Friday, March 24, 2006

What's Wrong With Church - You and Me

Many of you have detected a theme to this "What's Wrong With Church" series. Implicit in any discussion of doctrine, club mentality, glory stealing, running like a business and conforming to the world is an acknowledgement that it is the people who cause all the problems. Not just other people, but you and me also.

The picture below rings true for me -- bad colors, odd pose, lots of flowers and smiling faces. It looks like it could have been taken from the scrapbook of most any church in the 1970's. The three are inexplicably gathered around a sewing machine, probably the symbol of a missions project finished or something similar. The people look friendly enough. How could fine folks like this be what is actually wrong with church? Or even, how could a fine person like me be what is actually wrong with church?
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A common charge leveled at the church is that it is full of hypocrites. The people inside think they're better than the sinners outside, but they're just as bad if not worse. Certainly you've heard that if you haven't made the claim on your own. Sadly it can be very true. Church people are very protective of their turf and won't let just anybody intrude on their space. Fine smiles like we see in the picture could easily hide a spirit of pride and selfishness. A subtle (and occasionally not-so-subtle) form of classism rules. The club mentality is played out in church politics. Long-established members enjoy their positions of authority and power. In many congregations, any new project or idea must first be approved by a church patriarch or matriarch who essentially runs the church. If the patriarch approves, then all is well. If the patriarch rejects the notion, you might as well get a shovel and bury the thing.

If a patriarch has authority, it is very tempting for him to desire keeping the status quo. Needed change falls victim to the patriarch's axe. After all, change could mean a shift in the power structure. And anyone new in the congregation must bow the knee to the patriarch and wait for his approval to do any ministry. Many believers have been soured on the church due to church politics, often because of a small group of people terrified of losing their grip on "their" church.

In newer churches, the patriarch is often the founding pastor. The people are devotees of the pastor. This can be a real danger if the pastor is more interested in glorifying self instead of glorifying God. It is also dangerous if the goals put forth by the pastor are not goals for the church. While that's not always obvious, the temptation of pleasing others or pleasing self instead of seeking to please God is always strong.

This brings us to the issue of accountability. In denominations, the pastor and the church itself is to be accountable to higher authorities in the church. If the denomination has a strong enough structure, discipline can take care of terrible problems within the local congregation. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. Dysfunctional churches are usually simply tolerated by the higher-ups, provided the church assessments keep coming in.

In cases where a denomination attempts to reign in the dysfunctional, the outraged congregants simply votes to go independent and avoid any accountability. A pastor in danger of denomiational discipline can simply move to a new denomination or link up with an independent church. And the problems perpetuate. Many independent churches have absolutely no accountability and too many times it is obvious to the spiritually discerning Sunday morning visitor.

A church shopper usually finds that there are certain expectations to be met if she wants to be a part of a certain congregation. She must be of the right social class. Intellectuals don't really want non-intellectuals around. The poor don't want the show-off affluent. Democrats don't want Republicans. Pro-lifers don't want abortion supporters. The potential member must meet the unofficial requirements before she has to worry about jumping through the other hoops -- bowing to the patriarch, be willing to volunteer for what the others don't want to do, don't try to rock the boat.

Perhaps the biggest problem with you and me is that as a church we don't usually stand for Jesus Christ. Sure, we mention Him in every prayer and we sings songs about Him, but do we really represent Him to the world? Too often we aren't looking to reach out to others. We aren't trying to meet the needs of the single mom or the lonely college student or anybody else who doesn't fit into our notions of who deserves our help. We reject the prostitutes and tax collectors that Jesus ministered to. We give the impression to the lost that we have no problem with them staying home, rejecting Christ and burning in hell. We show them by our actions that we don't care. We show them that we stand for absolutely nothing except perpetuating what we have now.

We are lazy people, you and me. Instead of seeking out ways to please God, we are content to please ourselves. Instead of reaching out to others, we find ways to exclude them. Instead of sharing the incredible news of salvation through the grace of God and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, we distort the Gospel to meet our own preferences. Instead of submitting ourselves and our churches to God's word and God's will, we selfishly refuse to relinquish control of anything.

The biggest problem in church will always be the people in the church.

Up next: What's Right With Church?

9 comments:

Dan Edelen said...

I first realized the disconnect between theory and practice when I was at Wheaton. I'd gone there after several years working in both paid and volunteer ministry positions.

In my Christian Education classes, I noticed how pie-in-the-sky some of the teaching was. For instance, we'd work up a new curriculum design for use by the adults in a church and everyone was pumped. But then I asked the killer question; "What if the wealthy family in the church doesn't like the new curriculum and wants something else?"

Whammo!

Even the profs couldn't answer that question. I'd been there, though. I'd seen how the church patriarchs and matriarchs can derail good ideas faster than one can say "transubstantiation."

I fear that our colleges and seminaries are not training church leaders how to be persuasive without being steamrollers. They also are not getting practical with the kinds of questions that every leader must face, especially when it comes to handling a church's power brokers.

One day we'll get it right!

Jennifer said...

All I have to say is AMEN.

wilsonian said...

Guilty as charged.

Standing_Firm said...

Exactly, unfortunately? I am currently without a fellowship.

John B said...

I don't think change agents in the church need to be steamrollers, but they may need to be bulldozers. The walls of status quo in many churches are so solid that gentle nudging isn't going to move them. Sometimes the only way through is gritting one's teeth and "damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead!"

John Wilks said...

Ed-

Outstanding stuff! Timely too, consider the Gospel passage from John 12 for this upcoming Sunday.

Dan- I'm in seminary and in ministry at the same time. And I've got to say that so much of what I learn has very, very little to do with the reality of Church life.

Seminary used to be easy for me- and I had good enough grades to prove it. But the more aware of this disconnect I become, the tougher spending time on seminary work gets.

A Human Bean said...

"Perhaps the biggest problem with you and me is that as a church we don't usually stand for Jesus Christ. Sure, we mention Him in every prayer and we sings songs about Him, but do we really represent Him to the world? Too often we aren't looking to reach out to others. We aren't trying to meet the needs of the single mom or the lonely college student or anybody else who doesn't fit into our notions of who deserves our help. We reject the prostitutes and tax collectors that Jesus ministered to. We give the impression to the lost that we have no problem with them staying home, rejecting Christ and burning in hell. We show them by our actions that we don't care. We show them that we stand for absolutely nothing except perpetuating what we have now."

Ed, I think that about says it all. Churches that are not on mission with God should close their doors and stop wasting God's money.

julie said...

Is it un-spoken heresy? Is it fair for my friend whose church rejected the gift of a pool table (because it might bring drunks and whores) to leave becasue the chruch does not believe what it preaches? Is that a form of heresy?

rev-ed said...

I wouldn't call it heresy, but by the same token I wouldn't call it Christianity.