By: Rev. Ed Schneider, M.P.Th.
After having two multi-hour conversations concerning how some people have been so negatively affected by their local church experiences, they have become reluctant to find another Christian congregation to attach themselves to. I just kept thinking about a useful biblical reference about how God always seems to lean heavily on the act and attitude of MERCY when proceeding through a Divine judgment.
12 Speak and act like people who will be judged by the law that sets us free. 13 Do this, because on the day of judgment there will be no pity for those who have not had pity on others. But even in judgment, God is merciful! (James 2:12-13 CEV)
One of the conversation happened at the end of a very long day as I found myself sitting across the table from a late twenty-something young man who had three different negative church experiences so profound he no longer seems to be able to see any tangible blessing in associating with any local church. During our three hour conversation concerning his feelings, historical experiences, and evaluating preferences he said, “I’m sure church may be good for younger children but ALL pastors and their leaders are only out for money.” Later he shared, “There is nothing but unnecessary drama and conflict in EVERY church. Why even bother going?”
At an early conversation in the day, I had the privilege of video call with a friend who now lives in Europe. He had just gone through a series of church related internal conflicts based on prejudicial bias that have all but forced him out of the congregation he has been associated with for 20 years. One of his comments to me was, “I thought when I left “The States” I would have left all this nonsense behind! I guess ALL CHURCHES are like this.”
I felt saddened for them personally? Both of these Christian men have had remarkably positive experiences in their younger lives with their “home church” and their personal faith journey. Yet, during the last few years their shared relational experiences within a congregational context have all but destroyed a once “assumed” uplifting and encouraging local church environment into an “assumed” judgmental, arbitrary, and argumentative reality.
When I asked both of them about their “obviously positive” memories of a local Christian church, both shared what “was” good as they were growing up. They were quick to describe a loving, inclusive, affirming, and empowering environment within youth and early adulthood. Both told me multiple tales of interpersonal, relational-based, interactions with what seemed to them as “mature Christians” who openly took the time to demonstrate goodness, grace, and godly expectations of personal growth under the shadow of biblical foundations. And yet, both on these men, one 28 and the other 58, found themselves so disappointed by their reoccurring negative “local church” experiences they no longer desire for weekly worship contact and they no longer assume affiliating with a local congregation will automatically provide a healthy reflection of positive Christianity.
Remember what the Bible teaches about judging people outside the Christian faith.
12 Why should I judge outsiders? Aren’t we supposed to judge only church members? 13 God judges everyone else. The Scriptures say, “Chase away any of your own people who are evil.” (1 Cor. 5:1-3)
As each conversation progressed they started using phrases or terms that reflected their growing disgust with local congregational Christianity. ALL pastors or ALL churches were collectively and completely guilty of a long list of insulting, degrading, self-serving, and in some cases, bigoted displays of “non-Christian” demeanors and their accompanying activities. I was relieved to find out that they left me out of the “ALL” category. However, when I challenged them to filter their assumptive language from “all people” to only “some,” both surprisingly balked. They were willing to acknowledge there might be “exceptions” but they had to be rare….based on their recent experiences.
I told one of my conversational guests that in the United States there were upwards of 350,000 local Christian congregations. I him that I certainly acknowledged there were far too many examples of bad behavior and ridiculously ignorant biblical understanding being demonstrated in a variety of Christian locations….HOWEVER….to assume that acknowledgment is “universally negative” is just plain wrong. I share with both gentleman that the vast majority of Christians and local leadership are genuine, kind, loving, supportive, encouraging, and enthusiastic participants in a journey of sincere Christian discovery. Unfortunately for my apologetic debating skills one of the guys pointed out that if only 10% of the 350,000 congregations were horrible displays of Christian understanding and regularly demonstrating inappropriately hurtful reactions to the world around them…..THAT IS STILL 35,000 CHURCHES!
Many of you have read my thoughts on this before, but I think it bears repeating.
The damage that is most often inflicted upon Christianity is by some of the people who call themselves, Christians.
We have got to do a better job at both deepening as well as demonstrating our faith in a loving and empowering God who is fully wanting and able to openly and freely offer grace and mercy to the world The Creator brought into existence. Our God is not universally hateful or demeaning. Our God is not arbitrary in condemning people without filtering that condemnation through the Divine lens of grace and mercy.
God reminds us through the pages of the Bible that we are NOT to usurp God’s authority when it relates to condemning others.
Some of you accuse others of doing wrong. But there is no excuse for what you do. When you judge others, you condemn yourselves, because you are guilty of doing the very same things. 2 We know that God is right to judge everyone who behaves in this way. 3 Do you really think God won’t punish you, when you behave exactly like the people you accuse? (Romans 2:1-3 CEV)
To say all church or all pastors are bad is equal to ALL MUSLIMS are radical Jihadists looking to bomb and torture and destroy. That is not just a fearful reaction to recent events it is also plainly ignorant.
To think or say that;
ALL women are this, or ALL men are that, is stupid and shows a complete lack of any human understanding.
To think or say that;
ALL white people believe and act one way or that black people only believe, live and act a certain way is equally stupid and wrong.
To think or say that;
All democrats are X or that all republicans are Y, is not only silly its completely uninformed.
Thank God, most people not only try to be, but generally are, good intended souls.
Are there bad people with not so good intentions in the world? Of course, there are. And there are far too many of them! Are there bad people with not so good intentions in local churches? Of course, there are! Why? Because the Christian message is proclaimed to a BROKEN AND LOST WORLD. Some of those negative displays are inevitably going to end up rearing its ugliness inside local congregations. It has to because each local congregation is made up of PEOPLE; real people with real problems and real prejudices and real faultiness. That is a part of the Cause of Christ. We are called to not only reach out to searching people trying to get closer to God but also to extend a gracious hand to those that will on occasion drive us absolutely nuts!
I ended each multiple hour conversation with encouraging both men to not give up on God’s call of Christian “believers” to regularly gather together because of some person’s failure at demonstrating a positive Christ-like understanding. I encouraged them to trust God more than the circumstances they find themselves. Learning to trust in the purpose of a gracious God is the first step in building a firm foundation of each person’s journey of faith. Whether someone is Baptist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Apostolic, Charismatic, Catholic, Orthodox, Reformed, Methodist, Pentecostal or some other Christian flavor, it is essential we learn to focus on the things which healthy Christianity agrees on.
- God is foundationally a source of LOVE.
- God is best understood in a positive and encouraging environment.
- That even though God can and does condemn the actions of people that same God also calls out to all people to love, forgive and uplift each other under the self-sacrificial nature of Jesus Christ.
Anything we do that counteracts these basic understandings of our collective faith journey should be immediately questioned and resolved with intentionality. Why? Because there are millions of others just like the two men above that are depending on more of us Christians getting it right rather than wrong.