I was pondering my personal church history this morning. In my 50 years, I’ve lived in four states and seven different communities. In that time, I considered myself a “member” of seven congregations and have been more peripherally involved with others. These churches have been Reformed, Presbyterian, Baptist, Lutheran, Quaker, non-denominational, and evangelical. Most of these congregations appeared to be relatively healthy when I attended. Every community has issues, and churches are no exception. Still, during my time in these spaces, I have loved the people and the pastors with whom I was privileged to worship. I may now differ from many in theological or social conviction, but I still consider several of them my friends.
In contrast, one congregation–one denomination–I was involved with was unhealthy at the root and engaged in many harmful practices. While I was a part of it, I developed many unhealthy patterns, irreparably damaging some of my closest friendships. Even this church was not entirely bad. For all the good churches out there, there are bad ones too. Recent series like Shiny Happy People, The Secrets of Hillsong, and The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill highlight some of the more visible abuses, but there are far more that occur every day in America.
I have been critical of several aspects of the American church in recent years. People who have known me over time wonder how someone for whom the church has been a central part of life for decades can now be critical, especially when my personal church experience has been generally positive. A metaphor may help. Imagine you discover that you have cancer in your left foot. On the one hand, you could say, “My right foot works just fine. It helps me walk. I can even kick a ball. And what about my hands? They are amazing! My hands let me build, comfort, and create. They do so many amazing things!” These statements would be factual. On the other hand, your left foot would still have cancer, and without adequately diagnosing and treating it, it will kill you. You say, “But the foot is only a small part of the body. Look at the good the rest of the body does.” All I can say in response is, “The cancer is killing you.”
Reformers have appeared repeatedly throughout the history of Christianity. During his earthly ministry, Jesus showed what love and grace looked like, but he also confronted toxic religious beliefs. Paul confronted Peter. For thousands of years, unpopular prophets have been vocal when religious people lose their way. The same is true today. Many of us deconstructors, ex-vangelicals, post-evangelicals, or spiritually uncertain people who have criticized elements of Christianity in recent years aren’t questioning and attacking the church because we hate Jesus but because what we see happening doesn’t look like Jesus. We see the repeated scandals, hypocrisy, and power-seeking and think this isn’t what we thought the church was supposed to be. Our churches taught us that character matters and that love conquers all. Still, the repeated abuses make us question if our churches ever believed these things. In many cases, I suspect Jesus would agree.
So, for pastors and leaders who are doing the good and humble work of seeking to love widely and deeply, please keep it up. Thank you for being healthy hands and feet. But know this: the cancer isn’t going away by ignoring it and the church will always need those willing to say, “We are sick.”