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The Problem with 'Church'

We have a problem.


I hear this word a lot, but lately it seems that we’re mostly talking past each other. Words only work as long as we can agree on a shared definition.

The problem with “church” is that it means so many different things:

The global body of believers in Jesus through all history spiritually united to God in Christ. As in, “The church is the Bride of Christ.”

The social institution of organized Christian religion. As in, “The church does not enjoy the same authority and privilege it once did.”

A local group of Christians united around their common faith in Jesus and love for each other. As in, “We’re part of this really cool church where we love Jesus and do life together.”

A building where Christians can meet and do stuff. May include an auditorium (a.k.a. sanctuary), food eating room (a.k.a. fellowship hall), gym, classrooms, and various narthexes and lobbies. As in, “I have to swing by the church and drop off some paperwork for Margaret.”

A particular meeting or event at a building, usually on a Sunday morning, consisting of singing, preaching, money-giving, and occasionally other assorted sacraments. As in, “Hurry up, kids! Get dressed and find your Bibles and get in the van so we aren’t late for church!’

A specific religious subculture, with various associated dogmatic emphases and particular political affiliations. As in, “I got really burned by the church, and now I don’t want to be religious but I still want to follow Jesus.”

We could all add our own definitions to this list, but they aren’t just abstract ideas. These are our stories. Many of us were born and raised in the church, have been molded and shaped by the church, and still desire to be part of the church.

Don’t tell me that my definition doesn’t count, that my experience wasn’t with “the real church”.  It WAS  church; I know because there was a sign in front of the building that said: “CHURCH”.

But no amount of capitalizing or not capitalizing the “C” can ensure that others know exactly what we’re implying when we say “church”. Especially in online conversations, where context is limited and nuance is often lost.

There’s been a lot of talk lately of Millennials leaving “the church”, and I’m not sure what that means anymore at all.

Do any of us? An average conversation looks like this:

“I really understand why people would want to leave the [institution of organized religion]. I’ve been hurt by [a specific religious/dogmatic/political subculture] in so many ways.”

“Well, the [local group of believers united by faith in Christ and love for each other] is God’s idea. You can’t follow Jesus without being part of [the global body of all believers in Jesus throughout history]!”

We keep having this conversation over and over. I say the church is flawed and hurtful and you say the church is beautiful and Biblical and you think I’m selfish and I think you’re insensitive.

I don’t know a good way to parse these things, especially when I’m limited to 140 characters.

Maybe there isn’t an easy solution for talking about the church, no shorthand to distinguish between institution and subculture, programming and community, political entity and spiritual reality. Maybe this is just messy, intricate surgery and we all need to give one another some space for context and experience.

Some people talk of church as if it’s a package deal, take it or leave it. As if we can’t reject the subculture while still embracing the mission. As if we can’t disown the political machine and still embrace the community.

Maybe those people are right. I hope not. I hope we can peel away the ugliness that tends to grow up around the church and keep the good and the beautiful. Is that ok? If it is, this is what I’d say:

I’m leaving the church.

I’m abandoning the dogma that raised me in fear and shame. I’m rejecting the political machine that taught me to hate my neighbor. I’m moving beyond the subculture that made bad art with Bible verses slapped on the end and thought we were doing the world a favor by giving them “truth”.

I’m disavowing those awful church signs suggesting that God is gloating over sinners in Hell or that He has a special disdain reserved for gay people. I’m no longer interested in the Sunday morning meetings where we put on our religious masks and sit in rows listening to somebody in a suit tell us to try harder. I’m leaving the narrow sects that use the sacred words of Scripture to scare parents and manipulate vulnerable kids, amassing power and money for those callous enough to prey on our desire to please God. I’ll have nothing to do with those who hide behind steeples, abandoning helpless sheep to be devoured by wolves.

But, I am not leaving the church.

I am just one member of a sacred family stretching back through history and I’m humbled to be named among the Bride of Christ. I recognize that I need a local community of believers, and maybe in some small way they need me too. They are my brothers and sisters and I cannot turn my back on them.

I’m learning more and more how God has ordained this global body to bring the Gospel to the world, and I can’t help but be caught up in that. I’m rediscovering the beauty of Sunday mornings in the house of God, the bread and the wine, the preaching of the Gospel over and over until it soaks deep into the soul.

All of this is God’s idea, and it is beautiful.

I don’t think I’m going to stop talking about the church. It matters too much. Be patient as I fumble around with heavy words.

I love her, and I love you.

(If you’ve left the church, whether for a season or for good, I invite you to share a bit of your story in the comments. I’d love to compile a collection of our voices.)

[ image: LiamDC ]

published July 30, 2013

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