Are You Too Mad to Help the Church?

Christianity has its critics and it has plenty of defenders. What’s most confusing for a defender of Christianity is when a former defender becomes a critic. It feels like a betrayal, even if the former defender still claims to follow Jesus.

The number one defense that the apologists for the Christian church use against critics is this: You’re too angry. The assumption is that even those who have been wounded, manipulated, controlled, or abused by people in the church cannot lodge a valid criticism of the church if they are also angry.

As someone who had once defended the church, then criticized the church, and then attempted to adopt a more constructive and redemptive approach to reform and renewal, I can see where many of the folks on both sides of this. I had once been baffled by those who were angry at the church. Then, one day, I got it. I was very angry at the power-plays, manipulation, and hollowness of the many doctrines and rules. Most importantly, I felt their frustration at being dismissed by church leaders.

When I hit the point where I was ready to give up on the sham that is so much of organized American Christianity, with its feel-good platitudes and naked power grabs, I found that there is something alive and vital lingering in the silence and stillness of our very busy and materialistic version of the faith.  Some family members taught me about the Holy Spirit and prayed for me in ways that I didn’t think possible. Others introduced me to ways of praying that date back to the earliest incarnation of the church.

As I have found renewed hope, I still have my angry moments. I still grow angry at leaders who abuse power and who manipulate the people under them. I still grow angry at Christians who are discipled by their bombastic news and entertainment rather than the meek and humble words of Christ. I am angry at the Christians who vote for abusive and destructive leaders who remain poised to unleash suffering and death on untold millions. I suspect that there will always be something to be mad about in the church. There will always be frauds and hucksters who will sell out the poor or vulnerable women and children for the sake of consolidating their power and influence. Anger is a valid response. How could it not be?

If I will always have a reason to be angry, then I need to figure out how to deal with it. If I consumed with my anger, I too can become a force for destruction. My anger will cut me off from people of good will who desire transformation and healing. My anger can deepen wounds and divides that may not be quite so far apart if viewed with a cooler head.

My anger can rule my thoughts and prevent me from pursuing the loving presence of God. If I hold onto my anger, it will poison me and my relationships, as the wounds and pain that I carry begin to become the wounds and pain that I pass on to others.

This is perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the church for me. It isn’t bad enough to be wounded by people who refuse to acknowledge their wrongs or who preach repentance while failing to repent. The worst part is that their offenses to me can be passed on others. If I haven’t dealt with my pain, I will most assuredly pass it on to others. I have become the thing that I have hated, and at that point it feels like I have passed into a point of no return.

In surrendering my thoughts to God through contemplation each day, I am learning to let go of my anger. Centering prayer is a daily letting go, and that has been helpful in responding to my anger. As I trust God with my anger, I can see the difference between being bracingly honest about the church and giving in to the wrecking ball of my anger.

There may be some days where I am too angry to help the church. That doesn’t mean my anger isn’t valid. However, it is hard to love people when you’ve surrendered to your rage toward them. Yes, rage can feel empowering and comforting, but rage won’t work over the long term. It doesn’t bring hope, transformation, or healing.

As I surrender my anger to God, I am doing my best to speak the truth in love—cliché as that sounds. But I have to let God work on my own soul before I can speak redemptive words. I cannot give love to others when I have nurtured anger. There is a process of surrender and transformation that I have seen God work in my own life so that I can find compassion for those still operating within the far too numerous authoritative and manipulative churches in America.

I don’t have easy “next steps” to offer folks who have been wounded, disappointed, or abused by the church. I trust that some may never return, and I cannot blame them. I had a small taste of the authoritarian nature of Catholic priests in my childhood, and to this day I cannot sit in a mass without feeling an extreme heaviness on my soul. The best that I can offer is this evaluation of our situation…

Underneath all of the power, authority, formulas, conferences, sermons, theology degrees, doctrine statements, rules, and fancy suits is a deep, unspoken fear in the American church that the real Christianity that Jesus preached is wholly different from what they have constructed, and the slightest breeze of discontent, let alone anger, can send the entire structure crashing to the ground. These leaders and those who follow them are deathly afraid that it can all be proven false, and the truth of the matter is, they’re right.

Suppressed under all of the rules, doctrines, and titles is the unruly and undignified love of God who longs for us like parents long for their children who have wandered off. We have been so distracted by images of God as judge and conquering king that we have failed to see what Jesus was up to. Why would Jesus take the risk of the incarnation and even suffer the indignity of suffering and death as a human if it wasn’t an expression of the deep love of God for us?

The promise of Jesus is a religion of the heart, God dwelling with us. Pentecost is the supposed to be the new normal, at least as far as the indwelling Holy Spirit goes. Yes, God desires transformation and holiness, but it is a purifying process of love and divine indwelling, not a product of external rules and codes. It is a chaotic process that is perfectly ordered under love and grace.

Over and over and over again in this history of the church, the mystics and the monks discovered this burning love of God that is greater than all of the rules and authorities, and time and time again, the leaders attempted to suppress this move of God. The people who spoke of this burning love of God feared that it would consume their control and influence, and of course they were right.

The life and death of Jesus have become a transaction or legal arrangement for so many of us that we’ve missed the parental and mystical elements that should speak to us on a deeper and truer level. Jesus came to unite us with God. He is the perfect expression of God’s parental love, making us God’s beloved sons and daughters. We need leaders who can lead us to the love of God, relinquishing control and influence. Sadly, not enough have signed up for that role.

I have found this uneasy dance with anger: my anger at the church is often valid, but it can become destructive if I hold onto it. It doesn’t make me stronger over time. My anger has the power to be a catalyst toward something better, but anger cannot bring me to God’s love.

We should be angry that so many Christians have failed to preach this authentic Gospel message and have even cast doubts upon it, as if they could add a footnote to the Prodigal Son story or put fences around Pentecost. However, it would be tragic to miss the deep longing of God for us in the midst of our anger over these Christians. Over time, we may even find a capacity to pity, or even love, these religious people who immerse themselves in the Bible but miss its simple message of God’s parental love and the promise of unity with God.

 

How Do I Keep My Kids from Hating Church?

drum-church-music

Our son E, who is two years old, ran in front of the church’s stage at top speed, giggling and clapping his hands. He chased his friends, crawled across the floor, and even gave one friend a high five at the end of a song. We meet in a school auditorium where the stage sits about three feet about the seats and spacious front area that is left open for energetic children. This particular Sunday the worship team chose energetic songs for a service focused on children.

When the band transitioned to the “Happy Song” by Delirious, which is a kind of anthem that celebrates God’s love, I lost it. Tears welled in my eyes as he jumped and galloped to the music. I remembered the first time I heard that song in college. It was a bit weird and off-beat, but it also tapped into a powerful sense of joy and freedom in celebrating God’s love. I’d come from a fairly conservative church, so clapping and shouting and moving anything other than my mouth during worship felt a bit different.

If there was ever a high point in my days as a church attending Christian, it had to be those days in college. I was still learning about my faith and tiptoeing around more charismatic forms of worship. I envied my roommate who came from a Vineyard church. He had this sense of peace that came over him during worship that I couldn’t quite imagine for myself. As we sang “The Happy Song” and some Hillsong numbers in my Christian college’s chapel, I began to sense there may be something to this.

Worship was where my faith really took root in my early 20’s. My theology fell apart in seminary, and while I put the pieces back together, worship sustained me. Then again, worship was also the cause of my greatest conflicts within the church as generations divided over musical styles and song choices.

Seeing my generally quiet and reserved son literally jump for joy at a song that sparked my own discovery of freedom and joy in worship, I also remembered how bitter I’d become throughout my 20’s. I’d been so critical of the church, and I was especially critical of the music. In fact, the most important step in my healing from church was hanging up my guitar and taking my hands off music completely. I just couldn’t be that guy any more. I didn’t want to have an opinion. I just wanted to participate in whatever my church offered and leave things at that.

I’d been a part of the worship wars, and the thing about a war is there’s never one side with clean hands. I was critical, and I was criticized. I treated people like problems to be solved or dismissed, rather than as members of the same body of Christ. And many did the same to me. I don’t know who fired the first shot in the different churches I’d attended, but I do know there was a lot of “shooting” in other churches during those years as well.

As I saw E’s joy during worship and remembered the way I’d fallen out of love with the church throughout a series of conflicts and bad experiences, I wanted to shield him from that same crash. He’s only 2, but he already loves church. He loves the music. He thanks God for the drums at night… along with corncobs and playgrounds. He loves going to the two-year-old room with his friends. How can I make sure that joy for gathering with God’s people for worship keeps happening?

I’m not sure that my approach to church is the best option for him. I’ve basically chosen to disengage from the mechanics of the church service because it had been a source of toxic experiences in the past. However, E doesn’t have that history. He can pursue his own path, and I want to guide him as he makes his own decisions and discovers God for himself.

So much of his future seems to hinge on the course chosen by myself and my generation:

Will we welcome his priorities and the ways he worships God?

Can I advocate for ALL generations in the church, not just the ones that pay the bills?

Can I walk the fine line between giving him things to do at church so that he feels involved without turning him into a minion that serves the whims of the older leaders?

Can I give him positions of responsibility that come with enough oversight to help him take ownership for the community without shutting down his original ideas?

While we have many denominations and traditions, church has to change, at least a little bit, for each generation. It needs to feel sacred and holy and “right” to each generation. And this balance is not easily held.

You may notice that I’m addressing these questions to myself and really to us, the people who go to church today. We are the people who are preparing the church for the next generation. Will the next generation find a place where they can belong and worship God or will church strike them as a foreign place that caters only to the spiritual preferences of Generation X and Millennials?

There are things our leaders can do, but in my experience, the leaders were often willing to listen to me throughout my 20’s. They did try to bring in young leaders and train them. Some churches did this better than others, but for the most part the leaders were at the mercy of the congregation.

While some leaders asked too much of me or didn’t really want to take me seriously, things wouldn’t have been so bad if it hadn’t been for all of the crap they were taking and all of the crap I was taking from the church attendees and members. I received criticism directly and others directed their criticism at the leaders. It was a huge power play. And I understand the desire for church to look a certain way. It was ironic actually. While fighting to preserve their particular form of church they accused me of trying to remake church in my own image.

It will be really easy to repeat that mistake again with E’s generation. Anecdotally speaking, so many people in my own generation had to fight for our places in the church. Others started their own churches. And still others opted out altogether. The first two, who had to fight or start from scratch, are the ones who will be deeply invested in their churches. Change for the next generation won’t be easy. And it’s not like we can plan ahead for this. Who knows what spirituality and worship will look like in the next twenty to thirty years?

As I watch E run and jump for joy in church, I want to shield him from all of the criticism and petty arguments that could come his way in the future. But even more than that, I want to tell his story and hold him up for everyone to see.

Do you see this raw joy and wonder? This is what it means to be childlike. This is what we should aim for too.

The tragedy of church isn’t that the young people have failed to conform to the standards and plans set up by the adults. The tragedy of church is that the adults have failed to become childlike. We’ve neglected the amazing gifts right in our presence that our children have been offering us. We’ve pushed and pulled and squeezed the younger generations so hard to shape them into our own images that they’ve been shot right out of the church.

Then the older generations point fingers at the worldly young people who don’t care about church and the Barna Group releases an alarming survey about the coming downfall of the church so that pastors can wag fingers and authors can write books offering the solution…

I confess, most days, it’s hard to become childlike when cynicism appears to be perfectly valid.

I don’t know what becoming childlike will look like, but for today, I want to say to my son that I’ll always make room for him to experience God’s joy and presence in church. I’ll always welcome his perspective and the ways that he learns about God. And I’ll do what I can honor the lessons his joy has to teach us all.