The Church, Anger and Cupcakes

A friend of mine and fellow pastor, Marvin Penner, posted a link on face book to an article by Scott Boren titled “Are You Angry at the Church.” If you have ever been disappointed by church, I highly recommend it.

In sum, Scott Boren tells the story of his own journey from a youth in the church who learned to play the church game. He did all the right stuff and looked the part, or at least close enough to it, to fly under the radar. Then in college, he had what he called a “radical encounter with God.” Basically he made the jump from empty religion to a vital relationship with God.

Then came the anger. In his words…

I wanted to know why the people in my life—those who had listened to my stories about depression, those who had seen me struggle to prove myself to others, those who had observed my judgmentalism and critical spirit—never said anything.

While my advanced ability to cover up my inner life was one of the reasons for this reality, I also quickly saw that there was another problem. I had learned to perform according to the rules of the church. I knew how to do the church game. And I was good at it. And the church system rewarded me for it.

Scott’s experience is all too common. We have a generation – or is it generations? – that are angry with the church. Their hurts are real, although I’m not always sure that we get past the symptoms to the root cause. To some extent, the gospel they have been taught seems at odds with the church they have experienced. As Scott points out, many books have been written of late that dump all over the “traditional institutional” church as if they are the sole cause of the world’s problems.

Some of the complaints have merit even if not always graciously presented. Other complaints…some days I just want to say,’ get over it cup cake, it isn’t about you and your pettiness.’ Of course, that would be equally ungracious even though Jesus was no less pointed to the religious “we’ve got the answer” folks. Yes, I am suggesting that some of the church bashers out there are as judgmental and self assured as the Scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day.

In fairness, many who are struggling with the church as they have experienced it, are not caught up in hating and bashing the typical meet on Sunday, songs, sermons, offering, go home and carry on with life church experience. They just know that something is missing. Just attending the Sunday church event has left them unimpressed…rightly so.

This is where I feel a particular kindred heart with Scott Boren. Although our journeys have been very different, I think we have both been at this same place where we knew something was missing, and we became hurt and angry. I remember as a new Christian in my twenties that it took only a year or so to realize something wasn’t right. Over the next several years, moving to an new city and new church experiences, it slowly began to get resolved, although it is still a work in progress.

Fortunately – oops, I mean by God’s grace, I also experienced the best side of the church, where Sunday services were wonderful celebrations, times of intense prayer for those in need and faithful teaching. During the week we had close fellowship with other believers and a sense of participating in God’s mission.

It was there at Willingdon Church in Burnaby British Columbia that I responded to the call (I jokingly call it my mid life crisis) to pastoral ministry and ended up the pastor of the considerably smaller Clareview Community Church in Edmonton Alberta.

My response to the disappointments with the church that I felt in my early adult hood was ultimately to engage in the Church and make a difference. Please note that I made that a capital ‘C’ Church.  By that I mean Christ’s Church, not just the local organization although that is important too. I will come back to that, but let me tell you of a couple of turning points in my life.

Without going into unnecessary details, several years ago, long before perusing pastoral ministry, I helped to coordinate a large inter-church event at the church we were part of. The speaker was good, but…there were issues. I recall sitting down with the senior pastor afterwards to debrief. In the course of our excellent conversation about the event I came to realize two important things. First, church work can be messy and second, those who lead the church are human. I know that may not sound like a profound revelation, but face it, our expectations of churches and leaders are often inhumane and quasi divine. For the record, I totally agreed with the senior pastor’s assessment of the event. It was also very encouraging to know that pastoral life was complicated (it made it human). Sometimes things in ministry are messy and that’s OK.

The other event was more like a season of life when I went through some personal challenges that shook me to the core. There is nothing quite as enjoyable as discovering that you are falling apart – yes that was sarcasm. Skipping the details, it left me with little patience for glib pat answers. Life is messy. Our best sucks. Whatever the outer veneer looks like, it is what is underneath that is the substance of our lives. Sometimes that substance is flimsy. The church is like that too.

Apart from Jesus Christ, we are doomed. That goes for the church too. The problem as I see it is that many Christians, myself included, spend a lot of time on the veneer and not enough time on the substance. Face it, that is our human nature. From our childhood on we are taught to “suck it up and be a man,” or whatever girls are told. We are taught to put on a mask, polish the veneer and hope the substance will catch up or at least not be found out. It’s sort of like the salesman wearing the fake expensive watch to impress clients hoping that one day he can afford the real thing. Personally I find that kind of spiritual veneer putrid…now if only I wasn’t part of the problem.

That leads me back to the topic of the day. We have probably all heard the cliché, “if you aren’t part of the solution you are part of the problem.” There is a lot of truth in that.

As I see it, the biggest problem with the church, thinking of the traditional North American church, is that for many, “church” has become a weekly event instead of the body that gathers weekly. It is an ontological problem. The church has it’s being in an event to celebrate Jesus Christ, rather than in Jesus Christ 24/7. Celebrating Jesus and learning about Him is good, but it is not the substance. Too often we replace being part of the body, the community of believers in relationship with Jesus Christ and one another, with showing up at an event. Hear me, the event is good, but it is not the sum total.

I don’t know of one pastor who is at peace with this. Every pastor I talk to desires for the church to be the relational ministering body that is the Church with Jesus as the head. Most pastors I know, including my self, see the Sunday gathering as an important event in the weekly life of the church. Face it, it is the only time many can gather. It is worth something.

However, watching a hockey game does not make you a hockey player. You might enjoy it, maybe even enjoy it with friends, and even learn something, but that’s the end of it. Being a Christian means lacing up the skates, getting on the ice and taking your bumps and bruises. Most of all, it takes commitment. No one plays in the big leagues with out a lot of hours invested and sacrifices made.

The great temptation of the church is for people to confuse the event in the life of the church, for the life of the church. Every hockey player watches hockey, if only from the bench and game tapes. However, the game is played on the ice. As Christians, we ought to enjoy the celebrating and worshipping with others, but that is the reward for working hard the rest of the week as servants of Jesus Christ. That is the substance of living the Christian life.

In some sense, by perpetuating the traditional Sunday gathering we perpetuate the problem. I know of many people who have and are fighting back against this by ditching the traditional Sunday “worship service.” I don’t blame them. Even as a pastor of a traditional-ish church, I feel like that some days. I hear their call to build a solid foundation of relationship and ministry. I hear their call for spiritual intimacy and authentic Christian lives. I hear their call to know that someone cares and is willing to be the hands and feet of Jesus in their lives.

I have no doubt that our typical Sunday gatherings do precious little to make that happen. The questions is, why do we expect them to? Why do we expect meeting together for and hour or so on Sunday morning to fulfill our deep spiritual needs? Could it be that the reason why so many seem to be unsatisfied with “church” is that they treat Sunday mornings as a spiritual fix like a drug that can be taken once a week to get a spiritual high? After while the drug no longer satisfies and they go looking for a new, more exciting spiritual drug?

Let’s be honest, not many of us would eat one meal a week if we had a choice. We understand that eating and drinking is part of our daily lives. Jesus said in John 6:35  … “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” There is rich meaning to this, but we ought not miss the obvious, eating and drinking are daily necessities.

The problem with the “traditional institutional” church is not so much what it isn’t, but our bizarre expectations of it. A Sunday service and all the excellent programs will never make up for a lack of daily spiritual vitality. Sunday services and mid week programs can facilitate and even augment relationships and spiritual intimacy, but they are not the substance. The substance is in our own hearts, minds and souls.

I appreciate what Scott had to day near the end of his article…

It’s time to move beyond our anger and hurt. It’s time to move beyond what we are against. I believe we can still create space to allow the Spirit to reshape the church in new ways without having to hold on to that anger. And we don’t have to be afraid of the fact that traditional forms of church life will remain intact.

Whether you choose to be part of a traditional church, a house church or a network of small groups is of little concern to me as long as you realize two things.

First, as a believer you are part of The Church, the body. To distance yourself from other believers is to divorce yourself from Jesus Christ because He is the head of the body. A chopped off finger will rot and decay. The finger needs the body even if it is imperfect.

Second, understand that no form of gathering will satisfy your spiritual longings. Sooner or later it just becomes the new tradition complete with the realization that something is missing. Might as well figure out what is missing and fix it instead of building a new veneer. The substance is living in Christ and in His Church, serving Him in the world daily.

Oh  yeah…that leads to a third thing. If you get this figured out, the church needs you. Live your life so we can see it and learn from it.

The past is what it is, but the future is full of possibility

Watching a documentary on building the Gothic Cathedrals, I was struck by something other than the awe inspiring finished product. Instead I wondered how the stone masons dealt with mistakes made in the past, in the lower layers of stone.

I suppose if a mistake is caught soon enough it can be fixed, but what happens when correcting that ill fitting or imperfectly laid stone would mean tearing down vast sections of arches, buttresses and walls? That got me thinking that perhaps the true craft of the master stone mason is not perfection, but adaptation. No doubt it is the goal of any stone mason to cut and lay each stone perfectly. Yet, no matter how excellent the mason, sooner or later the accumulative effect of even slight imperfections adds up. The completed structure is not a series of perfect stones, but a series of minute corrections.

Life is like that. There is nothing we can do to change what we did yesterday, last year, let alone ten or twenty years ago. Unfortunately, when we discover that things are not quite as we would like in our lives there is a tendency to focus on the “wrongs” of the past. We will spend countless hours fretting and fuming over things that no one can do anything to change. Good or bad, the past is the past. it is what it is.

That doesn’t mean that we turn a blind eye to the past, Like a master mason, we have to be aware of how the past has shaped the present. The focus, however, is not of repairing the past or even less helpful, throwing a temper tantrum over the past. The focus is on what corrective measures need to be taken in the stones laid today and tomorrow. The goal is always to build a strong structure, or in life, a mature healthy person.

When the past consumes us we are a victim of our own making to the events of the past. When we adapt and move forward we make something beautiful of our lives. Tomorrow is full of possibilities for those who accept the past, adapt and move on.

Tribute to Cor

I received word yesterday of the passing of a friend. I met Cor when I was applying to Briercrest Seminary. Cor was the registrar, but he was much more than that. Cor was a gentle shepherd of students.

I recall sitting in the one class that Cor taught. The class was supposed to be on doctrine, but I think I learned more about Cor’s life and the man he is. Cor is one of those people who faced life’s challenges and lived life well. His experiences had shaped him as a man of compassion, a compassion that was evident in his work.

Cor’s guidance and encouragement of students was an integral part in the development of leaders, counselors, teachers and shepherds for the Church. His legacy will live on through the lives of each one of us.

We will miss you Cor, but we will meet again.