effort – it’s easier just to do what we’ve always done, speak to our friends on Sunday mornings, and go with the flow rather than swim against it. Thanks for some food for thought.
“Churching” instead of “Christing”—that’s a great way to put it, Kara. Perhaps if we were more focused on the latter than the former people would have better impressions of church…
In the spirit of the title of the post, though, I do feel like I need to defend the church somewhat. It’s so easy to pick on the church without investing in it… So easy to attribute all kinds of deficiencies and inadequacies to it without being part of the solution… I don’t know. I guess I just think the church shouldn’t apologize for more than it needs to.
did you really post that, Ryan? I’m surprised by:
“Too often, though, the perceived or real failures of the church are simply a way to avoid honest engagement with either the ideas or the history of the church and its role in Western culture. Too often, a vague sense that the church is bad prevents anything like a genuine attempt to learn more about the story the church claims to tell and what this story might have to say to and for our own stories. It’s always easier to be against something when that something is understood poorly or presented in caricatured form.”
Do you really think that overall, people who aren’t all glowing about religion and ‘the church’ are those who have ‘avoided honest engagement’ with it and its teaching, or understand it only ‘in caricatured form’? My sense is the opposite… many who are not involved with the ‘church’ have had significant and meaningful engagement with it. They have experienced first hand what it teaches, and what it practices. Many have discovered that there can be a very significant difference between the teachings of Christ and what seems to have become ‘church-ianity’.
Yes, I really did post this, and I stand by what I’ve written. I’ve seen both scenarios. I’ve seen (first-hand) people who have attempted to participate in the life and the teachings of the church, only to discover the vast chasm between theology and reality. This is profoundly tragic, and it grieves me. I’ve also seen (first-hand) people whose approach is reflected quite accurately in the well-known Chesterton quote: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” I’ve had many conversations with people whose distaste for Christianity was simply poorly-informed or unjustified, and the caricature they were rejecting seemed like little more than a justification for their own ideological or lifestyle commitments. This, also, is tragic.
I’m not making a blanket statement about either response. Neither one represents a comprehensive diagnosis of our current situation. I acknowledged in the post that many critiques of the church are well-deserved, and that I have no interest in defending the indefensible. I’m simply trying to look at the whole picture, and offer at least a partial defence of the church in an age where dumping on the church is easy and popular. To put it bluntly, it’s not always the church’s fault when people don’t like the church. Sometimes—perhaps even often—it is. But not always.
Hi Rita, I am intrigued by your comment and perhaps you can help me better understand those who, as you say,…” are not involved with the ‘church’ (but) have had significant and meaningful engagement with it. They have experienced first hand what it teaches, and what it practices. Many have discovered that there can be a very significant difference between the teachings of Christ and what seems to have become ‘church-ianity’. ”
I can understand abandoning any church particular or any sect for that matter over grave theological differences or even worse personal maltreatment but I struggle to understand how someone can maintain a relationship with Jesus and be divorced from corperate/community setting? In your experience does the formerly “churched” person abandon Jesus as well as church or do they seek alternative avenues to Christ?
Is there a better way to Jesus, then when church gets it right?