Now let me confess, I've been angry at the church. When I was in college I had a radical encounter with God. I realized that while I knew all about God from my church experience I did not actually have a relationship with God. I had been a youth ministry intern in Houston. I was sent as a youth missionary to a church in Germany. I was being considered for a church staff position in a large church. I had even been mentored by the pastor of the second largest church in town. But I realized that I did not know God.
My life changed. I realized that I was accepted by God. The Spirit of God resided in me in a way that I had only read about in the Bible before. Instead of judging myself and others, the love of God was carving a new path through me. I realized that I was a "new creation." The old had passed away and the new had come (2 Cor 5:17). It was an experience, not just head knowledge anymore.
At the same time, I had to deal with my anger. 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 judgementalism 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.
So yes I was angry. This caused me to question things about the traditional church. At first I made sweeping judgements and experienced a "pendulum swing." I wanted nothing to do with the traditional church. I questioned everything, from why do we have buildings, to why do we have sermons. I wanted to know things like why preachers had to wear suits, why preachers are all male, why we spent so much money and energy on religious programs that only religious people wanted. But most of all, I wanted to know why all the Christians that I had shared life with did not see what I was missing in my life. Was I really that good of a cover-up artist? Or was there something else missing?
And as I asked these questions, I heard through the grapevine that old friends who were entrenched in the traditional church were asking all kinds of questions like: What's wrong with Scott? Of course, none of them actually took the time to call me up. That added fuel to my anger and I had to get over that too.
As I looked at Scriptures, my questions drove me beyond my anger and I began to see a call to a shared life in Christ, as opposed to the individualistically-driven Christianity that has been so common. Bonhoeffer called it Life Together. Aelred of Rievaulx called it Spiritual Friendship. The Apostle Paul refers to it as a life done according to the "one anothers." While I knew how to do church according to the programs that the church established, I did not know how to do that well. I discovered that this shared life was what I longed for. In all of the sermons I heard, the Bible studies I attended, outreach programs I'd participated in, etc. etc. there was the longing to share life in this way, a way where we were living in the unity of the Spirit as shaped by the prayer of Jesus in John 17.
I had to work through my anger and frustration. I did not squelch it. I had friends who prayed with me and the Spirit brought me healing. And on this journey, I refrained from jumping to the conclusion that God is done with the church as we know it, although I've been around a lot of people who have made this conclusion. It seems to me that many have remained in this state of anger with the traditional church. They base their perspective more on what they are against than what they are for. They are against programs. They are against church buildings. They are against clergy. At times, I joined in this, but for some reason I could not remain in this anti-church point of view.
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 in tact.
So what's ahead. Let me share what has helped me along the way:
- Be honest with yourself about your experience. If you don't allow yourself to come to an awareness of what's inside of you, then the only option is squelch it.
- Don't get hung up on the negative. While I saw much that was missing in my church experience of my childhood and college, there is much for which I am thankful. I am thankful for the hundreds of sermons that I had heard, for all the hymns that I still know by heart, and for all of the memory verses that I had at my disposal because of the Vacation Bible School contests that I won. These were activated in a new way when the Spirit came to life within me.
- Find one or two friends who can help you process what you are learning. It's best when you have friends who will challenge you to take ownership for your feelings and not blame the church. In other words, don't get with a few others who live in the same emotions and enjoy staying in them.
- Forgive those who have hurt you. Identify the frustration. Talk about the disappointment. Recognize your anger. But ultimately, you cannot hold on to it. You have a choice to forgive.
- If you cannot get behind the vision, the values and the strategy of your current church, ask the Lord to lead you to a church where you can do so.
- If the Lord is leading you to remain at your current church, share your experience with your pastor and see how you can contribute to what God is doing to shape the church for a new future.
- Learn to ask good questions about what God is doing today without being driven by anger. See this post for more on this.