If you don’t like what’s happening in the Church, what are you doing about it?
That’s the familiar refrain I hear from Christians who take offense at criticisms of the religious institution known as the Church. They’ll accuse me and those like me of being angry malcontents; serial complainers who have no real desire to make things better, who simply delight in publicly dragging Christianity through the mud.
They write us off as heretics and haters and claim that we have abandoned our faith and rejected God.
They couldn’t be more wrong.
What they don’t understand (or conveniently choose not to understand), is that it is precisely our enduring love for the Church, one we see as already well submerged in the mud that compels us to speak. It is our very passionate and persevering faith in God that stirs us to engage in a spirited fight for the things that bear God’s name.
We are trying to rescue something that we love from the hands of those who have hijacked it, hoping to recover something precious that has been lost.
We are stranded orphans trying to find our way home again.
And it often feels like a lost cause.
Those who accuse us of mischaracterizing what we’re critiquing don’t realize that we totally get it.
We get that the Church is not a building, that it is formed by the wonderfully flawed people who fill those buildings. We are those people too. We are still firmly the Church even as we struggle to exist in it or engage with it.
In truth, we are being the Church as much now in our discontent and wrestling as we ever were before.
The problem is, organized Christianity is no longer truly in the hands of all the people. Like so many riches in this world, it too is being hoarded and held by a small minority who tend to speak for themselves; who are prone to leveraging power and position and platform to control those who they deem to be inferior or dangerous or deviating from the norm.
“So what are you doing besides complaining?” people will ask. “Why don’t you be the change you wish to see in the Church?”
It’s a beautiful sentiment but one that usually comes from those who already feel comfortable, well heard, and quite influential in their churches; those who feel that things are pretty darn fine the way they are. But there are many good, faithful, thoughtful people in local churches everywhere who desire something more but feel both powerless and voiceless to do anything about it.
Being the change sounds like a really romantic idea, and in fact it is the aspiration and the dream of so many of those who claim faith and yet still struggle in faith communities. It’s also exactly why they leave those communities in droves every week.
As a pastor in the local church for the past twenty years, I’ve seen the darkest parts of what can happen when you seek to speak into the injustice and dysfunction you see in organized religion. I’ve experienced firsthand how the few influential preservers of sameness (those intolerant to dissension and deviation) can force someone to the fringes of a community and ultimately out of it.
Walking through that incredibly disillusioning time taught me some valuable lessons about why the Church often struggles to welcome necessary evolution.
Whenever people in any venue have power they will fight like hell to hold onto it. Whenever there is a comfortable core, that core will usually not want change to come because when it does it reshuffles the balance of power, it sends ripples into areas of atrophy and ease and routine, it shines a floodlight into every corner of what a church is doing and asks whether or not it should be doing it.
Most of all through my struggle to bring change to the Church, I learned that if someone in a relative position of influence on pastoral staff, finds themselves bridled and silenced and shunned as they ask difficult questions or challenge existing givens, the average anonymous person sitting in services often doesn’t have much of a shot. At least not in many settings, not when the deck is stacked and the systems organized to protect status quo, and those who gain the most from it.
Being the change in the Church or anywhere else for that matter, either requires influence or numbers, and those are both resources that organized religion excels at hoarding and controlling.
For all the prayer gatherings and Bible studies and religious trappings, most church staffs, lay leadership teams, and the lion’s share of the governing bodies in local churches operate pretty much like the ones you find outside them. They too, are far too often shaped by nepotism, political pressures, friendship alliances, and good old-fashioned bias. It just happens.
If you don’t believe me, try me. If there is an area in your local faith community where you believe you see financial waste, leadership failings, moral blind spots, neglected people groups, or any other deep and unmet need, speak into it respectfully, lovingly, and directly and see what happens.
You may indeed end up impacting the culture around you or changing the perspective of the leaders there or bringing long needed honest conversation to your people. That would be a wonderful thing. That would truly be something worth celebrating.
But if not, if you encounter intolerance or silence or worse, you may be called to leave and find a group of like-minded individuals, and to go and create the Church that you do not yet see but believe should be.
That is what so many are doing right now. They are doing it this very Sunday.
They are exiting the building but not jettisoning their faith on the way out.
They aren’t throwing the baby Jesus out with the stagnant bath water. They are rediscovering what it means to be in spiritual community, and doing it in ways that have yet to be defined or modeled where they have been. That doesn’t make them apostates, it just means that they have outgrown the restrictive box their faith has been kept in and want something better fitted for the coming seasons.
For those of you who are comfortable and thriving in a spiritual community where you are, please remember that they who leave are not necessarily the enemies of the Church. In fact, it may be their love for the very best of it that often pushes them to depart.
There are indeed some wonderful faith communities out there. If you’re part of one, by all means stay and nurture it. Work in it and support it and challenge it and stretch it. Love it well.
Absolutely keep engaging the Church where you are, in the church where you are, as the Church that you are, unless and until you find that you are unable to affect it in a meaningful way.
Then, you may have to love the Church enough to leave it.