Wow, LA. Aren't you Christian? Aren't you online boasting about your Church? And now, what--you are going to do a series why you don't like it? If it wouldn't had been too long, I would have rather titled this post "Why I Don't Like 'Church' But Am Still There". However, dropping attendance rates in churches has been in the news for awhile. There's an article in the Huffington Post called "Which Religion is Dying in America" where Chris Redform compares the drop in church attendance to a "bare naked skydiver" and that it looks pretty "grim" for main line churches especially. "Four thousand churches close each year and 3,500 people leave the Church each day," Redform states while also noting non-white , evangelical churches are the only ones showing growth. In another article titled, "7 Startling Facts: An Up Close Look at Church Attendance in America" writer Kelly Shattuck shows research that exposes Gallup polls that proclaim attendance dropping to 40% actually being more like a percentage of 17%. Houston, we have a problem! So though this post is a matter of personal opinion, at the very least, we must acknowledge there is a serious problem with churches today. Yet, ironically, most leadership doesn't have a clue what that is, exposing the fact of the exclusive nature of religious institutions which reveals just how out of touch churches are with the real world.
Although the first part of this post will be why I don't generally like churches as it stands today, the second part will be why I came back and am still there. I think each part will appeal to different readers. Still, I really debated about writing this post. I sort of feel like God could say, "Who are you to criticize my Church!?!" I'm certainly not an authority, but I do have over 20 years experiences in churches, ministry and terrific amount time in gay cure industries run by churches. Still, if you see me with frazzled, electrified hair from a series of lightning strikes, you know about the divine judgment over that one. However, I doubt I'm the only one who feels like I do about church though our points of contention may be different. I was really impressed with a pastor I heard this week who asked to sit down with any of us to hear our story on what hurt us and what wasn't working for us in regards to churches. I've never heard a pastor do that in all my many years in churches.
There is also a fear because as you may know I belong to a church and it is not my attempt to slam them rather this series is more about the entirety of my church experience from the start. And if anything, my present church has a lot to do with why I'm even back in a church at all. This says a lot about them.
The problem for the faithful is that word "church". It is spoken so highly of in the Scriptures. Yet, we must keep in mind that there really were no church denominations back when the scriptures were written. There were rather whole communities and letters were written to whole communities of the faithful, not specific denominations. They weren't under the complexity of the framework we sit under today--churches separated and divided from one another from street corner to street corner. With that in mind, much like my father, I am choosing to tell the truth even if it hurts. I figure, why hide my voice now? As Billy Joel sings about the word "honesty", it is a "very lonely word" and "very seldom heard". Honesty, and truth, not only transforms others but they also comfort the afflicted who may be more hesitant to tell the truth than blowhards like me :-). Kidding aside, we don't feel so alone when we share our secrets so I hope to hear your comments at the end of this! You just might find it a bit therapuetic!
If you have read any of my other posts or perhaps my book "Discoveries in the Closet" (here at the Book Space Store, shameless plug), you know that I feel fortunate for my present spiritual life. However, when I was a little kid, I saw Church as a bore and rather gloomy. I didn't fully appreciate all these dead characters and boring ghosts with messages on morality. I was more interested in the ghosts from the "Scooby Doo Where Are You?" T.V. show instead. However, I do have to say I was curious at a young age about this sense of life source to all things and the supernatural. I grew to be a reflective, young man which I believe put me in a position to be listening. Quiet reflection is key to any spiritual practice no matter what it is.
I eventually looked to the "Church" in a serious way rather than a forced way. When I left the Catholic faith because I reached the limits it had for me, I really started trying all sorts of places of worship and a full on search on the "truth" about this God who was pro-ported to be a lot like a person ...of a higher nature. And it is here, in this search, that I not only received a deeply rooted, rewarding faith, but some of the most damaging aspects of religion as we now know they can be--to those who have managed experience them.
I have found several patterns that repeat themselves in any church I've ever been that I would like to share with you. You know the ones, the kind that make me want to throw in the towel, as many others have. These would be:
- Ego Driven Spirituality
- Hidden Agendas
- High & Mighty People in Their Tighty Whities
- Focus on Money
- Small "we" verses big "We"
I will focus on the first two in this post, and the last three in the next.
Ego Driven Spirituality
This is probably the worst of the five because all five patterns are driven by the ego need for glory and protectionism. It is, in my experience, inherently difficult to drive out ego driven spirituality in a public demonstration of "holiness", "worship", and "service" that the church arena fosters. There's almost no getting around it without smelling whiffs of it either from your own spiritual arm pits or from someone else we run into.
When we come to church, we are quite literally the man praying on the street corner, whether you want to be or not. It is in the very nature of a "public" worship service. Yet, the Bible warns to not be that man but rather exhorts much more about our private prayer. I say this because at church or temples everyone sees what you are doing, even if you don't want them too, in times of public gatherings. This makes it way too easy to mask holiness, worship and service as something God driven--even to the point of fooling ourselves. Our egos are very clever things, always at work to get what its want. As soon as you start emphasizing your public displays of affection to God, you can guarantee your pretty much off course. If you feel you have it licked, trust me, your ego has the reigns probably more so than those who are keenly aware they don't have it licked.
In addition, it is also difficult to not get into mutual admiration circles (and the counter, mutual agitation circles) around those with dynamic personalities, church seniority and the like in leadership within religious institutions. Leader worship and it's counter, leader blaming, is a challenge for many, even more than people will publicly admit. One of my favorite pastors (not just because he gave great sermons) had a huge congregation with a stellar worship leader, youth leader and a top notch choir and choir director that brought in some of the best singing talent in our small community. The parking lot and surrounding streets were filled and over flowing. A new sanctuary was built to accommodate all the people. The one big complaint of parking issues every pastor dreams of hearing of was something our pastor got to hear a lot of and joke about. When our pastor unexpectedly died, all of that deflated like a popped balloon because his dynamic personality ended up shining more brightly than the mission of the church, even with it's community involvement. It was apparent by the rapidly dropping numbers the amount of people who no doubt went through the spiritual motions and the hoops because they followed a man. They did not stick it out through the storm of his absence. No doubt, for a lot of them, his God was their God by adoption through mutual admiration of what this pastor brought to them. It takes a dynamic leader to really make a church organization successful in terms of draw and money.
The problem? I suggest it is our definition of dynamic and love contained within church walls. Being dynamic is much more than draw, monies, or how many people love you because of what you do, how you do it, or how you treat others within religious institutions. There is no bigger drug than all that you do in a "sanctuary" being stamped with God's approval by other "saints" and messengers. Look how so many Catholic priests got away with molesting children. The Catholic Church protected many of them because of this ego driven protectionism. Godly approval also strikes a very primitive chord of parental approval that is truly hard to ignore. The true blooded faithful desire very strongly to please God and this can be misused against them in clever ways. We can become coerced to do things, to act and speak in ways so much so that church becomes a dog and pony show of the faithful jumping through hoops and leaping over barriers to steal in their own conscious an experience of God's approval. My lord, let me at least experience God's approval somewhere! Many of the faithful won't admit this but the sense of God's approval is important if not crucial to them as it was to get from their parents (that they may have not gotten). It is very easy to operate in religious ways in order to feel and believe that approval is had. We may sing "the Bible tells me so" about God's love, but in truth, if we can experience a tangible touch of such approval, we jump at the chance to fill the void of emptiness this world and even religions leave us with. And where else better to experience a tangible sense of approval than in a place referred to as "God's house"? Where else better to feel and be seen as "serving God" than in church? You can light a candle, in your God's name, speak, in God's name, open a door, in God's name, preach, in God's name and sing in God's name. Suddenly, everything you do is in God's name in this one place, on this ONE day. Isn't that strange? Isn't that so limiting? In true spirituality, every day can be in God's name than just when a religious institution opens it's doors.
I'm not saying it does no good or doesn't matter that you serve or worship in a temple. It is just that the emphasis to do so as THE way to show you are serving God is making our impact on the community at large pretty impotent. The question becomes can we be involved in a place of worship in a way that keeps it alive and vibrant and make an impact on the community at large? Of course, we can. We cannot stay tucked away in our important, supportive team huddles that quickly develop into exclusive holy clubs. It takes effort OUTSIDE of church to come into church ready to surrender your ego, and realize that this place of worship is really to be a very small part of a life that is surrendered to God. Our church experiences should be a spring board into the waters of the life of the community around us and not into a pool empty of water, hallowed out by secluded religiosity. Ego draws out the water of life and leaves us stuck in the empty pool of religiosity. Many have dived head first and few leave with their faith still intact when all is said done. I myself just got out of intensive care.
It is really difficult for us humans to not mess up (primarily in communication, as far as churches go), have preferences in people who really aren't good for us, and experience shattered ministry dreams that at first came to us like a prophetic dream. What we do with all that are what makes or breaks us as a church, not that we experience them. It is why we have some people who make the church into something that feels masochistic. All three of these elements of failure in communications, preferences, and broken dreams often tie into personal past failures in these very same areas out in the world. Depending on how that was processed in your soul, it will often be played out within the church walls. It doesn't matter how skilled a person is. If you can't handle those three issues, the people suffer when you try to excuse it, stuff it, or ignore it--especially in leadership. People start copping attitudes, become protective about their positions and how they do it. Attitudes and tempers run a muck as people use and abuse each other.
For example, I cannot tell you the number of times I've heard within Church walls that "only 10% of the people do all the work". This can be somewhat true but by and large, I suggest that it really isn't true. In twenty years of churches, ministries and Christian Counseling internships, I found out that a shocking majority of those who lead sabotage new volunteers through intimidation, discouragement and a certain pattern of "putting you in your place" for those who are new or seem threatening to the establishment. This is what I call a "hidden agenda". An agenda to look like a band of tireless servants bearing the weight of a lazy, selfish congregation that "doesn't get it". A congregation that is continually projected to not ever give enough of their time and money. Yet, if you got to know the secret hurts and stories of those sitting in the pews, you would hear about a vast amount of people who have stood up for the call but were pushed right back down into their seats by the weight of discouragement, poor communication. and funky attitudes.
Maybe you have heard this said of you or others at your place of worship; "What would our church do without YOU doing ______!?!" You have to be in complete denial to not see this as a bit of cat nip to the soul for the masses to say this about you. I don't care who you are. It doesn't mean you take the cat nip but to deny the power of that just means ego has the reigns already. We all desire to be valued and it is magnified x 100 if we are adding God into mix. This is why heart matters so much more than church seniority or our radical skills for the job. The power of temptation in this area is a strong one and I can prove this by my own experience. I personally have yet been able to fully use my talents within a church for over these 20 some odd years because of the power plays of leaders in long held positions of power. In some sense, maybe I'm a little grateful because if it means my soul would fall into the same trap, I've at the very least protected myself from that.