Is your approach to church like that of a giant flesh-eating extraterrestrial plant?
Imagine you're the pastor of a small church. You have a busy schedule today, but after some morning caffeine you feel ready to roll. After all, you're passionate about connecting people with God.
As you sit down to tackle the inbox, however, your energy evaporates. On the screen is a sarcastic, long-winded email from a guy you barely know. He didn't like Sunday's sermon illustration about a prostitute who found Jesus.
Actually, "didn't like" is an understatement — he begins by saying "you have dishonored the house of the Lord!"
So much for demonstrating the depths of God's grace, you think.
The email concludes, "I'm finding a new church where they don't preach on hookers." What a great start to the day — and it's only 8:30 a.m.
But there's no time to dwell on that; your first appointment is here. Brian, the music minister, has Sunday's worship order ready. As you discuss the usual business, he seems to have something on his mind.
"Hey, did you know Dave Moore is ticked off ... at you?" he finally asks.
Dave's one of the volunteer worship leaders. "What?" you ask. "I thought we were fine."
Brian explains. A while back, you called Dave a number of times, asking him to get you some music he'd been promising for weeks. Apparently, he thought you called one too many times. "Says he stopped counting at five calls in one day."
OK, you left him a message a day for a week — you really wanted this song for your message — but five in one day? "Why didn't he come to me about this?" you ask Brian rhetorically. "Twenty-twenty hindsight, maybe I should've given up on the music. But I didn't have a clue the guy was irritated."
Brian shrugs. "He's been warning people not to work with you. I thought you should know."
Having the musicians angry is not what you need right now. Since you started doing contemporary worship, there have been problems. Some folks must think it's a sin to have drums and a guitar in the same service. Grace Community is the nearest church where they still use hymnals ... and they've picked up a lot of transplants.
Brian says he'll encourage Dave to talk to you, but "he seemed pretty ticked." Brian leaves with an apologetic shrug.
You try to work on Sunday's sermon, but concentration is not coming easily. To think that an hour ago you were reveling in connecting people to God. "Lord," you mutter, "I know people weren't always crazy about your Son, either. But can't the Body of Christ occasionally act like they know Him?"
The names and details in the story are fictional, but the situations aren't. I witnessed every incident in the story firsthand. Sometimes, Pharisees in the church are enough to make you wish for a few good heathens.
Is it any wonder why pastors burn out and head for the door, or why non-Christians say their main reason for dodging church is hypocrisy? Any wonder why some people (maybe you) sleep in on Sundays?
Maybe you've even been caught in the crossfire. I know a youth pastor who got fired for preaching a very biblical sermon. Problem was, the congregation didn't want to hear it because he implied they needed to change their lives. The senior pastor showed him the door the very next week.
When I see behavior like that, I want to unleash some holy anger. "Forget it, you Pharisees!" I want to shout — and then hit the road. With brothers in Christ like that, who needs enemies?
But before you or I pour out our wrath on those around us, is there a chance — any chance at all — that we may be guilty of the same offense?
"Of course not; my mama raised me better. I'd never act like those morons."
So you'd never go ballistic over convicting sermons or illustrations about prostitutes?
"That's just dumb. Can't believe anybody would do that."
Good. Would you leave that church and go looking for a better one?
"Yeah, wouldn't you? I'd be gone faster than you can say 'Pharisee.'"
Interesting. In that case, will you humor a slightly demented writer for a minute? I've designed a little quiz to make sure we don't have Plank-in-the-Eye Disease. Just answer three questions.
1. When you don't like the pastor's message or the worship music, you most often:
- Tell your friends you know the pastor's doing his best, but you just didn't get fed.
- Try to learn from it, even if there isn't much there to learn.
- Ask the pastor if his seminary diploma is a forgery.
2. There aren't many people your age in your church, and most of 'em are married with children. What's your next move?
- Find another singles ministry with more man candy or hot chicks.
- Work to make the singles group in your own church stronger.
- Take a vow of celibacy.
3. One Sunday morning during your group Bible study, the children's pastor comes in to ask for volunteers in the nursery. How will you respond?
- Wait for an opportunity to come along that uses your spiritual gifts.
- See if you can volunteer once a month (provided no diapers are involved).
- Promote birth control to overcome the staffing problem.
If you answered "c": Have you been watching Simon Cowell again?
If you answered "b": You probably don't need this article. (But finish reading it anyway; I'll get offended if you stop now.)
If you answered "a": Pry that 2 x 4 out of your eye before you start looking for splinters.
"Wait a minute, you — you — accusatory writer," you say. "I'm no hypocrite! Just because I picked 'a' in your silly quiz.... I only want to find a good church."
So do I. But let's be really honest here: When you're evaluating church, what are you thinking about? Here's my answer: Truthfully, I'm lookin' out for No. 1.
There's an '80s rock musical, Little Shop of Horrors, that features a mutant alien plant who devours people. (Cute, huh?)
Seymour, our hero, finds what starts out as a cute little Venus Flytrap. He names it Audrey II (after his girlfriend), then tries to figure out what makes it grow. Interestingly, the plant has a huge appetite for blood. He begins by pricking his finger, but soon the plant grows out of control.
Audrey II starts demanding more and more until she's eating people with a constant cry of "FEED ME!" First Seymour lures his evil boss into the plant's clutches, but that isn't enough. Eventually, his girlfriend gets a little too close to Audrey II ... and you can fill in the blanks.
But Seymour doesn't have much time to mourn, because Audrey II finally bites the hand that feeds her. That's right — to end the play, she cries "FEED ME!" once more and devours Seymour.
I love happy endings!
I get frustrated with all of the fights and hypocrites in church — regularly. But as I search for preaching that gives me a warm fuzzy and worship that sounds like a David Crowder album and service opportunities that don't cost me anything, I'm really saying "FEED ME!" and heading down the same path as the hypocrites I want to escape.
James diagnosed the problem back in 60 A.D. "What's causing your disagreements?" he asks rhetorically. "Isn't it when you want something you can't have; when selfishness gets the best of you? Who do you think you are to trash talk others saved by grace? Get humble! Try being Jesus-centered instead of self-centered."
When you're tempted to critique the band or go off on some Pharisees or take shots at your pastor's sermon, ask yourself one more survey question: "Who am I serving?"
If you're taking up pew space and echoing Audrey II, all your beefs will be magnified. If you're really following Jesus — involved in ministry; humbly learning from the Bible; in community with God's people — your complaints might seem a lot smaller.
Not that I'd know.
But maybe it's not that simple for you. Maybe you've been so wounded by "Christians" that it feels like you're still bleeding inside. You know pastors are sinners, but maybe you found one who was determined to prove it. Maybe words can't express how you feel about church right now — unless the words have four letters.
An associate pastor I know got fired by his church. His crime? He revealed the senior pastor was having an affair. I wish I were kidding.
Perhaps you've read about the reverends who buy million-dollar mansions by fleecing the flock, or the priests who molest kids who trust them, or the pseudo-Christians who believe (and I quote) "God hates fags." Add your own story here; there's no shortage of wolves in shepherd's clothing. As for me? I've been hurt by hypocrites (some of them called "pastor") enough times that I have to fight cynicism every time I walk into church on Sunday. I'm so afraid of getting hurt again that I instinctively put up a wall.
If you're like me, this stuff makes you want a more personal relationship with Jesus — the sort where you attend Bedside Baptist on Sundays. Yeah, you know the verse about not giving up on worshiping together (Hebrews 10:25), but let's be honest — you've got enough other things to cause pain in your life. You and God are about as much church as you can handle right now.
Gandhi said, "I like your Christ, but I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ." Maybe you can mutter a hearty "amen" to that.
I was head over heels for Andrea — completely gone. I'd had my eye on her for almost a year, so when we finally got the hookup, I was floating. A few months down the road, I knew Andrea was Miss Right. I even believed God told me she was The One.
Then half a blissful year later, it was over. Andrea'd been doing some soul-searching and said she really liked me, but honestly couldn't see spending the rest of our lives together.
That day, I discovered a new definition of pain. Long relationships weren't new to me, but this was different. I bawled my eyes out, and every time I saw Andrea for the next six months, I wanted to go hide and cry some more. I did some serious yelling at the Almighty in my prayers.
Then something strange happened. After a couple of months, I still hurt — but I started feeling the urge to date again. I started noticing women again. I never stopped wanting to get married (well, not for very long). I was wounded, but I wasn't about to give up.
If you've been hurt by church, you might want to dump it all — and I don't blame you. Take time to talk it out with your friends. Yell at God; shed some tears in His arms. And then ... well, it would be a good idea to find a church.
"I don't want a new church!" you say. "It'll just happen again."
Yeah. Unfortunately, there's a chance it will.
Truthfully, I've never been in a church for long where somebody didn't hurt me. I've never had a job, or a friendship, or a family, or a pet hamster that didn't cause me pain. C. S. Lewis said, "The only place, outside heaven, where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers of love is hell." Sure, you can decide not to let yourself be hurt again — but it requires living in a cave where neither pain nor joy can find you. This side of heaven, relationships mean both.
The Andrea Breakup didn't make me stop looking for a bride. In spite of the pain, in spite of the fear, I took one more chance on a relationship ... and I can't argue with the results. My wife's more amazing than Andrea ever was.
I hope you won't give up on the Bride of Christ.
The First Church of Swollen Egos
Jesus would've had it much easier without pastoring the First Church of Swollen Egos. (You know, the Twelve Disciples?) Picture God-in-Flesh enduring the constant arguments about who would be the Big Cheese in Heaven. Imagine Peter shoving his sandals in his mouth twice a day. And the stress of Doubting Thomas questioning every stinkin' miracle ... talk about hypocrites! Jesus had that "sinless" thing going on, so He didn't exactly need the accountability group.
However, the disciples did. Jesus took the hurt of living in a "church" because you can't get to know a Savior-in-the-Flesh without connecting to His body.
And that's the same reason God wants us to put up with less-than-perfect church people now. C. S. Lewis says God is always transforming believers — the kind who hang out at church — into "little Christs." If there's nobody in your life to be a bit o' Jesus, you're in trouble.
Can you imitate Jesus over the long haul when you don't rub shoulders with anybody living like him? "Follow me as I follow Christ," Paul said. I know people I can imitate because I see a smidge of my Savior peeking through their fallenness.
Remember Thomas? He couldn't believe until he saw the nail holes. My faith is strengthened when I see another Christian take a nail, sacrifice part of themselves so someone can find God. When I run out of little Christs to watch, I start to wonder if God really cares. And why shouldn't I? Love is a worthless bundle of emotions until it turns into actions.
When you go to church, you can take your cynicism. You came by it honestly. You don't have to jump into the Children's Ministry your first week there. Just turn up and try to see past the sinners to the cross that's going to rescue them all. If hypocrites have wronged you in the name of Christ, Jesus is at least as ticked off as you. Remember His run-ins with the Pharisees and Money-Changers?
Following a man, even one who happens to be God, requires pressing some flesh. So after a while, I hope you'll dip your toe into church a little further. Maybe you'll join the Homeless Ministry and look past the grimy faces to see Jesus underneath. As you hand out sandwiches, Jesus is in heaven saying "You just gave Me a meal." Somewhere inside, even while you try to avoid the homeless guy's breath, I hope a little bit of joy comes trickling back into your soul.
After all, being a real disciple means joy and pain. They are as inseparable for us as they were for the Man on the cross. Church hurts sometimes. But as you rub shoulders with Little Christs, something is likely to change. You'll probably find yourself living a lot less like Audrey II ... and much, much more like Jesus.
Besides, rediscovering the bride of Christ is worth a little risk. Just ask my wife.
Copyright 2007 George Halitzka. All rights reserved.