I respect my pastor friends that want to preserve the local church. Most of them agree, it needs to be re imagined. That’s what I think i’m doing here – imagining.
This series of blogs is about what I’m thinking about. I think it’s good to think through things occasionally, especially in times like this.
I want to look at not just what the church did originally, but what the church should do now in light of the situation it finds itself in (for example, we have the internet – they didn’t – that changes some things).
Part 3 — Things the Church Needs to Improve
I never really liked “Devil’s Advocates” when I was a pastor. Over time, in business, I learned to value those that asked the tough questions. I’m really not trying to be critical in this series, I simply want to start some discussion that might help churches make some progress. Like when I was a pastor, most clergy gave the almost automatic response, “Well ya know, Karl, no church is perfect and certainly not ours.” I know from experience that that is a deflection that really means, “I don’t have time to even consider that right now–I have more than enough irons in the fire.” Let me just stress that I think the stakes are high and time is running short – but, that’s what Devil’s advocates always say.
I have repeatedly stated that I admire those that would preserve the local church., but, progress requires honesty. We should not only discover where we are going (aka goal setting, vision, mission), we should also accurately articulate where we have fallen short in the past. We need to talk openly about what we have not done well. We need to admit our failures if we’re going to have success in the future.
In many different ways, churches have often been considered sanctuaries. In some cases literally–in other cases spiritually or figuratively. However, realistically the American church has become anything but a sanctuary for scores of people. It is not a safe place for many. The scandals in the Catholic and Southern Baptist churches where children have been molested is widespread, but it also raises the obvious question, “If those are the ones we know about…how many more are there that didn’t say anything?” Our churches are way too segregated, non-affirming and judgmental. After being a pastor for 20 years, I left church life feeling like it was the last place I would want to be vulnerable or go to feel safe. It simply didn’t live up to the hype and in many ways, failed to make me feel secure.
Sarah Bessey got me thinking the other day, while listening to a sermon she preached in 2016. She was explaining why she couldn’t attend church at that time. She said, “The church didn’t have room for my grief.” There is a certain commitment to happiness and joy in the typical American church. We can’t admit we’re not doing well–it’s not okay to not be okay. In a contemplative group we started recently, I instructed the people not to do any side talking when someone shared. The reason for this is so that people won’t try to fix each other. Someone that is struggling makes us incredibly uncomfortable and we don’t allow them just to be sad or angry; confused or depressed.
When I propose that maybe we could do church somewhere else besides a dedicated building, the first thing that people (especially pastors) suggest is that we need community. They say it in many of different ways, but that’s what they mean, “We have a deep need for community!” I agree, I would just submit that the typical church in America is not very good at community. We may be good at giving people casseroles when someone dies, but how often are we vulnerable at church? How many of our deepest secrets do we share with the congregation? For that matter, how much time do we spend with the people we worship with? I’m sure there are exceptions, but in general, I would have a hard time characterizing what we do in the typical church as community.
This point is sure to cause consternation, but here goes. For years, we have been arguing over hymns and choruses–contemporary or traditional. All the while, the culture has been moving to more contemplative and ascetic practices. The most shocking thing I did as a pastor was to admit that I did meditation and yoga. Our worship doesn’t work AT ALL for people like cultural creatives, some introverts and those that desire more contemplative types of practices. The church has always been slow in relating to it’s culture because it always claims to be authentic which often begs the question “what are we being true to?” It’s usually just the practices of the near past, and nothing else.
Even with the great commission, we often get it wrong. We imagine disciple making as instructional, instead of something more cathartic and organic. Excessive questions are discouraged and we generally try to keep classes and instruction limited to things that are easily explained. We make it as efficient as we can, while most of us secretly long for something deeper and more heart-centered.
As a pastor, I remember being frustrated when I tried to deal with sexual addiction in the church. This is because the Church in America historically has not been effective at mental health and other difficult issues. We generally rely on spiritual bypassing and assume God will just miraculously zap away the problems we have. Since people don’t get better, they re-injure each other. Hurt people, hurt people. It’s kind of cycle – it might even be an epidemic. Before we shame someone back to church, we might want to consider that there may be a real painful reason they are not coming.
I hope this doesn’t sound like I’m being too critical. I’m really trying to ask the question, “How can we do better?” I don’t want to stay out of church, but until one or both of us gets better, we can’t be together. I wish I was joking! I don’t hate the church, I’m just trying to imagine a better future for both us .
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