In my last post, I covered the five things I like most about church. In this one I will take on some of the things I dislike most. To be honest this is going to be hard to keep to five. A lot of things frustrate me about the church. Before I start my list I want to be clear that I’m talking about “the church” in the sense of what I understand to be the American church. The church I pastor, Wildwind Community Church, is a unique place. We were built largely around avoiding the pitfalls I’ll be discussing here. No doubt we have others, but hopefully not these! I know not everything I am saying applies to every church, these are just generalizations. Nevertheless, I think they are generally accurate.
1. The tendency to confuse events with processes
I come from the evangelical tradition, and in that tradition an event we call “salvation” is routinely mistaken (or substituted!) for a process by the same name. (The Free Methodist Church calls the ongoing process of salvation “sanctification” but it’s all part of finding God, attaining “salvation.”) We tend to overemphasize the event, pushing for conversions, salvation prayers, dramatic testimonies, etc. But life is much more a process than an event, and salvation is simply a way of describing how we live. Salvation is a term for what happens when an individual life is taken up into the life of God.
In my tradition people sometimes even speak of the “moment of salvation.” Of course what they are really talking about is the moment when a person formally converted. Salvation itself is a process. Speaking of it as an event creates the impression that one’s life before “conversion” was completely without God, that God was not “on the scene” of the person’s life, so to speak. It has created a great deal of silliness and what I call spiritual schizophrenia (fuzzy thinking) in sincere people, and it makes me angry.
2. The alignment of Christianity with Republican politics
I am not a Republican. I am not a Democrat either. The extent to which Republican politics seem to have the official stamp of Christiandom on them is irritating. It is my understanding (though I cannot confirm this is true) that at one time it was the other way around in this country, that Democratic politics were aligned with Chrisitianity. Christianity should not be aligned with any particular political platform.
It may come as a shock to some that it is not even the case (as a conservative once argued with me) that Republican politics are “closer to God’s values” than Democratic politics. It simply depends 1) on what values you see God as possessing in the Bible; and 2) which values are your values and thus most important to you. One thing I really like about my church is that, as far as I know, there is a pretty good mix of conservatives and liberals.
Some may be more familiar with the term “literal inspiration of scripture.” Biblicism is a fairly new phenomenon in Christianity. It was brought into public consciousness by John Darby in the 19th century as a way of combating what some feared was theological liberalism running amuck. It caught on rapidly and was soon being taught in many American seminaries. Since seminaries are where pastors are trained, this had a huge effect in bringing Biblicism to center stage in the American Protestant church. Before this caught on, the Bible was not viewed as being strictly literal, but was understood to be a book that took its life as it was lived out among the community of believers.
That paragraph got a bit academic, but suffice it to say that literal meaning is the lowest level of meaning, not the highest. Shakespeare’s plays have not survived because of the stories themselves, they have survived because of what the stories are saying about human nature. The same is true with the novels of Dostoevsky, Joyce, and other great writers. The most significant meaning is always found below the surface, but Biblicism subverts that truth and condemns people for understanding scripture metaphorically, claiming literal belief as the highest level of belief. If the great writer, theologian, and scholar C.S. Lewis believed this, page 1 of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe could simply have said, “See the Holy Bible.” There is great power in myth, in allegory, in metaphor and my tradition has lost much by abandoning this understanding of sacred scripture.
4. Hiding behind God instead of letting God shed light
Peter Scazzero calls this “using God to run from God.” In the church this takes the form of using the Bible/God to justify, excuse, and even fuel our own bigotry, violence, anger, hatred, and xenophobia. Doubtless if you are looking for ways to be sick, you can find plenty of sick things in the Bible to defend your sickness. But if you are looking to step into the light, the Bible can show you the way. Just as with everything else in the world, we see the Bible not as it is, but as we are. The question is, what are you looking for?
5. Mistaking the beginning for the end
Recent studies have shown that churches are usually quite good for people in the first two or three stages of spiritual development. They are not, however, very good for people who have moved into stage four and beyond. These stages require church leaders to demonstrate tremendous patience, tremendous flexibility, and a willingness to entertain questions pastors often won’t know the answers to. Pastors who need to have all the answers, who feel a deep need to force people to conform and comply and/or get in line, will not be able to guide people at this place in their journey. This is where they are moving beyond taking comfort in statements of faith and religious affiliations, and seeking very deep and close personal experience of God that may not always be explainable from the standpoint of any one church’s theology. This is normal. What it is NOT, however, is acknowledged, allowed, or prepared for.
Have you felt frustrated in your faith journey? Have you felt like you were outgrowing the stuff you learned in Sunday school and needed something more, but the church leaders just kept telling you to pray harder, serve harder, get more involved, etc.? This will not work. As Jesus said, new wine will split the old wineskins. When you start understanding God in new ways, you will need a new container in which to put those ideas, and leaders who keep trying to make you shove them into the same old containers will just frustrate you.
This has been my experience in the church. It is difficult to reach people at all these different levels of spiritual development, and unfortunately we have too often catered to the level one and two people who are using God primarily to justify their own need for rules, authority, and forcing others into conformity. Not acceptable. The church is a whore. These are the dirty things, the bad things, the awful things about the church that embarrass, anger, and frustrate me. But she’s my mother. I believe there’s hope for her yet.