Late last year when I decided I would challenge myself to write once a month about a topic I have wrestled and fought in cages with over the years, the topic of the American Church was an instant list topper. So much so I decided I had to tackle it early on in the year or I would lose my nerve around it. And this last month, I did very nearly lose my nerve. I had to devote an entire counseling session this month to figuring out why this topic and not some of the spicier topics on my list had me losing sleep, second guessing, becoming irritable and bargaining with myself. Until I realized I recognized all of those symptoms. I’ve encountered them many times and in fact have learned that avoiding them only amplifies them. They are the tell tale signs of grief. Anger, sadness, bargaining, avoidance, anxiety, these are all the emotions I experience when I am grieving.
Another reason I have struggled with putting pen to paper on this topic is that I am so very afraid of being misunderstood. For over two decades the Church, as in the Bride of Christ, as in the entity that is meant to be the permanent leave behind of Jesus’ time on earth, has been an ever present love and passion of mine. Last year I was on a work related call and while we were waiting for others to join, this new acquaintance and I were playing the “who do we both know” game. While our city is much larger than it used to be, most residents are still tied together by 4 or 5 major societal groups and church is a popular one. While we were idly chatting, I rattled off the local churches I have worked for over the last 20 years. He was astounded because honestly, I run the gamut. If you name a large church in my city I have walked through its doors and seen behind its curtains in some way or another. And not because I am fickle or picky, I actually very much hate change, but because it never mattered to me what name was on the door, whether it boasted a large steeple or resided in a building that used to be a warehouse. If there was a local church that could use my particular brand of talent, I was happy to oblige. Because I love churches. I love what they are meant to represent. I love the potential of them. I love the allegorical way in which they are intended to embody all that Jesus stood for in his short time on earth. I believe in them. I really and truly do. But something happens when you are hardwired the way I am, when you have the bizarre set of skills I possess and you are exposed to every part of something you love and believe in.
I have come to realize not everyone loves spending their days looking for problems and troubleshooting them. But I do. I’ve worn many hats, brandished many different titles and used my skills in a variety of non-profits, industries and businesses. But at the end of day, put simply, I solve problems. And most often I solve problems by spotting patterns. When I encounter an organizational mess, pieces of the mess light up in my brain. I can pull everything out into the light and immediately begin categorizing, weighing, assessing. And so after two decades of off and on rummaging around in the basements and meeting rooms of American churches, I can see the patterns of why we have become such a source of frustration and heartbreak and brokenness for so many people. I can tell you why they have begun to represent those things for me. Hence the grief. When it comes to church in America, I am Charlie Brown desperately believing that this time Lucy is most definitely going to keep that football in place for me. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing time after time and expecting different results. I believe the definition of hope looks very similar. I hope in the American Church. I believe in it. And its why my ability to see its shortcomings and its bad habits and pain-inducing weaknesses are so difficult for me to talk about. It hurts.
Professionally I hate pointing out patterns and problems without also being able to provide a viable solution to them. And that’s another reason this particular post is so challenging for me. I don’t have a ton of answers or solutions. All I can do is point to the symptom. Perhaps that is the extent of my role in this, but it feels counterintuitive for me and I’ve tried to shirk around it for quite a while now. But the patterns keep persisting and keep lighting up in front of me like pinpoints of stars making constellations in the Milky Way. So, the best I can do for now is point to them and say “Yes, this is where it hurts.”
If you know me personally it may be tempting as you read this to assume you’ve got the inside scoop. You know exactly who, what, where, when I am talking about. And the answer to that is yep. You sure do. Because it is all of them. I have taken great care with this list to stick to actual patterns and commonalities and not harp on individual moments in time. This is where my grief really takes hold, because it’s not just one church, one leader, one denomination. This what I have witnessed across the spectrum. I’m not playing favorites. The American Church has some serious challenges ahead of it. I don’t believe they are insurmountable but I do believe if we don’t mind the check engine lights, the car will eventually blow up. Let me show you what lights up for me:
Our churches don’t pray anymore.
It makes me smirk a little, if I’m being honest, when I hear Christians bemoan prayer being taken out of schools. “Don’t they realize,” I wonder “we’ve already taken it out of our churches?” By and large, we treat prayer like the parentheses of a sentence. We open and close our services with it on Sunday mornings. We open and close our small group meetings with it. Church staffs usually throw up a few good vibes at the beginning of an important meeting. In the course of 20 years, I have seen only one church leader revolve his entire ministry around prayer. Only one has impressed upon his leadership team the absolute and sometimes annoyingly stubborn belief that prayer is critical. And then actually done it. Made room for prayer. Shown up in prayer. Sat with others in prayer.
Why does this matter? It matters for a lot of reasons, but a crucial reason is that prayer is vital to maintaining humility. The literal posture of prayer reminds us we are not in charge. It reminds us we do not know all. It requires us to slow down, ask questions, and listen. It forces us to accept we are not in control. It keeps ego in check and it binds us together as followers of Jesus in a way few strategy meetings or white board sessions can. It keeps us human. Which is important because…
Narcism is running rampant in our churches.
It’s a tricky thing, isn’t it? In order to survive, churches need leaders who keep people in the seats. In order to keep the coffers full, they need charisma and polish. They need a good sense of humor, a subtle but put together sense of style, and the ability to hold an audience captive. They need confidence. As American parishioners we demand our teachers keep us engaged, challenged and entertained. We need our worship leaders to bring us to the throne of Jesus every week and they better do it with that catchy new song that just came out. Interestingly, the most successful American church leaders, and most of of the ones I have worked for, often had youthful aspirations of becoming actors, rock stars or politicians. In other words, they are performers.
And that’s not a bad thing. It’s really not, I promise. It’s truly a gift. But the darker side of those personalities emerge when they begin to believe their own hype. I often wonder what Jesus thinks about the level of celebrity we now put upon pastors? I wonder how anyone is supposed to live up to that level of adoration and love and not begin to believe they are indeed the best thing since sliced bread? The upper echelons of our biggest churches are filled with those who are looking for just one more hit of power. They begin to believe they are untouchable. When confronted with their own shortcomings, when they mess up and they will, because they are human, they cannot fathom anyone deigning to call them out. They become defensive and vindictive when faced with their own humanity. I have watched it play out time and time again. The American megachurch has created a monster of power that, when confronted, will move heaven and earth to be proven right at all costs and will physically remove anyone who stands in their way. And they absolutely have to because….
The American Church is more dedicated to physical growth than spiritual formation.
If you are not growing in numbers, then you are failing. If you only knew the amount of meetings I have sat through pouring over the numbers: the numbers of butts in the seats, the numbers of people in small groups, the numbers of kids in youth group, the numbers, the numbers, the numbers. We love to point to our favorite illusion of church perfection, the Church of Acts, and claim in confidence “And the Lord added to their numbers every day because they were doing it right!” As if that is what the early church was most proud of! As if the reason they kept growing had anything to do with them at all.
It’s no secret I am not a fan of large churches. I grew up in a very very small church. With a very dedicated, committed, prayerful, and loving pastor that no one will ever know the name of. His sneakers were not cool and his jokes were terrible. The church met in an elementary school where the adults had to kneel to get water from the fountains and none of my friends had ever heard of it. A good Sunday was when the school remembered to leave the AC on over the weekend. I have amazing memories of church potlucks, retreats and low tech youth group events. It wasn’t perfect. I know that. I can see its flaws. I promise. But some of the bad habits and patterns I have seen in today’s churches can often trace their roots back to too much growth, too fast. If I could go out on a massive limb here, I might say I’m not sure its even possible to be a healthy church of more than 150. Narcism struggles to thrive without a sizable audience. Loneliness and shame have a harder time hiding in smaller rooms. When I see smaller churches in my city suddenly receive an onslaught of growth, usually due to another church’s demise, I feel my stomach sink and my breath catch in my chest. Mo’ congregants, mo’ problems. I’m just not convinced the mega-church is what Jesus envisioned as he set his church upon a rock. And as churches grow, their staffs are forced to grow and that often leads to a new challenge.
American church staffs are incredibly unhealthy.
This is the hardest one for me to talk about because it forces me to confront pieces of myself I hate to admit reside in my heart. I was usually at my most emotionally and spiritually unhealthy when I was working at a church. I was incredibly arrogant. There is an odd sense of pride that accompanies working on a large church staff. When removed from it, I can see just how small and often times futile the work I was doing really was, but when you are in the midst of it, you somehow truly believe you are changing the world and that somehow God needs you in order to bring about his purposes. Humility goes out the door. Humanity goes out the door. The larger a church staff gets the more internal culture it begins to develop. The less in touch with the real world it becomes. As the staff becomes more insular, the more isolated the church becomes from its community and its real purpose. Everything turns inward. Pressure mounts. Failure is never an option. Strategy replaces mission. And don’t forget, numbers, numbers, numbers. And as much as church staff will extol the merits of emotional health publicly…
We don’t talk about Bruno.
I worked at one large church for a year with a very kind, loving and empathic man. Everyone adored him. He was exceptionally authentic, humble and caring. My desk was outside his office and I would watch day after day as church staffer after church staffer would shuffle in to his office, bearing the world on their shoulders, and would come out an hour or so later looking as if they had finally remembered the burden was supposed to be light. Do you know what had happened in that hour? This man listened to them. He counseled them. He prayed with them. He said “yeah, me too” when they were brave enough to admit they were scared out of their minds at the work environment they had found themselves in and how terrified they were of not measuring up. This pastor was a safe space for them. One might argue, the very definition of the role. But do you know who never darkened his door in my year of sitting outside his office? Anyone who was considered the executive leadership. Was it because they didn’t also feel the pressure? Was it because they somehow weren’t afraid? I think it was because we don’t talk about Bruno at a certain level. You can call it pride or narcism or arrogance or fear or shame, but for a variety of reasons our highest levels of church staff do not ask for help when they need it. And like so many other aspects of leadership, those kinds of values come from the top down. If church executives would prioritize their teams’ and their own personal emotional and mental health to the same degree they value attendance numbers and bank statements, our churches would be far healthier and safer for anyone and everyone to walk through the doors. And this unhealthiness comes with a price….
Loneliness runs rampant in our churches.
“Never have I felt more alone than when I am sitting in church every Sunday.” I was startled to hear my friend admit this. Not only because I had had no idea she felt that way but because I had often stared at the back of her head on a Sunday morning, having the same exact thought myself. “How can I be sitting in a room full of smiling people, many of whom I know, singing a song filled with positive thoughts and feel so incredibly alone at the same time?” I am sure the answer is different for each of us, and I can only speak for myself. I feel lonely in church when I don’t feel known. I feel lonely in church when I don’t feel like I can come with all my dirty laundry. I feel lonely when I am worrying about how people really feel about me. Over the last two decades I have never found myself as insecure as when I am sitting in a church. I think my spirit feels the weight of all that I have just described. I think it senses the dysfunction and desperate attempts to hide weakness. I think I don’t feel known in church because deep down it isn’t safe to be known in church. And what validates this fear?
The American Church isolates and banishes the sinner.
The first time I saw this play out in a body of believers was when I was 12 years old. An older girl at my small Christian school made a decision that was decidedly against the rules. Now, it being a private school with a lengthy handbook and clear expectations of what would happen if you broke these rules, the school itself was perfectly within its rights to expel this student. But what I wasn’t prepared for was to witness her public ostracizing and shaming. Overnight she went from star basketball point guard to nonexistent. Only whispers were left of her in the hallways. And those whispers weren’t those of sadness or empathy. They were heavy with the undercurrent of scandal, shame, “how could she?”
Somehow, the argument we use as a body of believers when we are excusing the unpleasant behavior of our leaders has a statute of limitations when it comes to “levels” of sin. “The church is made up of broken and sinful people.” This statement comes so easily to our lips to explain away the gossip, slander, lies, ego, arrogance, hypocrisy, and self-righteousness we have no choice but to acknowledge lives in our churches. But when someone messes up “big”, when someone falls the greatest distance you could ever imagine for them, suddenly our hearts are too faint for that work. Grace doesn’t cover ALL sins, just the ones that can be easily tidied up. When we encounter true brokenness, true fallenness, we don’t have a platitude for that. All we know to do is turn our backs on the pain, like a car accident we are being forced to watch in slow motion, we shut our eyes to avoid feeling it too deeply.
I have watched this scenario play out time and time again. A well known worship leader being asked to “go work on your marriage over there please so as to avoid a public spectacle.” A 16 year old girl being told perhaps there is a therapy for that particular shortcoming. Go find it. A family in complete emotional chaos being asked to seek spiritual solace somewhere else because “we need to tend to the rest of the flock.” Do you hear it? Go, go, go. Your sin is too big for us. Your actions are too hurtful. They bring me too much pain. Go clean yourself up, then maybe we can talk. Go.
Let’s play this out logically, remove emotion. Here’s a hypothetical: I am sitting in the pew of a church. I attend every Sunday. I sing the songs, I shake the hands, I drop my dollar in to the offering basket as it passes me. No one knows I am at war with myself. No one knows how close my addiction sits next to me on that pew. No one knows how desperately I need help. No one knows how desperately I need to be loved and accepted, no matter what. I’m so close, I’m right there, on the edge of my seat to asking for help. I see the smiling faces each week and begin to believe this could be the rescue I have been looking for. And then scandal hits. (And let’s be very clear about one thing, reader. Scandal will always hit our churches. We are human. Spiritual warfare is real. Perfection is impossible.) The scandal hits and I watch the woman caught in sin dragged out on to the stage in front of me. I see her nakedness, her shame, her fear, her sadness and I watch as stones appear from seemingly nowhere. I’m handed one by the same people who usually hands me a communion wafer. I have no choice but to hurl it. And as I hurl it, I think “Don’t ever get caught here. Stay hidden.”
I know. It feels extreme. I know. Life is complex. I know all of the same Bible verses you do about dealing with sin, about casting it out. I know the same ones you do about Jesus coming for the sake of the sick, not the well. They all spin inside my head at the same swirling rate they do in yours. I have picked up and hurled my share of stones, I am ashamed to admit. In fact, I have to be reminded daily to drop my arsenal and choose grace for others and for myself because….
I believe our churches can do better.
I don’t currently have a church home these days. Some of that is because I am nursing some wounds the pandemic brought on. Some of it is because of the journey I’m on with God right now that I referenced last month and I have found over the course of my life that it is easier to wrestle with him away from well intended crowds. It’s not my first season of being church homeless and it probably won’t be the last but I know I will return to her eventually. Because I deeply believe in her.
I chose the title of this post from a song lyric that makes me cry every time I hear it. A well known musician became obsessed with learning all that he could about the Enneagram, which as a very crude and simple description, is basically a personality test. You can google it. But because he was also a talented musician he decided to write songs for each of the nine personality types. The album is called Atlas and you can find it online if you’re interested. The song he wrote for my personality type has me weep openly every time I hear it and while I suppose it should make me emotional because its all about accepting grace and that’s hard for me, what really gets me is that it perfectly sums up all of my love, heartache and desperate belief in the Church. I don’t believe any of the patterns I have found that make our churches unhealthy are impossible to solve. I actually possess more hope than you would be able to bear if you could physically see it. Sometimes I wish I could paint or sing or dance in a way that could demonstrate how deeply I believe in this institution that has been created to withstand the very gates of hell.
For all of the examples I have just given you as evidence of the deep failings of the Church, I can also find glimmers of hope: My very real childhood pastor who is probably the reason I can spot a fake so easily. The brief moment in time years ago when tragedy struck our city and churches all over opened their doors and hearts to a group of people they had railed and fought against for decades. The amount of apologies that were uttered in those early conversations. Even today, watching Ukrainian churches leave the protection of their sanctuaries to pray on the streets of their city against a war that is pounding on their door. There are moments in which the veil between the physical and the spiritual breaks open and the Church is reminded of who she is meant to be. Sanctuary, solace, grace, acceptance, humility, authenticity… that’s an anthem worth repeating. We can do better, Church. I just know it. The check engines lights are on. Don’t ignore them.