I just got home from Easter church service. It was the first time I had set foot in a church since last summer.
My “church” has consisted of little more than my own personal prayers and this little column for just about the past year, and I realized that I quit going entirely this past summer. So today was my first foray back into the formal church service.
And you know what? I miss it. That was the first emotion I had when the lights dimmed and the music began playing. My heart missed it and it’s good for me.
A friend asked me after church where I had been and why he hadn’t seen me there in a long time. I dodged his question a while and made small-talk, but he came back to it again. I finally just bluntly said “I have no real problem with the church. I have problems with the people inside of it.” And that’s pretty truthful – I’m not mad at God. I’m not questioning my faith or having a crisis or switching to Buddhism. I’m still talking with God – I’ve just been doing it on my own terms for a while and without the formality of “church”. And I AM mad at the people that command the spotlight inside the four walls of church and the hypocrisy of it all. I know it’s an age old complaint amongst those that get frustrated with church, but it’s still the truth. When a group gets together to talk about how to be good people, you’re going to find the biggest hypocrites the world has ever created. And if you get close enough to that fire, brother, you’re going to get burned.
As I wiped a tear from my eye this morning after a particularly powerful song, my mind drifted as I thought to myself – “You know, I am a walking testimonial of the person that the CHURCH claims to want to embrace and restore. I have ugly nasty scars, a bad attitude, and a scowl on my face but I am also talking with God and wanting to move forward in my walk. So where is the church? Why the deafening silence?”
I listened somewhat to the sermon this morning, but caught myself drifting off with my thoughts about the church and my relationship with it. Let me also say that I do not think I’m any more or less important than the next person in the seats, so I never hoped nor expected a small team of the staff from church to show up on my doorstep and plead with me to return or to take notes on how they could all be better “church-folks”. Nope, I have expected nothing and that’s exactly what I got.
But where does the church’s responsibilities here lie? It’s not like the pastor (nor the other church admin) have the capacity to spend their time calling around to all the people that aren’t attending regularly to ask if everything is ok. They can’t take every single person out to lunch. They don’t have divine providence to awake late at night and exclaim, “Oh my goodness. Kendall is very upset with the church! I should take him out to lunch tomorrow to remedy this situation!”
But I do know the pastor and the church admin, and I work with a couple of people that teach Sunday school, and I am “friends” with countless people that regularly attend and are heavily involved in the church. And they have known that I wasn’t coming to church, yet not one person said a word to me about it. Maybe I was hoping that they would so that I could talk through my issues, and maybe their lack of engagement caused me to stubbornly drag things out – maybe I’m just an egotistical jerk that wanted SOMEONE to ring me up and beg me to come back to church. It’s all highly possible.
Maybe I’m just as hypocritical as everyone else. And maybe the church should quit making stupid people famous. As you can see, I still have a crappy attitude.
The study of hypocritical people at church is not a new one, nor is it unique to me. And it is not unique to any one church. I know this because I’ve attended almost every church in this county at one point or another. I also know countless people that, much like me, scoff at formal church attendance using the excuse of “Yeah, I’m just not into going to a building and watching the laser lights, rock concert music, an over-enthusiastic pastor and a congregation of people that I know personally are not living anything remotely close to what they’re hollering about with their hands raised and patting each other on the back.” I get it. But I also understand that the Church’s job isn’t to condemn people for not living right, in fact, their job is to understand it, embrace it, and walk with a person into self-improvement. The church is well aware that it’s full of hypocrites, and frankly, it relies on them. If we’re all perfect, then what would we be doing at church?
So after all of my whining about the state of the church and my own fist-shaking I’ve done at it, I think I’ll say that I’ve come to terms with the hypocrisy of church, I’ve forgiven it for things it doesn’t control, and maybe, perhaps, MAYBE…I’m ready to start talking to church again. Maybe. I’m not sure. But regardless, here’s where church simply must improve because this is the stuff that sends people like me off the deep end and away from church for long periods of time. I’m lucky I have only been gone for 8 months or so – lots of people vanish and never, ever return.
But what the church has got to remedy is its celebration of those that it knows are hurting other people.
Our faith is universally built on the foundation of “love”, and it is the highest trait that we all seek as believers. I also know that while we are all tasked with loving our neighbors, we don’t. I get it. There’s plenty of people that are believers that I don’t love, much less like. My old pastor friend Johnny used to tell me when talking about someone he doesn’t like: “I have to spend eternity with him as my brother in Christ. It doesn’t mean I have to look at his stupid face while here on earth.” Again, if we’re all perfect, then what are we doing at church?
But the profession of love as our core belief is important, and is not being followed when a person is knowingly and maliciously hurting another. When the church KNOWS that a person is participating in actively hurting a marriage, it needs to address this and NOT put that guy on the week’s video testimonial about his amazing journey to sainthood. When the church KNOWS that a woman is lying for a friend in a divorce, it needs to have a chat with her and NOT put her in charge of the Sunday school. When the church KNOWS that ol’ Billy is getting sauced 7 nights a week and getting a bit rough with his kids, let’s NOT let him lead the worship service for a bit.
When the church possesses knowledge of imperfections that are directly impacting and harming other people, it needs to do everything it can to come down to his/her level and address it. I recognize that many situations are a “he said/she said” type deal, and I also know that the church probably tries to turn a deaf ear to most things for fear of being dragged into an endless soap opera of drama, so I will give it the necessary grace. However, when the church is aware of even the he said/she said situation, it has a pretty good idea of the truth, and it knows that one person is deliberately harming another, it simply must inconvenience itself and deal with it. And in doing so, it must cancel the powerful testimony video it just produced for one of the people in the he said/she said deal. Because if the video runs, it’s authenticity is thrown out the window. And with it, so is the church’s. And then you get folks like me – ticked off at the entirety of it.
I’m going on for too long, but I hope someone with the church reads this. I hope that you understand that I’m not expecting the church to do anything other than to have its ears open to what is happening in the lives of the congregation and to address what it can. Most people that actively attend a church would gladly welcome the offering of assistance from the church and its people during times of strife or trauma. I would have. Instead I got people that clapped me on the back, gave me a “You’ll be ok buddy” and then turned around and hurt me. And when I recovered from the body blow, I came back to watch that person blather on and on about the upcoming mission trip they’re leading. And all I can think is “You’re going to help kids in Honduras, but you were OK with stabbing me in the back? And my pastor knew about it all…”
Blech. It’s all just such a frustrating topic. People are invariably evil and have hurt one another since Cain and Abel. I have no hopes that it will somehow stop tomorrow. It won’t – it’ll never end. But we’re in a smallish town where the pastor still eats lunch frequently with people from the congregation…like me. And so he knows a lot about what is going on in people’s lives, and is given pretty intimate access and needs to be more respectful of that access. If you know what is hurting me, and who has done it, please don’t disrespect me, our friendship, and my understanding of love by then celebrating the perpetrator. I am willing to forgive, and I know that I must – but as my refuge of my faith, the church has a high responsibility to navigate these waters carefully.
People’s very lives are at stake. And even more importantly, their FAITH.
I’ll see you at church soon.