We all have a very simple decision to make: will we build or will we destroy. Now, simply making this decision doesn’t guarantee anything — many who choose to build and create don’t actually accomplish much, but at least they try. But those who choose to destroy — or simply allow destruction to happen — are another matter altogether. They disregard basic values of kindness, humility and respect, to breed discontent and dissension, leading to disunity and disharmony. Their energy, it seems, is expended for one purpose — to “dis” the church. Ultimately, such efforts are dis-gusting.
Disharmony — I wrote a post earlier in the week stating that narrow-minded, single-issue, selfish intolerance is killing Christian community — that people who don’t like something in the church use it as an excuse to simply walk away. I was a little surprised at the number of people disagreeing with the notion, especially those who took the “so you’re saying that if my church is full of Bible-burning Nazi pedophiles I should just suck it up and stay?” position. At no time have I said we should stay in churches filled with Satanic serial killer pedophiles. (As a matter of fact, my advice is not to join such a church in the first place…) If only it were that simple. We are not choosing to distance ourselves from evil — we are choosing to distance ourself from Christians with whom we disagree. Big difference. When we allow differences in belief to divide the body of Christ, we witness to the world that our faith is a sham. Those who walk away (run away?) clearly communicate that our God is impotent, that our human differences of opinion are greater than God’s power to unite and heal.
Disunity — our church and culture suffer from a simplistic definition of unity that denies the value of diversity. We mistake unity for homogeneity, sameness, and blandness. Some of the same people who are dead set against cloning demand uniformity in the church and are intolerant of any deviation from a very rigid norm. Being “one in the Spirit” means subscribing to a very limited set of criteria, denying anything unique or distinctive. For a small segment of believers, church equals the Borg collective — Christians are not members of the body but are assimilated into a faceless mass. Christian spirituality defined this way is totalitarian, not unified. We slip into the dangerous area of defining “super-Christians” — uber-saints that set a benchmark for all others. Unfortunately, these models of piety are often narrow-minded, arrogant, intolerant, and self-centered. When others fail to live up to the individual’s standards, they walk away.
Disgrace — a church that is intolerant, judgmental, hostile to minorities, self-serving and unwelcoming is a disgrace — it disses the grace that God freely offers by placing strict human conditions on that which is, by nature and definition, unconditional. We disgrace ourselves and God every time we waste energy and effort bickering over who is acceptable and who isn’t. We might decide we don’t want a reformed killer in our congregation, but does that mean this person should be exempt from God’s love? Generally, we’re fine with someone else reaching out in Christian love to a sinner — we simply don’t want the responsibility to be ours. If a person is truly a Bible-believing, evangelically-minded follower of the one true Son of God, Jesus the Christ, he or she would be ecstatic to have every sinner on earth in his or her church. If the only solution to sin is Jesus, then the very best place on earth to be is IN THE CHURCH. We need to get the righteous out of the church to get the unrighteous into church. If Christians work to keep the church clean and pure for themselves? This is the definition of “disgrace.”
Disrespect — I can disagree with someone and even find their behaviors and values appalling. I can support rules and standards of conduct, and fully support punishment when said rules are violated. I can even dislike someone who holds diametrically opposing views, opinions and beliefs. None of this gives me ANY right to disrespect the person. To insult, to attack, to slander, to belittle, to degrade, to injure — as a Christian I am prevented to doing any of these things. When I sin by doing any of them, I am in greater need of God’s grace than the object of my derision. Disrespect is NOT a fruit of the Spirit. If I am not being loving, patient, kind, gentle, peace-making, and exercising basic humble self-control, it is clear that God’s Spirit is not in me. Hateful behavior is indefensible in our faith.
Discontent — where did we get the idea that gossip is a Christian spiritual discipline? We must suffer this delusion since there is more gossip in our churches than prayer, scripture study, fasting and missionary service combined. Sowing seeds of discontent is a very different thing that what Jesus taught in Matthew 13. Rumors, lies, innuendo, back-stabbing, etc., function as toxins in the body of Christ — poisoning and tainting, doing immediate damage as well as long-term, residual harm. It is not that personal opinions are false or unwarranted, but how we express them is the true test of our spiritual maturity. We are not simply charged to speak the truth, but to speak the truth in love. We are also instructed to work out our collective salvation with fear (awe-filled respect) and trembling (whole-body gratitude and relief). We cannot do this by tearing one another down. Unity, harmony, peace and security are precious and rare. We need to work hard to preserve them.
Distrust — Christians are not measured by their ability to trust, but by their trustworthiness. Trust is a reciprocal benefit. Too often we demand others to be trustworthy with no sense of personal responsibility. We will take offense at every slight committed by others, but feel justified in our own trespasses. We live a daily violation of the Lord’s Prayer, but want to hold others to the strictest possible standard. Those who breach trust cannot demand trust. Where has our distrust come from? I think it is rooted in a fundamental lack of trust in God. We spend so much time talking about what we don’t have, what we’ve lost, what we lack, what we wish we had instead of focusing on all we have, all we possess, all we know, and all we’ve been given. A scarcity mentality and a gospel of anxiety is a lousy foundation upon which to build trust. Acknowledgement and celebration of who we are and how God is using us is a good place to start. Openness, honesty, good communication, patience and a healthy dose of forgiveness are essential elements in restoring trust in the church.
It seems so much easier to be negative than to be positive. This is why we need a Savior. Being governed and guided by our emotions and reactions is what Paul described as “walking according to the flesh.” It’s time to walk in the Spirit. We need to stop diss-ing the church and return to a better way. The choice is ours — walk in the flesh to destroy and tear down or walk in the Spirit to trust God and to co-create the kind of world God envisions. Doesn’t seem like much of a choice.
Categories: Christian witness, Congregational Life, Core Values, Personal Reflection
Dan, you wrote in part: “A scarcity mentality and a gospel of anxiety is a lousy foundation upon which to build trust.” i agree with you that we have trouble trusting God. i’m having trouble figuring out why this is so. And i confess that as you write about “walking away” i can see myself in that, at least to a point.
Is our difficulty in trusting coming from a culture of choice and selfishness? From an unwillingness to acknowledge unity in Christ (or any sort of flexibility in United Methodism)? From a wicked crossover between politics and religion? From a human fear that pushes us to think we would be better with 10% more than we have? From that sense of jealousy of the other?
Short answer, “yes” to all. As a student of church history, the evolution of the American commitment to personal piety, resuliting in the “me and my buddy Jesus” expression of faith, has done more to damage Christianity than anything else. Judaism and the early Christian Way are, by definition, communal religions. We have turned them into individual, personal and private faith expressions, diminishing the essential need for strong trust. When my responsibility to God is inextricably tied to my responsibility to community, trust isn’t an option. Once I eliminate the need for community in my faith formation, trust becomes reactive rather than active, and it is all about me. This (for me) explains all the other shifts you named in your comment.
i like the way you tighten this up with “community.”
How do we gain/regain/allow community? i suppose this is an argument for both small groups and regular worship attendance, but will these win the day today?
i’ve always enjoyed congregational singing, and i maintain that singing is a means to community. The best congregational singing IMO is not necessarily the best-sounding music, but rather the joyful, innovative stuff with folks searching for richness in harmony and rhythm. i’m still toying with worship/preaching as a social medium. Facebook in which the face is the face of Jesus….
I wonder if part of our difficulty in trusting God stems from our consumerist-mindset culture. It seems as though the idea of church has become a product we buy into, and as a result if we don’t like the “product”, we simply ask for a refund. I suppose this may also stem from our ideas of self-entitlement that pervade our society and culture in the Western world.
As a (UM) pastor, I am constantly struggling with this personally and within my congregation as we seek balance between our culture and our faith.
DIS is good! (sorry could not resist)
I simply quote Miroslav Volf in August 9, 2011 Christian Century, page 10 as he quotes I Peter 2:17 “Honor Everyone”
Loved the “church equals the Borg collective” line
“I was a little surprised at the number of people disagreeing with the notion, especially those who took the “so you’re saying that if my church is full of Bible-burning Nazi pedophiles I should just suck it up and stay?” position. At no time have I said we should stay in churches filled with Satanic serial killer pedophiles.” Pretty sure you were talking about me there.
I think you missed my point–because of *course* you don’t think you should stay. Nobody thinks that. And that’s the point: we argue about where the line is that makes us leave, not whether there is one. Yes, of course you shouldn’t join that church–but what if it’s not that way when you join, and then it slowly becomes it? Or what if you grew up in it?
I grew up in a church that made the Southern Baptists look like the Green Party. (They were an offshoot of the SBC because the SBC was way too liberal). And the god they worship is so far from the God I worship that yes, I would say it’s a question of evil vs. good rather than Christian brothers and sisters disagreeing under heaven. If you disagree, I can only think that you’re speaking in part from a place of privilege: a place where you haven’t been the gay person excluded or the woman told what her place is or the poor person who is somehow never nominated to a leadership position.
I’m UCC now. I don’t agree with everything about it, particularly the polity; I prefer an episcopal rather than congregational polity. And I don’t agree with every position they take. But I believe that they are genuinely seeking the heart of Christ, and I don’t believe that about every church.
I do agree with much of what you write, and I enjoy reading your blog. We do disagree on this; sometimes I fear a false equivalence between two sides, when one side is trying to follow Jesus’ radical love and the other seems to be more about trying to preserve an institution and ideological purity.
I got about six different emails suggesting that we should leave churches full of evil behaviors (yes, even one that actually said Nazis!) and I just want to emphasize that I was talking about a growing “normal” situation and not exceptions at the extremes.
My bottom line is this: when we play by our rules, everybody loses. Problems don’t get solved when people refuse to stay engaged. Are there exceptions? Always. But this isn’t who I am talking about. Walking away is fast becoming our default.