When you go to a hospital because you are sick or injured, the last thing you would expect is to get hurt more. You go there for healing. The same should be true for the church. We should expect that in the church we will be encouraged, edified, perhaps even loved. Why then do so many people have so many scars from what we understand as "church"?
I volunteer at a crisis pregnancy/pregnancy resource center each week, sometimes teaching classes and regularly meeting with the male half of the often unplanned pregnancy. In that ministry, which overall is a great one and one that I wish more Christians would get involved in as it is a “front line” ministry, I meet with a lot of people who are not generally in the church culture and are in desperate need of the Gospel. Instead of the normal crowd I talk to, people who are generally deeply involved in the church culture and can say the right things and act the right way, these are people who are unlikely to ever darken the door of a church building on a Sunday morning.
As part of our initial meeting with men (and women with the female volunteers) we try to have a discussion about their religious background, so we can get a feel for where they are and hopefully get an opportunity to share the Gospel or at least set the groundwork for doing so. What I hear from people over and over, keeping in mind that a large percentage of people I talk to are not Christians, is that they have some sort of prior religious background but few of them are terribly interested in “church”. A decent percentage of them have had a pretty negative experience and that negative experience creates an additional barrier to sharing the Gospel with them.
This troubles me and it should trouble you.
There seems to be two very different views of “church” in our culture. For those who are Christians or at least nominally religious and moral people, church as we know it is a comfortable, safe place. We know what is expected of us (very little), we know what we are going to get and no one is going to say or do anything that makes us uncomfortable. It is again safe, it is predictable and it is easy. Church as we know it reinforces our own personal moral beliefs, often bolsters our political viewpoint and is a way to be surrounded by similar people. My family can walk into virtually any Protestant church and feel more or less comfortable, other than the stir we cause with a family our size.
For those outside of the church (also known as the people we are called to reach with the Gospel), “church” is a word that carries a lot of baggage and if we are honest a lot of that negative baggage is completely deserved. I think some of the internal criticism that is hurled at the church is overblown and politically or agenda motivated but conversely a lot of the perception has a basis and in this world we live in perception is often reality. The church is seen as a place of judgment, of hypocrisy, of politics, of money grubbing. It is a place where people who perceive that they are messed up, unlike the people in church who are messed up but hide it well, and who wants to go somewhere you have had a negative experience, you feel out of place and wonder if people are judging you while trying not to stare.
So there is a major disconnect and along with that there is a major problem, namely that the church sees the Sunday morning gathering as the primary evangelism tool. The church is hugely, and may I add to a dangerous extent overly, dependent on unbelievers “coming to church” to hear “preaching”. Many, many people that we need to reach are people who have some experience with church and have been hurt in some way. Telling them to “come to church” when that is precisely the place they were wounded in the first place is a fool’s errand, not to mention without any sort of Scriptural precedent.
There are two major issues I see reflected in the real lives of real people. First, the gathered church cannot be all things to all people. If we would operate the church in such a way as to focus on equipping Christians to get out and minister and preach to people instead of attending, financing and observing we would have hopefully more Christians out making disciples instead of assuming that disciples will get made by 45 minute sermons. Trying to combine the church gathering to present the Gospel to the lost and equip the believer at the same time doesn’t work. Proof positive of that reality is all around us in our highly religious but Gospel vacant culture. The church is a place to equip and send, not gather and lecture.
My other concern is that far too many people raised in the church are carrying around wounds that drive them away. I understand that the church needs standards. “Anything goes!” is not the image we get from Paul’s letters to the church. The church also needs to be wary of wolves. I get that. I also don’t think that the people I talk to who are wounded are the result of a sinner lovingly but firmly confronted with the Gospel but rather are people who have been attacked by hypocrites and busybodies from within the very body that is supposed to support one another. This is especially true when it comes to children, children who have often never been truly evangelized and are often assumed to be Christians but aren’t and are then expected to “act” like a good Christian when they are not, i.e. the VeggieTales syndrome. When kids who are treated as Christians based on parentage are expected to follow a certain moral pattern associated with being Western Christians, they invariably fail. The disappoint family and those they are taught to respect and they associate that bitter disappointment with Christianity. Little wonder church attendance is dropping like a stone and no one can seem to figure out why.
There are so many reasons we need to recapture the Biblical purpose of the church and none are more pressing than the very real scars what we call church leaves on so many people that we are called to reach. We are perpetuating a problem that is working at odds with the very purpose of the church and the calling of Christians. This must change. The enemy is already on the attack, we don't need to aid him with self-inflicted wounds.