Two weeks ago, an article entitled "How Do I Know When It's Time To Leave A Church?" was the most-read article on Crosswalk.com.
At the time, I commented about how telling it must be that such discouraging subject matter - a strong dissatisfaction with one's church - would be the top article on one of Christianity's most popular websites.
So, it's been two weeks, which can be an eternity in Internet time. Who knows how many topics, headlines, crises, opinions, and tweets have come and gone. You'd think the article about leaving one's church would be long gone, too, wouldn't you? At least, it wouldn't still be listed among Crosswalk's top ten.
But you'd be wrong. Okay, so it's not number one today... it's number three. After two other articles of similar subject matter. Currently, the most-read article is "What You Are Wearing To Church," which has likely been a weekly debate in families across the Western world for centuries. The second-most-read article currently is entitled "Seven Viruses That Infect the Church."
Isn't this "church" thing supposed to be helping us? Isn't it supposed to be the place where our faith walk can find refuge from the sins of the world? Judging by what people are choosing to read on Crosswalk, however, it looks more like church is a thorn in our side, or a cross we have to bear.
When Doing Church Becomes One's Undoing
Maybe I'm back on this topic of dissatisfaction with church because I've been interviewing somebody for an upcoming article of mine for Crosswalk. After years of trying to act like a Christian, find a church where she can grow as a Christian, get involved in ministry with other Christians, develop Christian friendships, and plug her young son into a similarly God-focused faith community for his age level, she's thrown in the towel.
She walked out of church. She's not really bitter, or even angry, although she's sad, and almost bemused at what the rest of us continue to tolerate in our faith communities.
Looking back on her conversion experience, she figures it must have been an emotional reaction to her failed marriage. She was told she needed God in order to have peace. And for a while, it all seemed to work... until she tried to assimilate into a large church that asks people to "come as they are." So she did.
Things went downhill from there.
Early in her faith walk, a small-group leader chastised her in front of their home group for professing to enjoy a popular but mildly-raunchy television sitcom, but then she witnessed him in his own home watching something even raunchier on cable.
She found out by accident that malicious gossip was being spread around her church about her and her son.
Her son went on a couple of church youth outings and witnessed adult sponsors of the events getting tipsy on contraband liquor.
She herself attended events with fellow church-goers where alcoholic beverages were flowing.
It was as if everybody else was as wounded, anxious, and depressed as she was, and church had become simply another crutch, or a glorified passport to Heaven. The church people she saw drinking weren't living under grace, they were addicted to the stuff to fill the void she thought churchy stuff was supposed to fill. Preach hellfire and damnation for the world's gays, but adultery within the church is only wrong if you get caught. None of it matters - your passports to Heaven have already been stamped.
When she started expressing her doubts on Facebook, church friends either ignored her, or de-friended her. When she saw one of her pastors at their kids' mutual sporting event, he didn't want to talk to her. She realized she was more wounded, anxious, and depressed now that she had gotten involved in church, than she was before "professing her faith."
So she relinquished her faith. Returned it, even though she didn't get a refund for all she'd been through. She didn't expect to find a bunch of holy-roller saints in church, but she didn't expect a bunch of sinners who self-righteously claimed to be holy-roller saints, either.
"Don't pray for me," she's asked me, "because that's so patronizing. I have explored your faith option and found nothing
that comforts me more than my own awareness of my own spirituality."
Preachers Missing a Teachable Moment
We evangelicals might be tempted to parse this woman's refutation of Christianity in order to find clues to its theological inadequacies, but before we do that, consider the haughtiness with which one of our celebrity preachers recently praised a fellow celebrity preacher friend of his.
Mark Dever, senior pastor at Washington, DC's wildly popular Capitol Hill Baptist Church, served as a guest preacher earlier this month in the pulpit of Sovereign Grace Church in Louisville, Kentucky.
Sovereign Grace Church is the new congregation established by C.J. Mahaney, the embattled former director of Sovereign Grace Ministries, which has come under fire for hiding allegations of child abuse. However, Dever has come out not only in support of Mahaney, but veiled contempt towards those who have filed a lawsuit against his former ministry as its alleged child abuse victims.
In what appears to be an arrogant affirmation of the indicted despite a Biblical need to be sensitive to any harm that has befallen alleged victims, Dever offered Mahaney's congregation a heavy dose of hero worship.
"If you’re visiting or if you’re sort of new to Sovereign Grace," Dever said in his sermon, regarding Mahaney, "you have a privilege in having this man as your pastor that you don’t fully grasp..."
Not only does one celebrity pastor inadvertently chastise fellow Christians who dare question the integrity of another celebrity pastor, but he appears to display a degree of impunity that seems to defy the Gospel of Christ. It's not that during a time of crisis in one's personal life or public ministry, a minister of the Gospel shouldn't be able to depend on his peers for comfort, friendship, and support. But it almost appears as though Mahaney's friends have willfully ignored the facts in this case. Indeed, the fact that we need to keep talking in abstract terms instead of facts betrays the fact that Mahaney and his friends have not broached the accusations with the seriousness the rest of us have accorded them.
Either way, their attitudes and actions don't seem to square with the Gospel they've built their careers preaching.
I don't personally know any of the people about whom I've written here today. The woman who's returned to atheism was referred to me by a mutual friend, who thought I should hear her story. Our mutual friend is saved, and the only church friend who remains in contact with this woman who's left the church. I've never met either Dever or Mahaney, and only know of their disturbing, stubborn alliance through what I've learned about it online.
But hey - even if all the rest of this is anecdotal, don't we know how hard it is to do church? We don't need to be told this by an atheist, or preachers pretending that accusations of child molestation don't exist.
Still, I believe that God is sovereign. He knew from eternity past that these days would come for His North American church, when His people would be so cantankerous, malicious, hypocritical, self-righteous, and unlike Christ. Yet still, the church is His invention. He has purposes for it, even if we can't see them. I believe that, because I believe God is sovereign. We can't irrevocably screw up His church, even though it sure looks like we're giving it our best shot.
What am I to make about all of the feedback I've received from this atheist, who, frankly, seems almost freer now that she thinks she can cross "God" off of her list of things to make her happy? I don't know. After all, most of the world today sees religion as simply one of many means to an end, with the end being some sort of self-realization. All the better to find those things that don't work earlier rather than later, right?
What our celebrity preachers are doing in the name of this God, however, truly unnerves me. The God in Whom the Holy Spirit has given me faith is not a God to be mocked by elitist games of personal favorites during - of all things - sex abuse cases. In their cloistered world of church plants, seminars, and doctrinal associations, it's almost as if the guys with the biggest bully pulpits win the day, while hapless sheep bleat in the fields.
Or go online in droves to Crosswalk.com, getting advice on evaluating how sick their church may be.