A Barna survey revealed an extraordinary percentage of Americans no longer attend church because of some painful experience. What has happened to cause the place identified as “a hospital for sinners” or put forward as “sanctuary” to be avoided by so many people? What can we do?
Churches should, at times, inflict pain. Just as hospitals conduct painful surgeries that result in healing, so “hospitals for sinners” are operating theaters on the souls of worshippers. Too often, people who avoid church do so because they want to avoid the discomforting dimensions of the gospel. That said, there are too many instances in which Christians suffer “church abuse.”
Church people — laity and clergy alike — can be mean, narrow, small, power-hungry, sick, judgmental, callous, proud and angry. We sing that “the church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord.” The reality is congregations are human institutions possessing all the foibles and failures of the people who populate their rolls.
Some church members have good reason for staying away. They are witnesses to the hypocrisy of Christians. They are disappointed when the church does not acknowledge the death of a loved one with a call, card or visit. They assume duties that require time and energy, but their service is taken for granted. They confide in others about their doubts, only to learn they have become the object of rumor or criticism for lack of belief. In worst cases, they are subject to unwanted advances from a fellow church member or clergy.
Churches are not always to blame for the pain. Some people get stuck in personal crises and do not allow the church to love them through their pain. I once had a church member who never returned to church following her husband’s funeral because she was certain she would visualize his casket in the chancel. The congregation wanted to walk with her in her grief, but she could not allow it. She saw church as a lonely place, but it was not the church that made it so.
What can we do about it? First, develop reasonable expectations about church. Don’t expect your church to be perfect. Re-read the Apostle Paul’s letters. For 2,000 years, Christians have struggled with what to believe and how to act, never with complete success. Lose your illusions.
Second, practice forgiveness. Jesus’ bad experiences with his disciples and people in general could have put him off of his mission. He forgave and moved on.
Third, take Jesus’ advice and “shake the dust off your cloak” if your experiences are more than you can stand. Not every church is for everybody, but some church will be God’s people for you.
Mike Clingenpeel is pastor of River Road Church, Baptist, in Richmond, Va. Right or Wrong? is sponsored by the T.B. Maston Chair of Christian Ethics at Hardin-Simmons University’s Logsdon School of Theology. Contributors include writers in Virginia, Texas, Missouri and other states. Send your questions about how to apply your faith to [email protected].