“The Church is like Noah’s Ark. It stinks, but if you get out of it you will drown.” –Shane Claiborne
So last week, Donald Miller wrote a couple of blog posts that started a firestorm across the interwebs by telling the world that he didn’t regularly go to a local church. Follow up post is here.
As a pastor, I appreciated Donald Miller saying this, not because I agree with him, but because it’s something I’m hearing more often from people who don’t have any reason not to say it.
To be honest, Miller’s blog took courage to write. The people who read his writing, and invite him to conferences and lectureships, are overwhelming people who are invested in local churches.
But I think Miller has brought up a good question and I would like to address it.
Churches are filled with mean, hypocritical, judgmental, conservative/liberal, unkind people. Sure, we have our brighter moments, when the sweet older couple brings over a casserole after someone has surgery, or when the ladies Bible class holds a baby shower for the single mom. I get to see plenty of stories like that, but we have plenty of horror stories too, right? The preacher who condemns a certain sin, one with which he doesn’t happen to struggle, or the elder who is embezzling money, or the deacon who is having an affair with an underage girl.
Those are way too common to just be ignored as exceptions to the rule.
So maybe a better question to ask is, why does anybody belong to a local church?
In her book, The Great Emergence Phyllis Tickle talks about the way Christian history has worked during the past couple of millennium. Every 500 years or so, the Church has what Tickle calls “a rummage sale” where we begin to look at the way we do things and re-evaluate whether or not they are important.
In other words, every 500 years the church changes drastically to make sure that she is still being faithful to her mission of making disciples and following Jesus into the world.
I think to a large degree that is what is happening today.
Traditional/institutional churches aren’t going away, but they are changing, because the world is changing. And new kinds of churches are developing all around us, from cell-groups or house churches, to churches that meet in bars or coffee shops. Churches are trying to figure out what the best methods are for us to follow Jesus together.
But that is still not enough.
A couple of years ago another best selling author, Anne Rice, spoke in an interview in the Los Angeles Times about why she “quit Christianity”.
"I’ve come to the conclusion from my experience with organized religion that I have to leave, that I have to, in the name of Christ, step away from this. It’s a matter of rejecting what I’ve discovered about the persecution of gays, the persecution and oppression of women and the actions of the churches on many different levels.
I’ve also found that I can’t find a basis in Scripture for a lot of the positions that churches and denominations take today, and I can’t find any basis at all for an anointed, hierarchical priesthood. So all of this finally created a pressure in me, a kind of confusion, a toxic anger at times, and I felt I had to step aside. And that’s what I’ve done…"
I mostly agree with Anne Rice. Except….
We say that Job is the most patient person in the Bible, but that only works until you get to the Gospels. Jesus strikes me as the most patient person in human history. “No guys, we can’t call down thunder on the Samaritans.” “Hey y’all, tell your mom that you can’t be in charge, and quit trying to passive-aggresively make power plays!” “Hey Judas, where have you been? A kiss, you’re normally not one for PDA. Oh…I get it now.”
And that’s without even mentioning Peter.
Book after book has been written about how Americans like Jesus but not the Church and I get that. I like Jesus too, and I often don’t like the church.
But I can’t get Jesus without the church, because Jesus is the one who dreamed this whole thing up, and any Jesus that doesn’t involve messy, back-stabbing, power-playing people isn’t the Jesus that the Gospels are giving us.
I think it’s interesting that at the same time we are asking the question “Why should we belong to a church” atheist communities are starting their version of churches. They’ve even started to split! (So I think they’re getting the basic principles down.)
And I’m not trying to be snarky, I think the nature of what we do when we gather together is bring people from every different age, race, orientation, and socio-economic background to come together and confront all the ways we are broken, sinful people. Of course we split, and of course we try to segment off toward people like us. At least that way, we can fool ourselves into thinking that God grades on a curve.
But Jesus doesn’t do that. Instead, he gets people together who are as radically different as possible, teaches them to live in community, and then tells them to go out and start other communities like that.
It’s fascinating to me that the thing that was scandalous in Jesus’ day was that he ate and fellowshipped with the outsiders, the immoral people. Today, we’re fine with that. The thing that bothers us now is that He ate and fellowshipped just as much with the insiders and “moral” people.
He was teaching them that they weren’t as good as they thought, and that only those who know they are sick know how much they need a doctor.
While breaking bread, drinking wine, singing and praying, and reading Scripture together, these people start to learn how to love and forgive and reconcile again and again.
That is the dream of the Jesus of the Gospels.
If you want to love Jesus, you have to learn to love His friends.