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.

broken and bleeding

Broken.

Fractured.

Divided.

This is our world.

This is US.

This is everything we touch…

…including the Church.

Shreds of her once-white wedding gown litter the earth and mix with the dirt until one can hardly tell the difference between cloth and mud. Between politics and peace. Between culture and Christianity.

Where has she gone, this beautiful bride of Christ? She has torn herself apart. She has decided that, indeed, the eye does not need the hand nor does the head need the feet. She has dismembered herself.

The fingers try to heal themselves without the hand. The hand seeks wholeness without the arm. But there is no unity to be found, for we have severed ourselves from the lifeblood of the heart. It pumps alone, calling, calling the body back to itself.

At this point, is it about the presence of Christ in communion? Instrumental music? Baptism? Different cultures? Different races?

No, it’s about none of that.

It’s brokenness that no band-aid can fix.

Christ alone can heal the divide.

But there is only One heart for one body, and we must come together to find it.

Published in: on November 19, 2012 at 12:19 am  Leave a Comment  
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of chicken, gay rights, and cool shoes

So as it turns out, Truett Cathy opposes gay marriage. Was anyone actually surprised? Or did we just have to find some drama somewhere? Really, America, have we nothing better to do than to freak out over everything? When life is calm for 2 seconds, we start freaking out that there’s nothing to freak out over, and we immediately have to find something to freak out about. And this time, people began to freak out over…chicken. I guess it was mostly about gay rights, but everyone used chicken nuggets as their megaphones: attention America, if you boycott chicken on August 1st, you’re gay. If you eat chicken, you hate gays.

But because I prefer not to stir up controversy, and I’m pretty chill and love everyone, I went to Chick-fil-a without a political agenda that night. I went because my friends were going and I wanted some chicken and a chocolate-cookies-and-cream milkshake. (They charge extra to mix the two, but it’s so worth it.)

While we were there, the protestors began to line up with their signs. Some of them were about gay rights (“Gay people like chicken too”), but some of them were blatantly offensive (“There is no God”).

The problem with huge rallies like the Support Chick-fil-a night is that they are a breeding ground for anger. The “there is no God” dude shouldn’t have even been there. The only reason he showed up with his sign was because he knew there would be huge crowds of conservative Christians there, and he wanted to seize the opportunity to piss them off. I mean, let’s be real. He wasn’t even standing for gay rights. He was standing for controversy and immaturity.

Nobody changed anybody’s mind that night.

The huffy Christians tried to argue with the picketers, which fueled their anger.

The stuffy Christians walked by with heads high, blatantly ignoring them, which made them want to be even louder.

And the fluffy Christians tried to tell them, “God loves you, and I’m praying that you have a change of heart”, which was complacent and utterly unhelpful.

I wanted to be none of these.  So as I was walking out, I told a guy, “Dude, your shoes are awesome.”

His serious face lit up in a smile. “Who, me? These shoes?” I smiled and nodded.

He turned to the guy next to him and exclaimed, “Dude, I told you these shoes were cool when I bought them!”

He turned back to me and said, “Thank you.” It could have been an expression of gratitude for the compliment, but I think it meant more than that.

Why did I bring up his shoes in the midst of a heated controversy? Because he’s a person, and I’m a person. And people buy shoes. It’s what we do. It’s an essential part of being human. So is eating chicken. I wanted the picketers to know that I was eating chicken not because I hate gays but because I am a person and people eat chicken.

Because we both appreciate cool shoes, we had something to share in that moment even while there was tension all around us. Even while culture was telling us that we should be enemies that night because I ate chicken and he didn’t. Even while all these silly people were letting chicken divide them when they could have made friends over a cool pair of shoes.

Really, shouldn’t our humanity be what defines us? Shouldn’t it be what unifies us? Buying shoes and eating chicken are fundamental aspects of being human. But even more fundamental is this: we are all broken. And when you understand that, it doesn’t matter as much why people are broken, or how they are broken. Because in some way or another, we are all broken. And then anger turns to empathy, and division to solidarity. Because it’s not just them. It’s not just us. It’s us and them, together.

It just depends on what your eyes see. Everyone else saw that guy and automatically stereotyped him based on the circumstances. “Not eating chicken — must be gay. Not like me.” I saw him and thought, “He’s a person — like me. And broken — like me. And he has cool shoes.” And when you begin to see people that way…

…peace is only a glance away.

One in Christ

Galatians 3:26-28 — “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Let’s add “there is no Methodist nor Presbyterian, Church of God nor Baptist.” Jesus erased cultural, economic, and gender distinctions, and fabricating divisons seems a pretty poor way to repay His sacrifice to bring us to unity. Yeah, maybe some of us interpret things a little differently or worship a little differently. It’s fine to attend different “churches” (with a little c). But this attitude of division and discrimination will tear the Church (big C) apart. Jesus Himself said, “If a house is divided against itself, that house will not stand” (Mark 3:25).

A Casting Crowns song has the line, “People aren’t confused by the gospel; they’re confused by us. Jesus is the only way to God, but we are not the only way to Jesus. This world doesn’t need my tie, my hoodie, my denomination or my translation of the Bible. They just need Jesus. We can be passionate about what we believe, but we can’t strap ourselves to the gospel, because we’re slowing it down. Jesus is going to save the world. But maybe the best thing we can do is just get out of the way.” Hmmm. Perhaps, in our almost pharisaical zeal for our preferences and interpretations, we’ve become stumbling blocks to those seeking the truth. We’re really good at straining out gnats, but have we noticed lately that there’s a lost and dying world out there who needs the message of Jesus more than the choir needs the message about predestination?

I’m pretty sure that if we were literally carrying our crosses to the execution site, there would be no hot debates over instrumental music or kitchens in churches or infant baptism. Maybe we would even dare to reach out a hand to help the brother or sister next to us stand up under the weight of the wooden beam.

Maybe, if we were all truly dying to self, the Church would be the answer to Jesus’ prayer for unity.

Published in: on May 19, 2011 at 2:11 pm  Comments (2)  
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