How a Critic of the Church Became a Lover of the Church

To some extent, I get why my generation as a whole is leaving institutionalized Christianity. They’re coming to see the missional call of God as something that is better expressed outside the church, because in many cases, the church has failed to live up to its own missional calling. It has turned inward rather than outward, becoming exclusive and judgmental and self-centered. There are plenty of things wrong with the church. Like Adam and Eve, like Hosea’s wife, like Israel, she has prostituted herself to the gods of American culture.

I get it.

But Jesus still loves His unfaithful bride.

I’ve had to come a long way to understand this. I empathize with my generation; I’m part of it. Having spiritual gifts that I believed were worthless in my church tradition, having a restless heart, a progressive mind, and a revolutionary spirit, I went through my own phase of bitterness and criticism.

My story is similar to the stories of my peers, but with one big difference. I understand the frustration and the temptation to give up on the church. I have experienced the pain that the church has caused. I’ve been judged for my appearance, been told I’ve overstepped my bounds as a woman, and even been accused of heresy.

I’ve waded through misinformed doctrine, bad theology, judgmental attitudes, and all manner of distorted truth and confusion and contradiction, stripped away the layers of tradition and preconceptions, and torn off the ribbons and adornments of centuries of religious assumption built upon religious assumption, until my naked hope found a beautifully simple and uncluttered Jesus.

And now I find myself in a unique position. I was raised in a conservative church tradition, broke the mold, rethought and reshaped practically all of my beliefs…and came back.

I came back to the tradition I swore I never would, because I believe that God has a unique role for me to fill. My role is not to run away and be some individualistic rebel without a cause. My role as a broken, messed-up person is to be in community with the broken, messed-up body of Christ. My role, as one who has experienced and empathized with both sides, is to bridge the gap between them.

Here’s what I’ve learned on this journey.

1. Unity doesn’t mean uniformity. I don’t have to agree with your views on predestination or premillennialism to accept you, love you, answer your phone calls at 2am, or call you my best friend. I believe that God calls us to a unity that transcends uniformity. Jesus said, “If you love only those who love you, what are you doing more than others?” By the same token, if we only consider those who share the exact same beliefs on every minute detail to be part of our community, how will we look any different to the world? All these denominations who “took their toys and went home” just look like a bunch of squabbling children. Again, Jesus said we would be known by our love, not by our exclusivity.

2. It’s a misconception that one can just “read the Bible” and find the one solid, absolute truth on any topic with no trouble. There are a lot of things the Bible is unclear about, and just about any position can be argued either way — and it’s been that way for centuries. There’s a reason that much of our theology is widely debated. Just because your brother or sister comes to a different conclusion, doesn’t mean that he or she hates God and is trying to destroy the church.

3. You can discuss differences without debating them. But the moment the Bible becomes a weapon, the moment it becomes about winning rather than about shared discernment and community, you need to backtrack quickly, repent of your divisive attitude, and reconcile with your brother or sister — who, by the way, is still your brother or sister.

4. Community is hard, but God intended for us to live in community. If you peace out because you’re tired of the uphill battle, you’re telling our Triune God that His greatest gift, indeed His very nature, isn’t worth fighting for. Jesus said that he who seeks will find. If, as I did, you hang on with dogged determination to what you know must be underneath the layers of confusion, you will find community there.

5. Leaders don’t leave behind. Think about it. If you turn around and there’s nobody following you, you’re not a leader. You’re just a loner. God has given me a passion for leadership and the strength to blaze trails, but if I become bitter or impatient and strike out on my own, I’ve forfeited my gift and have a lot of wandering sheep to answer for. What good is a scout who explores uncharted territory but doesn’t go back to tell those with him that there are green pastures ahead?

6. If you dislike the church as an institution, then love the church because of the people. If you dislike Christianity for the negative connotation often carried by religion, then love Christianity because of Christ, and love the church because He loves it.

7. It’s a little ironic, isn’t it, to be intolerant of intolerant people? Truthfully, I can’t stand them. I still struggle with it. I find it so much easier to have compassion on truly horrible people of the world than on members of the church who are bound by self-righteous legalism. And although Christ did tend to call these people out more so than “sinners,” it was not out of a spirit of hatred but of love. His righteous anger was for the self-made chains that bound those whose knowledge should have made them the most liberated. But have compassion on the intolerant, and pray for them to awaken to freedom.

8. As I said in another recent post, for every reason to leave a church, there are a million ones to stay. Every smile, every hug, every moment of fellowship, is like an anchor that pulls at my heartstrings and tethers me to the church. I can leave because of pride…or I can stay because of people. Broken, imperfect, irritating, beautiful people…just like me.

Do I still have growing pains? Absolutely. Do I still call out the church for its blunders? Yes, or I wouldn’t be true to my calling. But now it is in an entirely different spirit — one not of bitterness and one-up-man-ship, but of a loving leadership that desires the church to find its full expression of life and freedom in Christ.

And these lessons, beloved brothers and sisters, each one learned along a difficult journey with blood and sweat and tears, are how an angry critic of the church came to love it passionately, learning to make sacrifices and serve in humility. Because in the end, we’re all just trying to be like Jesus — but since the beginning, Jesus just wanted us to be together.

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the cultural church. take 2.

Assignment for class: Write an iconoclasm treatise on something you want to change in the church.

Idea: Steal the title and first sentence of an old blog post and build on that foundation.

Product: See below.

In a culture consumed by consumerism, infiltrated with individualism, and saturated with syncretism, I have to wonder just how well the typical American church measures up to what Jesus intended for His body.  The place where contrite sinners used to come on their knees has become a trendy self-help workshop.  The place where Christians used to surrender all other loyalties is decorated with sentiments of nationalism and materialism.  The place where people used to find community has become a resource for expanding their own self-centered networks.  Gifts have become budgets and shepherds have become CEOs.  The church has become a corporation.

When a heart is replaced by an agenda and the Spirit quenched by “the way we’ve always done it,” when the counter-cultural call of our faith is replaced by a formula that mimics society a little too closely, the church has become nothing more than a lifeless structure.  The structure appears well made and carefully crafted, but it is hollow and in danger of collapsing.  At first glance, everything appears to be in place.  We have the programs, the technology, the board of directors, and a healthy bottom line.  But somewhere in all of this religious programming, one vital component is missing: God.

Throughout history, God has been an advocate for the poor, the needy, the desperate, and the ostracized.  People turn to Him at their lowest point when there is nothing else to depend on.  Yet, conversely, when we feel secure apart from God, we see no need for Him in our lives.  This is why Jesus said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” (Luke 18:24).  Could it be that in our zeal to do right, we have stored up a sort of legalistic wealth that keeps us from hungering and thirsting for righteousness?  Could it be that in our careful structures and organization, we have come to a point where going through the motions of our religion no longer requires the fuel of the Spirit?

In Revelation, Jesus instructed John to write to the church in Sardis, “I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead” (Revelation 3:1).  Could that describe many of our modern American churches?  When the religious program is carried out week after week; when tradition, rather than the living, active revelation of God, defines our faith; when people leave unchanged time and time again; is there life in the church?  Or has our heart ceased to beat inside our perfectly-structured ribcage?

In the dawn of the church, it was an underground movement persecuted for its counter-cultural values.  But we American Christians, complacent in our first-world status, have fallen in love with our culture and modeled our faith after it.  We seek power, wealth, and affluence, advertising ourselves and exploiting others to be the best of the best.  Have we not employed this same mindset in our churches?  We advertise our selling points as better suited for the population’s needs than the church down the street.  Needing to keep up our image, we hire dynamic speakers with Ph.D.s and professional worship leaders and showy youth pastors.  Inside this web of key church leaders, we create power structures and assume everything can be solved with a formula.  The pastor is above the worship leader because he has a Ph.D.  The worship leader is above the secretary because he is more visible to the public eye.  This particularly stood out to me when we drew our home church’s structure of authority on the whiteboards in class.  There were carefully drawn little “technical” lines and “realistic” lines and squiggly political maneuvers, but there was little room for God in any of those equations.

The church has failed to distinguish itself from the world.  We have become so consumed by our own businesslike strategies that we hardly know what it means to be a community of people that follows Christ.  As such, we have lost our witness to the world.  We do not model the freedom Christ offers.  Instead, we market ourselves as insurance against hell and invite people to join our legalistic hamster wheel of Christian production and consumerism, keeping up with the latest and greatest evangelistic strategies and architectural styles.  I have to wonder, if Jesus were to come into the typical American church, would He come in with whips and overturn the tables?

Jesus never called anyone to comfortable discipleship.  He called them to radical discipleship.  It is time for us to stop settling for security and go outside our comfort zone to follow Jesus.  There are times when it will be difficult and painful.  There will be times when we are afraid.  True discipleship is not easy, but it is worth every mile you walk, every dollar you spend and tear you shed, every piece of your heart you give away.  True discipleship is the adventure of a lifetime.  Perhaps it is time we rethink the way we “do church.”  What if it were less about the building and the budget and the bottom line, and more about a group of disciples coming together to encourage and challenge one another to make a difference?  What if it were less about the structure and more about the meaning?  What if it were less about business and more about community?  What if…what if it were less about us and more about Christ?

Such a paradigm change would require some drastic and uncomfortable changes in the way we have typically thought of church.  For some of us, maybe the answer would be to abandon the corporation altogether and begin again in homes.  For others, it may be prayer and fasting as we cast a new vision for our trajectory as the church and seek guidance from the Spirit.  We need to take a good hard look at ourselves in a mirror and see if we look like the world, or if we look like Jesus.  If we resemble any structure or ideal other than Jesus – if our identity is found in something other than a simple, undecorated gospel — are we really Christians at all?

The Spoon-Fed Gospel

I spent this past week babysitting an adorable little boy who is two months shy of turning three.  I’ll admit right off that perhaps I don’t handle children in the “best” or “safest” way.  For one thing, I often use sarcasm. “Oh, you want to hide under the table and cry?  That’s so cool and super dramatic…let me know when you want to act like an adult and come out.”  For another, I’m hardly what you would consider overprotective.  I suffered plenty of bumps and bruises as a child, but I lived to tell the tale, and I learned important lessons from each one.  For instance, one of the scars on my right knee taught me that it’s not the greatest idea to ride a bike off a 3-foot drop hoping you’ll land smoothly (I never did it again).  I believe in letting children make mistakes and figure things out for themselves.

The child I’m babysitting (we’ll call him Thomas) is sadly underexposed to the world for his age.  He still sleeps in his parents’ bed, is not fully potty trained, and, as I discovered the first day, is still spoon-fed.

It was snack time, and Thomas and I took a break from playing to eat a banana and some pretzel sticks.  I peeled the banana part-way down and started to hand it to him without a second thought.  He wouldn’t take it. “No, you hold it!”  I was a little surprised by this and replied, “How about you hold your own banana, punk.”  His dad interjected, sounding almost embarrassed, “Actually, he doesn’t feed himself…you’ll need to hold the banana.”  I thought to myself, “This is not happening.”

When lunchtime rolled around, I made Thomas a sandwich and cut it into pieces for him.  As I buckled him into his high chair, I informed him, “Today it’s time to be a little man.  You’re going to do something super cool called eating your own food and being independent.  I’m going to go make my own lunch now, but I’ll be back in 5 minutes.  Have a blast with this new-found skill.”  When I returned, he had eaten a couple of pieces of the sandwich but was looking at one piece, a little confused. “This piece is too big.”  The solution was simple. “Pick it up and bite it in half. You’re welcome.”  And Thomas ate his own lunch.

Much to the glee of my Facebook friends, I posted these adventures on my timeline, receiving more “likes” than any other status in the past couple of months.  Someone commented, “It’s scary that this 3-year-old doesn’t feed himself and hilarious that you didn’t let him get away with it.”

But how scary would it be if he didn’t have my sarcasm to spur him on to greatness, and he was spoon-fed until he was 4? 6? Even 10? If, when he graduated high school and left home, he starved to death because he never learned to feed himself?  The idea sounds ridiculous, but what if I told you that it actually happens?  We paralyze our children by spoon-feeding them the gospel; and as more and more young people leave the church, we have to recognize and take responsibility for what’s happening.  We design elaborate children’s and youth ministry programs to ensure that kids have fun and that our church looks cooler than the one down the street.  But when, Sunday after Sunday, we put on a concert for the kids and call it worship, and then give them a gospel lecture that they tune out to play with their iPhones, we may be doing more harm than good.  We run our programs a certain way because we think we know best.  We think it’s our job to impart to kids all the information we have, forgetting that it took us a lifetime of mistakes to acquire it.  When you have all the answers, the hardest lesson to learn is how to shut up.

When Thomas was one year old, he began to want to feed himself.  He would whine and cry when he was spoon-fed.  But his mom hated for him to get his clothes dirty, so she ignored his tearful pleas for independence and continued to spoon-feed him because she had skills of dexterity which he still lacked.  She wouldn’t let him learn, because she could do it better.  But if we want to equip children, often we must sacrifice efficiency for the sake of teaching.  Sometimes we sigh and tap our foot impatiently while they clumsily put the puzzle pieces together wrong, because the solution is obvious to us.  But instead, we should be actively encouraging them to learn, helping them work through their mistakes, and teaching them to clean up after themselves.  Instead of doing things for them, maybe we need to do things with them.

If youth have been given doses of the spoon-fed gospel their whole lives, when they leave youth group, they’re anything but prepared. If we do everything for them rather than teaching them to do it for themselves, we’re turning out helpless babies whose faith starves to death when there’s no longer anyone to give them the answers.  They may have heard a million other people pray, but do they know how to pray?  Have they ever cried out to God in a crisis?  Do they know where to go in the Bible to find comfort?  Or have we done it for them all along without teaching them how to feed themselves?  Do they have a personal relationship with Christ, or have they borrowed their faith from their parents or pastor?  These are uncomfortable questions to ask, but we’ve got to start asking them.  And trust me, as an aspiring youth minister, these are questions that I have to wrestle with too.  Have you trained, equipped, and taught your students?  Or have you just put on a show for them?

I think the solution can be found in authentic intergenerational community and deep relationships in which we teach and challenge one another.  A community in which no voices are silenced and no questions are dismissed, in which children are free to make mistakes and encouraged to speak out, and to do, and to live the Christian life.  My vision for ministry is not a program, but rather a resource.  We need youth pastors willing and eager to work themselves out of a job.  We need to replace leaders with equippers.

The old saying goes, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day.  Teach a man to fish, and you’ll have fed him for a lifetime.”  Let’s start teaching people how to fish.  Let’s teach them how to chase after Jesus for a lifetime.

stories

In getting to know someone, we’re bound to hear bits and pieces of what made them who they are, and we start to piece it together to understand them. This is how relationships are formed. But it’s rare that we actually sit down and listen to someone’s life story as a whole. And it’s rare that we tell it, too. For one thing, we feel awkward telling people about ourselves without an invitation. For another, we’re not sure how it will be received. It’s deeply personal, and it makes us feel vulnerable, putting our entire lives out on the table for someone to scrutinize.

But I think sharing our stories with one another is a very healthy thing to do. Then we realize that none of us really has it together. We can better understand where the other is coming from. We can help each other recognize our own biases. We can learn from each other’s mistakes. And most importantly, we can accept one another for who we are. Not just the polished parts of our life, and not just what we’ve had control over. All of it. All of US.

I heard, like, 2 testimonies growing up. And it was more about the terrible lives they lived before they found Christ, and it seemed to be a way to admonish the younger folks not to make the same mistakes. Hence I developed a bit of “conversion envy” — feeling like I had nothing to share because I’ve always been the “good kid.” And because of that, it sort of blinded me to the incredible things that God has done in my life. So when I was asked to share my testimony during training week at Deer Run, I kind of panicked: “But…I don’t have a story!” As I put my notes together, though, thinking about the places and people that have influenced me, I came to realize that I did have a story. It may not be full of fireworks and awesomeness, but it’s a story that no one else has. It makes me uniquely me.

I’ve shared my story three times now. Not a super long and detailed version, never over 20 or 30 minutes’ worth. But each time, I think it provided a very healthy framework for establishing a relationship with other people. The first time I shared it was to a room full of 30 people, who became the most supportive team I have ever worked with.

The second time was on the concrete steps outside the bath house at Deer Run at 11:00 at night.  I was sitting outside journaling when one of the junior staffers came up and asked, “Um, now may not be the best time to ask you this, but…what is your story?”  I was kind of taken aback at the simplicity and sincerity with which he asked.  He was asking me to talk about…me!  So we shared our stories with each other, and we ended up developing a close friendship.  When he junior staffed with me a couple weeks after that, we worked well together because there wasn’t anything we couldn’t be super open and honest about.  Weeks later, when we parted ways, I may or may not have cried my eyes out.  Granted, a good deal of that was camp emotion; but it was more than that, too.  I wrote in my journal later that day that he had gotten through my defense mechanisms in a way that nobody else ever had, and now I see why.  It was that simple question: “What is your story?”  He didn’t want to know what I hoped to do with my life, or what I’m good at or what I could do for him.  He wanted to know me.

The third time was actually quite recently.  I walked into Starbucks to meet a classmate, wearing tacky thrift store jeans, a hoodie, no makeup, glasses, and my hair thrown up in a messy bun.  For a few minutes we worked on a class assignment together, and then I was like, “Hey, uh, can I hear your life story?”  So he shared it with me.  I’d heard snapshots of it that made me want to hear the whole thing, and hearing it gave me a renewed appreciation for where he has come from and how to understand him.  Then he asked me about mine, and we just spent time talking and asking questions and being real with each other about our lives.  He later told me that I had a beautiful story and that it was a privilege to hear it.  My story?  A privilege?  There was powerful affirmation in those words.  It seemed to convey that he wasn’t evaluating my looks or intelligence or potential — that maybe he saw something of value, not in any of those things, but in who I am.

I say all this to say that nothing builds community like openness, and nothing generates openness like a simple invitation to tell one’s story. If we as Christians are to be a community of people that live and love and work together, we need to dig a little deeper than surface-level talk. If we know each other on the story level, I think there would be a lot less judgment and a lot more understanding. That “annoying person” would become an understandable person. It would be a lot easier to cry with someone if we knew why they were crying. It would be easier to correct someone if you knew why they acted the way they did, and it would be a lot easier to accept correction if you knew you were understood.

So let’s get coffee sometime. I’d love to hear your story.

P.S. Paragraphs 5 & 6 were edited by my mother, the English major. This is why there are two spaces between each sentence and more commas than I usually use. “Being real about your lives? What does that even mean? That must be an extrovert thing.” Haha I love her.

Published in: on November 20, 2012 at 6:54 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Purity and Community: Church Discipline in 1 Corinthians 5:1-13

This is an exegetical paper I wrote for my New Testament Exegesis class, affectionately known as NTX. You can click on the link below to access the PDF.

Purity and Community: Church Discipline in 1 Corinthians 5:1-13

Published in: on November 8, 2012 at 5:04 pm  Leave a Comment  
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