by LA Jamison
Continuing from part one, we are examining some attributes and patterns in religious institutions that have driven me (and others) away. Those patterns are:
- Ego Driven Spirituality
- Hidden Agendas/Hypocrisy
- High & Mighthy in Their Tighty Whities
- Focus on Money
- Small "we" verses big "We" (after all, they say size matters. Just kidding, couldn't resist that joke.)
We already looked at Ego Driven Spirituality and Hidden Agendas/Hypocrisy. Let's examine the rest.
First, let's start with a sobering quote from a guy Sam Eaton. He wrote an article on how the church is not only missing the new generation that isn't going to church but what they can do. Article here
"You see, church leaders, our generation just isn’t interested in playing church anymore, and there are real, possible solutions to filling our congregations with young adults. It’s obvious you’re not understanding the gravity of the problem at hand and aren’t nearly as alarmed as you should be about the crossroads we’re at.
"You’re complacent, irrelevant and approaching extinction. A smattering of mostly older people, doing mostly the same things they’ve always done, isn’t going to turn to the tide.
"Feel free to write to me off as just another angry, selfy-addicted millennial. Believe me, at this point I’m beyond used to being abandoned and ignored."
That's pretty tough stuff there!
High & Mighty in Their Tighty Whities
This get's to a major complaint of many, especially from guys like Sam Eaton and myself. The humanity that has been empowered with a stamp of God's approval can be a dangerous if not terribly damaging beast. In their superiority complexes they are almost laughable, if they weren't so dangerous, at how irrelevant they now are. People tend to operate on Sunday like we are the cast of "It's a Small World" in Disney and turn right back into hell raisers in church parking lots. There's often a expectation that if you are faithful you should be smiling, waving and on a high of faith-uppers from the Bible. I remember my grandmother telling me when I wasn't going to church for a number of years not to worry..."just because something is parked in a garage doesn't make it car". She explained that just because a church has a cross on it and people are in it, doesn't make them authentic, Christian people.
I know people aren't perfect and I was never looking for a perfect people. But what I wasn't expecting as a real truth seeker was such an unloving people hiding behind the mandates and religiosity of the Bible. I soon began doing the same thing as I found my humanity not accepted as a gay man many years ago. I spent much time (years) and money to transform myself to become an acceptable straight man. This grave error contributed to years of loss and severe mental struggles and I'm not alone in that. Those in churches can disguise their cruelty in very passive aggressive ways using religion. People with seniority who act like something out of the movie "Mean Girls" is appalling but ever present. I will never forget recently being physically pushed to light a candle at an alter in-front of a congregation when I was timid in doing so in my first time being trained as an usher. These kind of people remind me of, having lived in Florida for 17 years, being around those on condo boards of crusty, old people who were very protective of their positions, treated as absolutely essential, and went around nit picking others who failed to measure up to the condo rules. People in churches can act this very same way. It easily morphs itself into an exclusive club of the high and mighty within the church walls.
The part of church that is also problematic for myself and others is that there is a focus on high morality rather than authentic, vulnerable spirituality that encompasses all of life which is too complex to break down into positive affirmations as end all solutions. We all know in life, there are times where solutions aren't to be had. You just go on as best you can and sometimes the best you can doesn't look so pretty. We rarely get that kind of raw reality in church sermons because there is an expectation of pastors being perfect over comers 24/7. A cycle the pastors give out and the congregates give back putting their leaders on untouchable pedestals. So, we are constantly fed this super-spirituality that even pastors can't live out and so they too feel a need to hide. Churches focus a lot on the ideal, on the image of a perfect Christ which is an expectation that has been subconsciously passed down somewhow. But what that very safe, unauthentic focus does is produce people who tout high religious morals and scriptures in fake and hurtful ways. This is often done to those who are hurting the most. Why? The hurting are the most vulnerable and thus often the most authentic in expressing their present experience. Trauma has shocked them into being real when they no longer have the strength to hold their mask up that we all wear out in public. And places of spirit should be the one place you can bring that mask down and be ministered to. Instead, those taking on the yoke of the super spiritual can't tolerate that in others (let alone themselves) and must fix it with some Norman Vincent Peale approach to scriptures. It is such a level of super spirituality and religiosity, you can almost picture those people only sticking to wearing tighty whities and seeing anything of more color or more variety as sin. We must stay in our old fashioned linens of religion from days of the Bible because those are the pure ways, the perfect ways. No one can deviate and if they do, we will help set them straight with our holy exhortations! Bible robots that can regurgitate scriptures and spiritual sounding platitudes to the hurting at a moments notice, lest they fail God on High. If you tell such people your present struggle, at some point you will get an exhortation that comes out like a Chinese fortune cookie saying something like "all things work together for good to those who serve God". And not that such a line is untrue. But, when you are having a moment, week or month of suffering, you don't need that thrown at your face. All that does is give the covert message that the sender sees you as failing in the faith. It is a subtle one-up manship. A reminder that you have to tout the party line. And that's a message you definitely do not need during such times. You don't need to be preached at, you need to be cared for. To know someone is there for you and that your well being matters. I will never forget when my sister lost her child and religious minded people would tell her "well, at least the child is in a better place". She felt absolutely angry and devastated when she heard that because it totally discounted her own emotions. I remember too when a prayer request for someone who had a family member suffering with cancer was given with the only add on being "God's Got It!". Is any of this untrue? No. Is it compassionate, truly sensitive in the moment? I say not at all and at the bare minimum you risk sounding very insensitive by not hearing the person out first to see what their emotional state is. I think the religious often are out of touch with parts of Bible where Jesus fell to his knees and wept at Lazarus' tomb before he ever reached his hands out to raise him from the dead.
Recently an old friend cold called me after about 5 year absence of us communicating (particularly because I found his super-spirituality and preaching at me disconcerting). At the top of the call, when I asked him how he was, he replied, "Well, fine. All that really matters is our walk with Jesus though. So are you still walking with Jesus?" After five years of not knowing what I went through this is his response. I was tempted to say back, "Oh yes! I am walking with Jesus.... I mean I lost my Adam's Apple but the doctors replaced it with my right testicle but none of that matters...only my walk with Jesus! I'm walking with a gimp but it's good!" We can just get so unreal, so goodie too-shoes in all that we say and do around church that instead of drawing others to a spiritual journey we push them away.
Focus on Money
Religious institutions are also often caught in a game that is similar to the Chinese Finger Torture Game that plays itself on the people. They are dependent on people to donate for things to happen, from turning on the lights to big ministry dreams. It is not entirely churches fault. They are non-profit. The dependence on consistent giving is very real and many people are super sensitive about it. However, what is often a need for funds at times becomes fundraising campaigns around every corner. When the ego is driving spirituality, the tension becomes worse because "big ministry dreams"soon impede church gatherings with the call for money, and fundraisers at every turn with a sense of guilt and even anger laid on the laps of congregates to participate. At one church service I was at, I remember there being a regular offering, then an additional special offering, a call to give to a fundraising effort by purchasing items being sold, a call to purchase tickets to a dinner, a call to purchase items for a giving campaign to the needy, and a call to purchase tickets for an upcoming church trip. I remember walking out thinking, "Do they think I'm Mr. Money Bucks?". I presently live below the poverty line. Though these are all legitimate crusades, I find it strange that churches seem to be in denial of just how many things they are doing that require money from participants. Money and requests to give is a touchy issue as it is with the lack of trust out there of religious organizations (not to mention the sting of a very rough economic climate we have been in since 2008). Churches need to be aware of how much giving they are asking for and how many activities require money.
An idea I bat around off and on is this: What if pastors actually took a part-time job in the real world? Hear me out for a moment. This would free up some funds and keep them in touch with the culture at large and what their congregates experience. There is a great example of a pastor who agrees with this model I am suggesting, and lives it in an article titled "Pastor, Go Get A Job" . He is part time pastor and part time teacher. The writer of this article suggests that churches could and probably should retire a lot of what they do to outside sources since a majority of business stuff pastors don't like doing anyway. Pastors can be caught in a quagmire of meetings and the like, draining their energy and time from the ministry type items they want to be doing, Matt says in 'Pastor, Go Get A Job'. He doesn't suggest giving them more work hours by adding in a part time job to their schedule, but less work and less hours within church walls to help them stay relevant and more focused on things they feel called to do. I agree with this writer that if a pastor is working 40 hours or 80 hours at a church, that isn't a good thing. "Matt" says,
"... churches are continually building offices for their staff inside the church, while hundreds of offices out in the real world do not have contact with your church... suggestion of moving 15 hours of a church staff’s work week outside the church...
"I think that’s a great, and I’m going to up the ante. A lot of pastors shouldn’t even be spending 40 hours in the church in the first place. A pastor who spends that much time in church is probably not giving enough responsibility to others, is afraid of giving up a little control, or has not taught his people to make good decisions in his absence."
This would put an end to those million dollar pastor salaries at mega churches and those who keep themselves tucked away, who are so religious that they are no earthly good. I'm tired of religious leaders who travel more than most people do yet many years I can't even afford to take one vacation. There is something amiss here. I know that might sound offensive and I'm not saying that pastors can't or don't keep a full plate of work as a pastor. My own present pastor is very busy but he is also very involved in the local community in addition to the church. Truly, I have no idea what it takes to be an effective pastor. I always thought you needed to be full time...until I see the effect it seems to have on them. In entertaining what could be done, and reading this article that confirmed it, I do believe some duties could be potentially dispersed and the trade off would be a pastor among the people, in touch with people in the work wold, and maybe being in the local area more and a little more relevant. Definitely something for churches to talk about!
Small "we" verses big "We"
Let's face it. Churches are often (not always) only loosely involved in their community in supportive roles. They rather tip their hat to them with one or two charitable involvements in the year but thank God they do that. I have no doubt those charities are grateful for whatever they can get. Yet, there's a tendency to think and behave in a way that says unless "our" church creates it, God isn't in it. Whatever the community is doing outside these walls is "nice" and even "good", but what we want to do, here, within these walls? Now God's behind that! While we tip our hats to a few adopted charities so that we can resolve our yearly guilt around holiday time, we push harder for those things that bring in monies within our own walls. And yet we wonder why the community at large doesn't come in droves just because our building is here. It reaches beyond just self-survival as an organization but a strong sense of patting ourselves on the back for a job well done. Again, ego. Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying we shouldn't be doing things to build strength within our relationships in a church membership but when the community at large doesn't know us, Houston we got a problem. And, the Bible seems to even support our isolationist views. We are often taught that we are to live separate from the world and that good works not directly coming out of church aren't that important. But, these scriptures are often taken out of context in that all those scriptures are saying is we are not to let ourselves be over-ruled by the world systems in place of God. I believe, at this point in our particular history, God just wants us to do it. Get involved in others lives. What better thing than for a church people to be deeply involved in their communities and showing a greater love and great sense of being?
This brings me to the last point of this section of the post before future post(s) into why I'm still at a local Church. There is a focus often within churches on the small "we". By this I mean, those within a particular church group of "we". Our denomination. Our leadership team. Our group. This is of course necessary to some degree because it is important that small "we" bond as a group. It's a part of group dynamics. But I believe God called us to focus on the bigger "We"not just tip our hat to them or speak of them as "sinners". Christians and Jews and even African American Churches of long ago were persecuted much more than they are today. Back then, there was more of a necessity to be more insulated and protective than we need to be today. Now, the world is an open door for love. Does that sound too hoaky? God is love. For the first time in history, there really is no widespread structure that restricts the acceptance of love between individuals if we don't want there to be. No Hitlar. No Apartheid. No KKK (as a significant power). No Confederacy. Maybe not in every area of the world, but the world is more open now than it has ever been. So? So, we need to be out there. Churches need to be interwoven in their community not to convert them, but to support them. Small "we" needs to be focused and encouraging to the big"We" in which we belong. The harvest is ripe and the tool to harvest is faith, hope and love. The goal is to build people up and let God do the rest. Love. Period. End of motive, end of story.