Sometimes I get disillusioned with “the church.” I hear stories of people who were run out, who were gossiped about, who were hurt by the very people who were supposed to love them. I hear of pastors who were treated like the sole employee with their boss being a board of 15 who criticized every decision the pastor made, every minute of the pastor’s time and every breath or sigh taken during the sermon. I hear stories of bully pulpits and sanctuaries where children were definitely not welcome.
There have been times when I have been down about “the church.” I become very critical of an organization that can perpetuate myth in tradition, that runs on models outdated and yet expects the pastor to be a miracle worker. I have been hurt by people in my churches in the past. I have been hurt as a guest by a pastor using their pulpit to instill fear and justify their own narrow beliefs. I have been hurt by the things said casually about other people, even in general terms, that were degrading to certain groups of people that happen to be who my family is made up of.
It’s easy to walk away from the church. I see people do it all the time, I have had people visit me as a pastor and now speak to me as a chaplain about why they will never set foot in a church again. They are done with organized religion. They are done with the institution called “the church.”
It breaks my heart. But rarely do I try to encourage them to go back. Sometimes the damage is too great. Instead, I always encourage them to continue on the spiritual journey. And my hope and prayer is that perhaps they will find their way back to the church. But me, as clergy, as a direct representative of the institution that has harmed them, I don’t feel it is my place to tell them to come back. I wouldn’t tell the victim of domestic abuse to go back to the person who has abused them. But I would tell them they can love again, that in time, perhaps they can trust again. The same I would say to those abused by “the church.” I would encourage them to continue on their spiritual journey, and my hope is that they would find a loving, supportive, embracing community.
I love the Church, the Body of Christ described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12. I don’t love all manifestations of the church. But I love what it is supposed to be.
The church is supposed to be the place where you feel you are a part of the Body of Christ. You are valuable. You are significant. Your gifts are useful and necessary. You have an important part to play in the whole body’s function. You are part of the family. You are loved, exactly as you are, exactly as you were made by God. You can come with your wounds and hurts and find comfort and strength. You can come with your worries and fears and find courage. You can come with your grief and find some ease. You come and find your burdens are born by others, your joys are shared by others.
Thankfully, I have experienced the church as this: the body of Christ. I realize it is hard for me to say this as clergy and have any clout beyond that, but before I was a minister, I loved the church. As a teen, the church was where I was welcomed and embraced and encouraged in my call to ministry. As a child, the church was where I was included and loved just as I was.
It saddens me when people throw the baby out with the bathwater. Whereas I understand completely how individuals, even groups of people have been hurt by the church and have left, I am grieved that there are people calling for the end of the church. I do believe the church is changing, dying even, but with death there is always the hope of resurrection—something new. It may look completely different than it is now. But my hope and prayer is that the church—whatever it is—will be the Body of Christ.
All too often I have friends who claim to be spiritual but not religious—who want nothing to do with church. Fine. I actually have no problem with that because the “church” they are rejecting I would reject as well, a place where people are harmed rather than healed. But it is when my friends go to nothing—there is no faith community, no gathering of people to talk about spirituality or God or whatever—when there is just an absence, this is where I grieve.
I’m not talking about those who have rejected those things and have gone to atheism (that is a different kind of grieving for me, I will admit), but for those friends who rejected the church of their childhood and are raising children, and they tell me they want their children to have the values they were taught but not in the church, and don’t know where to turn—I grieve for them. I grieve for the ones who want to talk about spirituality and faith but feel they have no place to go. And I grieve for the ones who simply ridicule those of us who stayed in the church. I have friends among them all.
But I know one person, who once described his return to church after a twenty-year absence as a “homecoming.” He walked in the doors and was immediately greeted. Someone came to his seat and welcomed him. The people shook his hands and shared their names and made him feel comfortable. The preacher shared a message of hope. The songs were uplifting. And communion was shared with all as a welcome to Christ’s table.
This is the beauty of the church, that for all the shortcomings of the earthly “church” (and as I used to say, the problem with churches is that they are full of people!), there are some who will find their way home again, and find the love, grace, peace and joy that we expect to be there.