Thoughts on the “I Love Jesus But Hate Church” Crowd
Been burned by the church? Take heart – you are not alone! Countless Christians just like you are sick and tired of dealing with hypocrisy, politics, power-hungry leaders, and churches more concerned about their own existence than extending the arms of love to others. The simple solution to rejuvenate your faith and re-discover your relationship with God is to leave the organized church. It has become a monster that chews up those who desire to live the Jesus way, and has turned into a breeding ground for believers who simply want to have a holy-huddle until Jesus returns. If you feel your faith being choked out, the problem is the thing that we now call “church”. You don’t need to deal with it. Simply walk away. After all, it’s not about church but your own personal relationship with God. You can find freedom away from organized religion.
The view summarized above is a growing one. More and more the church is under attack – and not by unbelievers who are outside the church, but by believers who are inside the walls. Well, at least they are there for a little while, until they determine that church has become the biggest hinderance to their spiritual lives.
There are a number of examples that demonstrate this mindset. The book UnChristian by Dave Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons has a bunch of research which reveals that young people (including Christians) are cynical of the church. There are a number of websites dedicated to this as well, the most prominent of which is likely http://www.churchburned.com, lead by a former pastor turned anti-organized-church advocate.
The basic thinking is this: Christianity is good, but church is bad. The Christianity of the New Testament has become distorted. The pure faith which existed at the beginning has been polluted by the organized church. This is why countless Christians end up wounded by the church. It is also why we are losing the battle of evangelizing the next generation. Who the heck would want anything to do with Jesus after having a taste of what the modern church has to offer?
Most of the blame for how the church has become twisted is put on the shoulders of church leaders. One woman commented on facebook about this issue (her quote is unedited) by saying:
there is no church better than the other I said that about every different church I went to and their all the same they have nothing but leaders of the church who are hypocrites and do not practice what they preach
Others in the same comment stream mentioned that pastors are greedy, attention-seeking, power hungry, arrogant, judgmental, or simply more concerned with their own comfort than actually helping the needy.
To be frank, this kind of attack on the church, and it’s leaders, makes me sick. Not that I am in complete disagreement, however. The anti-organized-church crowd raises some valid points. I know that there are unhealthy churches that have unhealthy and unqualified leadership, and that people get hurt as a result. It happens in real life, and that’s very unfortunate. I have what I hope is a righteous anger for things of that nature. But at the same time, it’s wrong to broadbrush every church as being unfit, unbiblical, or unfaithful at being what it is supposed to be. There are awesome churches and awesome church leaders…lots of them! They are doing the work that Christ commissioned and though no church or leader is perfect, there is no reason to go on the attack against the organized church.
In an effort to back my views on this issue, I would like to respond to some common opinions held by the anti-organized-church crowd. In bold is a commonly held view, and following is my take on it. I hope it proves helpful. My desire is not to start a fight between brothers, but to challenge people to think carefully about such an important topic.
The church has genuinely hurt me!
Though everyone’s story of church hurt is unique, I am in no position to dismiss anyone’s pain. It’s probably true that you have been hurt by the church. That sucks, and I feel for you. I know lots of people who have been hurt by churches, and to varying degrees – some with minor bumps and others with heartbreaking devastation. I’m not pretending that churches don’t hurt people, because it happens. My point however is that it is wrong to say that every church is living out some perverted version of Christianity.
It’s also wrong to assume that just because you were hurt in an organized church that the problem is with organized religion, as if the mere fact that a church has structure to it means that it will be harmful to people. The remedy for those who have been hurt by the church is almost always a Christian experience with less structure to it, wether that be in a house church, a small gathering of believers at a coffee shop, or simply spending time with the Lord alone. There are a number of problems with this solution that I will deal with later on.
And certainly don’t forget that we are called to forgive those who sin against us. This doesn’t mean you should allow it to continue to happen, but you do need to remove any bitterness that may linger in your heart – even if no one has apologized.
Church leaders are hypocritical / power-hungry / judgmental / protecting their job security / whatever other negative trait you can think of.
Church-burned people usually have a story that involves the corruption of church leaders. It could be a pastor, a deacon, a board member, a whole denomination, or even a congregation member who holds a lot of clout among the people. But almost without exception, the reason given for the organized church being defunct is because of it’s leadership.
I would never deny that some church leaders are spiritually unfit for their position. They may not meet the qualifications for an elder or deacon given in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. But in my own experience, this is not the norm. Most of the church leaders I know are fine people who have genuine faith, are Spirit-filled, loving, generous, and humble. They are sinners, to be sure – but so are the rest of us! Let’s make sure to extend the grace that we wish to have ourselves.
If you are in a church where a leader has serious character flaws, then humbly work with the other leaders to straighten out the situation. If the entire leadership team demonstrates the same un-Christian attitude, then leave the church. The problem is not churches as a whole but individual churches.
All I need is fellowship. The church doesn’t require leaders, and it’s not even biblical!
It’s true that Christians need fellowship. Most people who leave the organized church don’t leave the capital-C Church, but remain in some sort of fellowship with other believers. This is good! But to assume that the church should not have leaders is not a biblical argument at all.
The first Christian fellowship, which was the 12 disciples, had Jesus as their leader. The role of leader went to Peter after Jesus ascended back into heaven. We can know this because Peter is always listed first among the disciples. He was also part of Jesus’ inner circle of three which also included James and John. It was also Peter who addressed the crowd at Pentecost, showing he was seen as the leader of the disciples.
Paul clearly had a leadership role over a number of churches. He also instilled other leaders such as Timothy and Titus to oversee local churches. James 5 indicates that local churches were to be lead by a plurality of “elders”. There is simply no doubt that churches are meant to have human leaders who are supposed to be Spirit-filled, humble servants. But, just because they are to serve, does not mean that they do not have greater spiritual authority than others. In Matthew 18, Jesus lays out the process for church discipline, which culminates in bringing an unrepentant Christian before the church leaders to be dealt with.
Additionally, in 1 Peter 5:5, Christians are charged to be “subject to the elders”, clearly showing that spiritual authority rests in the hands of the church leaders. To assume that every Christian has equal say and equal spiritual authority is not true. Again the same idea is conveyed in Hebrews 13:17, which says “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” Leaders are to be wary of the way they lead (as those who will give an account), and believers are to submit to godly leadership and not place undue burdens on them.
It is also not enough, as some do, to travel from church to church and consider that suitable involvement in the local church. The passage in Hebrews 13:17 says to “obey your leaders”, implying that there are specific individuals to whom you should submit to. This can’t happen when a person attends one church one week and another one the next week. There ought to be a long-term commitment between church leaders and the people, which requires attending the same church regularly. Leaders and congregant should get to know each other over a long period of time so that trust and accountability can be built.
The church has become a big show.
There is some truth to this, or at least there can be. Especially in North America, there is a push to be more flashy and fancy in church. This may or may not be wrong, but I think there is a way to use technology that still honours God. Technology is not a curse but a gift, if it is used rightly. Using lighting, slideshows, videos, and whatever other slick gadgets there are, is not necessarily the same as worldliness or compromise. It is used to set the mood for worship, and is really no different than candles, banners hung on the wall, or stained glass windows. I could see that some might take issue with the cost of these items, and it is a point to think through carefully. Churches do need to be careful that flash doesn’t overtake the priority of meeting the needs of real people.
Another issue along these same lines is the rise of the celebrity pastor. It’s hard to watch a pastor go on tour and sign books and make big bucks while promoting themselves. I admit that this is a tough one to deal with. But one thing to keep in mind is that mere fame is not a sin. Jesus preached to massive crowds. John the baptist was very popular. A verse to check out is 2 Corinthians 8:18, where Paul says he is “sending the brother who is famous among all the churches for his preaching of the gospel”. No pastor should be promoting himself for shameful gain, and thankfully there are many pastors who are extremely famous and extremely generous at the same time. But please don’t assume that just because a church uses technology, or because a pastor is famous, or because the worship band released a CD, that the church has no heart for the lost.
The church just wants my money.
In some churches this may be true, but in the vast majority of cases it is not. Most churches do ask for your money, but for the purpose of doing ministry. It is false to assume that because chunks of the church budget goes to utility costs, roof repair, and staff salary, that churches are not being faithful. Most church-burned folk think that if Christians ditched church and put 100% of the money they would normally give to a church into ministry, there would be more ministry taking place. I’m not convinced this is true.
For starters, paying church leaders is a biblical concept (1 Corinthians 9). In that passage, Paul willfully gives up his right to be paid for ministry. Some pastors still do this, but it is not mandatory. Another factor to consider is that churches can pull off certain types of ministry that the unorganized church cannot. A building can be used for all kinds of great ministry – hosting conferences, weddings, community outreaches, fundraisers, and so on. Not to mention that a physical church building stands as a visible beacon of the gospel in a community. People often go to the church down the street in a time of life crisis because they expect to find God, hope, forgiveness, friendship, and healing there.
I have no doubt that churches can be poor stewards of the resources given to them. But so can individual Christians. Again, if the church you are going to doesn’t do much gospel ministry with the money they have, then go somewhere that does!
Here is the big issue. The problem is not with the organized church…the problem is sin. Sin can happen anywhere, in an organized church or in the living room of the house church. Greed, hypocrisy, selfishness, judgmentalism, you name it – it all exists no matter where you go. You can’t escape sin, so it’s best to deal with it in the way the Bible calls for. Sin is meant to be dealt with in community, among fellow believers, with spiritual authority that is also held accountable. This can only happen in the local, organized church. To be sure, there may be extreme exceptions to this. I can imagine a believer choosing alternative forms of fellowship in a rural setting where the only church in miles is corrupted. I could also imagine that missionary work has a number of expressions of church that are less organized and more organic in nature. But this is still not the ideal, and should only be a temporary situation. Paul, probably the greatest church planter and missionary ever, explains in Titus 1:5 “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you.”
I have no doubt that some people have been hurt by the organized church. This grieves me. It should not happen. But it does, and it will, in every church simply because no church is perfect. If you are in a church that is so unhealthy you are ready to walk away completely, please consider looking for another church that is a healthier expression of God’s mission. There are countless thousands of them all over the continent and the world. Don’t give up, because Jesus hasn’t given up on the organized church either.