While at a gathering on starting new churches, a couple of friends and I decided to take a breather after the first day of activities to catch up with each other and spend some time with our speaker. As we were all walking to the restaurant, we talk about the typical getting-to-know-you-better topics: work and family. A work topic came up on our walk that has enormous implications for what we were at the gathering to talk about. There’s an emergent reality that researchers and even pastors are recognizing and calling to our attention: a number of people in today’s American culture love Jesus but hate the church. We talked about recent research indicating that nearly half of all Americans report feeling alienated from any form of organized or institutional religion. We admitted our fears that it seems as though this trend will only get worse and wondered what that might mean for us as we try to connect the gospel with those alienated people.
After we settled into our seats and gave the waitress our orders, our speaker started to ask us more questions about our kids. Have you ever been in a situation where your spidey sense goes off and you know that it’s not safe to be open and transparent because it will come back to haunt you? This wasn’t one of those times. This was one of those serendipitous moments when we knew it was okay to be honest. Our nonverbal communication said it all as we gave each other permission to speak freely.
And then it happened. At a table in the middle of the restaurant as we were munching on pizza and talking about our kids, one by one the admissions came. Our kids from high school through college, just like those who were part of the research, love Jesus but hate the church. They feel hurt, disappointed, and abandoned by it. Their words describing what they’ve experienced sound like the teen version of Matthew 23:1-7:
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The teachers of religious law and the Pharisees are the official interpreters of the law of Moses. So practice and obey whatever they tell you, but don’t follow their example. For they don’t practice what they teach. They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden.
“Everything they do is for show. On their arms they wear extra wide prayer boxes with Scripture verses inside, and they wear robes with extra long tassels. And they love to sit at the head table at banquets and in the seats of honor in the synagogues. They love to receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplace, and to be called ‘Rabbi.’ ”
Our conversation was both cathartic and depressing. To be able to say those things as pastors, without guilt that someone would judge us, was incredibly freeing. The realization that our kids are disconnected from and have rejected the representation of the body of Christ that we have loved, given to, and sacrificed for was incredibly daunting—and even more so the realization that we were, in many ways, responsible for their reaction. Determining what to do about our kids’ disappointment, along with that of our own, is the journey we find ourselves on.
Jesus kept his promise when he told Peter he would build his church. There’s a mystery about all this that I haven’t figured out. Why does he choose to build it through people who are broken, inconsistent, unreliable, dishonest, untrustworthy, and hurtful? If he wants to give the world a good idea about who he is and what he’s about, couldn’t he have chosen better representation?
The church of Jesus Christ has taken many forms over the centuries and across every culture. The conversation continues about what the church should be today in western culture, and new expressions of the body of Christ are emerging. I pray that my kids, and those of us who feel the way we do about “the church” but still love Jesus, can experience healing and respond anew to God’s call to be not just connected with but deeply rooted in Jesus and the church—whatever form that takes. Despite its brokenness, the church is still the environment in which God has designed for us to be spiritually formed, learn to love unconditionally, and participate in the mission of making disciples.
Each of the New Testament letters written to churches tells a story of people who love Jesus but have problems being the church. The authors write to address their specific issues and to encourage them that this life of following Jesus together is a lifelong journey—that the way of Jesus is to grab onto each other and not give up. The writer of Hebrews says it much better.
Let us hold tightly without wavering to the hope we affirm, for God can be trusted to keep his promise. Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near (Hebrews 10:23-25).