Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Church Delusion: Part I



This blog, along with all following blogs, is not meant to be a pointless critique aimed at dissuading people or Christians from regular attendance of church nor is it meant to discourage. But rather it is an honest look at the church. I cannot nor will not say this is an objective look at church; I am an orthodox Christian that regularly attends multiple brands of Christianity which negates pure objectivity. However in my travels through Christianity I have noticed many oddities, many of which we don’t seem to notice. There seems to be two general types of people that I run into at church, the first is the most prevalent. The first type is the person who goes to church for their experience, they don’t know, nor do they want to know, particulars. If particulars are brought up they will either deflect immediately (I don’t want to be challenged, I will always want to be a “baby” Christian) or they will travel down a road with which they are well familiar (relating most subjects to a single topic with which they are infatuated, relating all conversations to Calvinism/armenianism, the rapture, etc). The second is, sadly, the person who realizes the blind spots of the Christian culture and leaves, walking away because the issues are bigger than themselves. Through this blog I am not wishing to create more people that fit into the latter perspective. I hope that this will create people who are not oblivious to the problems in the church and who will enter into discussion about them as well as work toward solving the issues that seem to be inherent to the church culture as a whole.

The movement away

Lately there has been a movement away from churches in the town. Even more traditional church goers have been increasingly unsatisfied. Much discussion has happened about what can be done about the growing frustration. Yet no satisfactory resolution has been found.
For the traditionalist, the angst lies in what is being taught. The fluffy self-help message of the large church does not fulfill and the stern teachings of the conservative churches, about how to live or what to believe, do not bring life to their spirits. New churches have sprung up promising new and different messages but they end up being the same present wrapped in different packaging. Often times the traditionalist must resign their attendance of church to, “We don’t gain much from the message but we like the people/community.” Given enough time this practice tends to lead one of two directions. First the attendee must feed themselves and dig into scripture on their own. This is not a bad thing, however, it leads to splintering of individuals away from each other. Each person sees a particular emphasis in scripture and is drawn to that awareness. Since the sermons and fellowship of church are not centered on that individual’s study or thoughts or perceptions, they become a secret Lone Ranger. But if they are outspoken in their opinions then they will try to convince others to join them in their thoughts. Many times the individual begins to alienate themselves from the main group of the church because of the congregation’s avoidance of the limited and “deep” topics of conversation caused by such Lone Rangers. This issue is often compounded by politicized leadership that will listen and console the parishioner yet not act to help the situation in any means beyond that. The second direction this could lead to is the downplaying of the importance of good teaching. If teaching is not emphasized and an individual is not motivated to study on their own then a common response is to continue to downplay and ignore the teaching. This leads to fellowship becoming the only hub for church. Both of these are not helpful for the individual. However, if there is a family involved the children often carry these scenarios further than the parents: total focus on socializing or harmfully breaking of fellowship due to “bad theology.” Often times when a traditionalist is unsatisfied by their current church, they will switch addictions. This is to say that if they were attending a Freewill Baptist church, then they will switch to a Reformed church. The proverbial pendulum swings the opposite direction, landing the individual in the same place only a different side. The other most common scenario is the further seclusion of a group. When a group is not satisfied with the direction of the church, believing it to be going in a liberal direction, they will splinter off and start a smaller group that “holds true” to scripture. This cycle typically continues until it is only an isolated few are holding to scripture. In doing this the isolated few have made themselves untouchable. There is a suspicion of the larger church body and other Christians who don’t line up with the few.
Even the reliable, nontraditional church goer is typically on a 3-5 year church rotation, where the individual will stay at a church for 3 to 5 years then switch churches. This seems to be especially true for young adults and young marrieds who do not have children yet. The reasons for switching vary: we have more friends at the other church, the teaching is better over there, the other pastor is funnier, there are more girls in the other congregation, etc. Here the individual is more concerned with what they gain from the church experience. There is a more evident self interest in this model. Investment within a community is also less. The sermons within this style of church, due to the complexity and rotation of the congregation, are often based on the basic tenants of the Christian faith or more simply helpful christianesque advice for a good life. Frequently the sermons can be boiled down to “5 self-improvement tips.” Strict doctrine is avoided in all but the neo-reformed styles. Some pastors wishing to shed this characteristic will preach a “tough” sermon or sermon series consisting of “if you’re not reading your bibles everyday you should check yourself” or “you need to be sharing your faith.” The points that the hammer is dropped on are typically social protocol with the pastor tightening the reigns ever so slightly. In this model those who get involved in the community then decide to leave are often told that they are walking away from their gifts or that they had great potential for leadership. These words of “encouragement” seem to only come at the end of their tenure. With rare occasion the individual is smothered with verbal affirmations but even then they have hardly any physical backing. This leads to the burn-out that is common among the church’s younger adults. Rarely does a young adult find a community that will support them in the way they need. This obviously leads to a chicken or the egg debate (which is not for this blog) of whether the community expects the burn-out and exodus so does not commit to the young adult or newly arrived leader, or if the lack of communal support is evidence of a community of believers that are too busy with their own lives and ambitions to support the individual. Either way the result is the same. The problem may lie in thrusting young people into group leadership roles before they have the self awareness to be honest with their peers or their elders with where they are at. Often times within the church there is at least a subconscious if not a conscious censorship about subjects to be taught on or roles to be played. This can lead to outburst of honesty from the individual that must jump through these invisible hoops. These outbursts, though not common, are considered to be a shock and awe technique that few take seriously or at least seriously for much time. This then leads to even more frustration in the leader. The result is vast turnover in leadership that has a passion for youth or individuals. Often times the only successful long term leaders or pastors are the ones who are focused more on their programs and their stance within the church or their paycheck than the more complicated needs of the people that they are serving. Overall the church experience begins with enthrallment then is followed by tolerance then by frustration, and finally a new enthrallment opens up at another church and the cycle begins again.
In our town a hybrid form of church has begun to arise. The neo-reformed churches in town on the surface seem to be a mix of the traditional and the less traditional churches. The sermons here tend toward historical doctrine with grace as a liberally applied top dressing. Their draw is to Christians who are tired of the 3-5 year cycle and want a church who takes a stand, or to the Christian who has been burned by church or other christians. Their claim to fame is that they are a different kind of church, a disgruntled christians church. Though this sounds like the ultimate church, the ideology and the practice of these churches are worlds apart. The center claims of these churches are: to focus on doctrine applied with grace, to not be legalistic, to focus on reaching out to the local community, and planting churches. The reality of how this plays out is churches that are focused on reformation theology, more concerned with telling people how and what to think about God rather than helping them discover Jesus. Churches become legalistic against legalism which avails nothing but more legalism and judgmental spirits towards other “less evolved” churches or individuals. Involvement in the local communities and church planting is about as successful as their fight against legalism. Much like the dominant culture of the church, the missional segments of church end up emphasizing foreign missions then a tag-line is thrown on phrased something like “now we don’t have to go over seas, we can be on mission right here in our own town.” However like normal individuals looking to a leader, the people upfront are who will be imitated, which makes the plug for local missions about as successful as the Hindenburg. Neo-reformed churches fall into the trap of proof-texting to the same extent as the traditional churches, the non-traditional churches also proof-text however it is less noticeable because there are hardly any hard lines drawn from these proof-texts. The emphasis that enables proof-texting in the neo-reformed churches is the spoken wish to base everything in scripture, sola scriptura. This is a noble claim that yet again does not hold up under scrutiny. Much like the traditional churches, these churches strain out a gnat and swallow a camel. There is a refusal or an inability to see the forest for the trees. During a recent conversation with a pastor of a church in town, he was trying to push that Acts 2:42-47 was the purpose of church, as an organization, is supposed to be. When asked what I thought the purpose of church was, I responded with “reflecting God back to God.” His response was “where do you find that in scripture?” There is such a focus on what scripture says, mostly in “small and digestible” bites, that what it is saying cannot be seen.  Often times the theology is unrecognized or is evolving as consequences or underlying assumptions are realized. Recently in a sermon the pastor verbalized that, while he “believes” the Holy spirit is active in the world today, practically he is a cessationist. This is a common problem among all forms of church, having what you think you believe and what you actually believe not line up. However, in churches where there is an emphasis on pseudo-intellectual pursuit, their inconsistencies become more glaringly obvious.
All forms of the church (the Holiness tradition churches are the exceptions) deal very little with the Holy spirit. The Traditionalist views the Spirit as the giver of wisdom through tradition. There is typically an exception clause given when dealing with the Spirit that He may “call” you to do something crazy, however, this even has limits. The limits may be on quantity or the size of the act. God may call you to give money to a beggar but only if that is not being reckless with your money. Or God may call you to live in the bad side of town but that is the exception not the rule, or more plainly, God may want you to live near poverty but you can’t tell me that God wants me to live around or near or especially in poverty. Another trait common to all forms is the expected socioeconomic standard to which God would have us hold. All three sets of churches are, oddly, filled with middle to upper class society. The root cause of this I will not address, however, the force which holds the status quo I would like to address. Primarily there is elitism with in the church, as mentioned prior, God would not have us live near or around poverty. Socioeconomics are tied to stewardship all too frequently, God wants us to be good stewards and as good stewards we must save money, buy a good house and good car. Beyond this we should also enjoy ourselves and treat ourselves to some privileges, unfortunately the privileges expand exponentially in respect to income. As we are being “good stewards” it is easier to live in good neighborhoods where thieves are not present, people near us share our respect of money, and it’s pretty. Within the church, a Christian should not do drugs, gamble, smoke, drink too frequently or be given to anything that could be taken as a vice no matter how recent the conversion. This thought, whether spoken or unspoken, conscious or subconscious, does damage to any new converts to the church. Given that a person of lower standard of living is drawn to church and converts, they are then pressured to become at least outwardly similar to the rest of the church they are attending. Every church has different standards so this could apply to vices, modesty, politics, etc. This thought also does damage to us, with respect to who we help out, an infamous local example is a ministry which helps the less fortunate with food. This ministry has now narrowed their support to the less fortunate who do not smoke.  This is because smoking is not being a “good steward” with their resources so how can we trust them to be good stewards of our resources. There are many other examples but I limit myself. Overall this is a mindset that wants no affiliation with the poor, the outcast or the down-trodden yet has the audacity to expect to prosthelytize these communities.

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