Here is an exerpt from an email I received recently:
I have given up on the church totally. I can be a much better Christian on my own without the constant disappointment of a group of people who claim one thing then do another. I need a church to help me be a better person, not to teach me how to be a total hypocrite. Most churches preach love then judge and condemn people, or they pray for the poor but spend all their money on themselves. That’s why I have given up on the church.
This is not an isolated or rare opinion of the church. In my six-year study of Christians outside the traditional church, almost two-thirds (65%) of respondents cited the hypocrisy and/or inconsistency of word and action as the primary reason they avoid “church.”
These observations are not unfounded. Many faithful church goers are mean, judgmental, angry, broken people. A large number of congregations spend much more money on their building and staff than they do on feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and housing the homeless. Denominationally, concern for the number of bottoms gracing our pews supercedes concern for the state of people’s souls. All this is true. And all this is exactly why we need the church.
The church isn’t for perfect people. The church exists for mean, judgmental, angry, broken people. It, at its best, is where they get fixed. Keep those people out of the church and you prevent many of them from experiencing the loving grace that can heal and transform. The problem isn’t that these people are in our churches. The problem is that many of these people lead our churches. When the patients run the asylum, little health results.
The Seeker study work I have done indicates that many people who want a healthy, transforming relationship with God and Jesus Christ (but have rejected the institutional church) hold organized religion to an almost impossibly high standard. They want “church” to have it all together — to be living in a perpetual state of grace where all their questions can be answered, all their concerns addressed, all their deeply held values validated, and all of their misgivings dispelled. And they want the people of the church to be mini-personifications of Jesus himself. Good luck with that.
So, unrealistic expectations aside, what are some of the implications for the insitutional church? Six helpful and insightful suggestions consistently pop up in conversation with Christian spiritual seekers outside the traditional church:
- Tone down the holier-than-thou — outsiders often note that church people don’t act saved so much as superior. Just being a church member doesn’t make a person holy; it makes them fortunate. We are not accepted by God so that we can be better than others, but so that we might offer hope and grace to others. Many outsiders don’t feel this.
- Listen, don’t talk — spiritual seekers are often put off by what one calls the “bumper-sticker theology: Jesus is the Answer” approach many church folks take. It doesn’t seem to matter what questions one comes with. Jesus is the only answer you need, so discussion is discouraged.
- Be clear about priorities — interestingly, seekers are not put off by big churches with big buildings. They are put off by big churches with big buildings who claim to exist to serve the needs of others. If being big is what a church cares about, it should say so. At least that’s honest. If putting a statue outside the entry is more important than saving a child or feeding a starving person, then say so. If Matthew 25 really means something, then let the outward and visible signs reflect that inward and spiritual commitment.
- Quit condemning people as sinners — just because their sin isn’t the same as your sin doesn’t give a person the right to act hatefully and unkindly. A recent independent survey of evangelical church goers indicates that of those most staunchly opposing homosexuality, more than 50% have engaged in adulterous extra-marital affairs. Why is one sexual sin worse than another? Fine, condemn actions as sin, but remember that the church is FOR sinners, so everyone should be welcome.
- Quit playing loose and fast with scripture — many church leaders and preachers pick and choose the parts of the Bible that help them make points, not that gives people full access to the mind and heart of God. Why focus on certain “evils” while ignoring others? Why make such a big deal about sexual conduct when debt, gossip, and selfishness are every bit as dastardly and destructive?
- Teach humility, not hubris — admit that all fall short of their God-given potential and that we are stronger together than we are struggling to make it on our own. Help people focus on the positives of being a community in Christ instead of on the negatives of allowing “sinners” to taint the group. Actually embrace such concepts as love, kindness, mercy, and grace as cornerstones of behavior.
Bottom line: the church is far from perfect. Making other imperfect people feel unwelcome due to their particular brand of imperfection is decidedly un-Christian and unacceptable. We have both a call and an obligation to build God’s kingdom, and to do it faithfully we have to use what we have been given. No perfect stones to choose from. We can only build God’s kingdom one hypocrite at a time.