Yesterday I visited you. You welcomed me in the same way as always. Cheerful people, the senior lady who truthfully told me she was praying for me and gave me a word of encouragement, the look of a clean facility that was well run and well maintained. Your landscaping reminded me of the beauty of those little flowers cropping up on the side of your building, and the warm sense of music completely filled the sanctuary. Here I am among friends. Here I am fully able to be myself. Here I feel whole and complete. Well, at least most of the time that’s how I feel. Then there are other times when I feel that I could never truly let the real me show. My own struggles and vulnerabilities. My own defaults and disasters. My own doubts and disillusionments. I am, after all, employed by you. I am there to be a guide, a shepherd, and a leader – the one meant to offer healing, not the one in need of healing. I know that at the core, that’s my own pride talking. In the words of author Esther Fleece, I do not have to continue “faking fine” but sometimes it sure feels like I do.
I decided to pose this open question both to my Christian and non-Christian friends alike. To Saints, Seekers, and Skeptics: “How would you answer the following question: Dear Church, I Love You But…” Here are a few responses that stood out to me – not because of their scholarly content, but because of their rawness. Not because of their nerdy appeal, but because of their honesty. For these are exactly the very things I have said myself about you, but never had the courage to address until just now.
Dear Church, I love you, but I wish Jesus would feel welcomed here. Nearly every church I have ever attended claims to be “welcoming and inclusive”, but I have learned that is rarely the case. Being an inclusive church is oftentimes more messy and requires more work and a greater commitment. So, there are times when people who don’t fit into a certain mold, stand out because they realize they will never be part of that mold. I grew up in the church so I’ve always felt that I fit in. In fact, like most Christian kids, I can more easily and readily connect to other Christians than to “people on the outside.” However, in recent weeks I’ve been learning how much of Christian culture is simply that – culture. Not something directly addressed in the Bible, but things we have picked up and now hold as sacred. That’s not all bad, but, we do need to become mindful of clichés and acronyms we use that keep people out.
When Jesus walked this earth He told His disciples that whoever welcomes a prisoner, a sick person, a beggar, or a child, welcomes Him. What do all four of these people have in common? They were considered nothing within that society. Therefore, any church that welcomes someone without pretense, without any investment in what they could possibly get from that person (time, money, other donations, credibility), welcomes Him. Today, there are many churches that are welcoming just such individuals, but there are many more that keep those same people at a distance – people with developmental disabilities and mental illnesses, people so trapped in their addictions that they have destroyed their lives and their families, people who are petty thieves or sex offenders, people who have made bad choices and taken wrong turns or simply people who have been the recipients of others’ bad choices and wrong turns. It makes us uncomfortable to get out of our comfort zone, but that’s exactly what Jesus tells us to do. He was, after all, an itinerant preacher, a common business man, a man with radically upsetting theological viewpoints at times, and a refugee. But we often forget those aspects of Him in favour of our Sunday School version of a blonde hair and blue-eyed North American Jesus who looks exactly just like us. So, dear Church, I pray that you may one day come to the place where people are welcomed and valued for who they are, even when you disagree with their lifestyle choices. That you may one day endeavour to truly be a welcoming space where the shouts and noise of children are welcomed. A place where the poor worship alongside the rich and think nothing of it. A place where everyone’s gifts are equally valued regardless of how insignificant those gifts may be, because often it is in the least of these gifts, that we truly find the greatest reward.
Dear Church, I love you but I wish you wouldn’t fear people’s faults.
I once asked a good friend with relatively little Christian background or influence what she thought was the biggest thing a church could do to become more welcoming. Without a moment’s hesitation, she responded “don’t fear people’s faults.” This short phrase has stuck with me ever since. There is a temptation in churches to be a bit “fake.” I’m not saying that churchy people aren’t genuine and sincere, but they often can’t get to the depth of what is truly troubling them for fear that they may be considered an inferior Christian. I remember in my late teens and early twenties struggling with severe depression and being told common clichés like “just pray more” or even “how can you be so selfish when there are children a world over starving.” I was taught to bury these emotions because good Christians, and good pastors, never doubt the goodness of God “God is good all the time, all the time God is good.” Or as Kutless says in their new song King of my Heart, “You’re never gonna let, never gonna let me down.” But what about the times when God DID let us down? That divorce? That death? That betrayal of trust? That broken friendship? That abuse? That thing that happened to us of which we had no control over and that we never deserved? Wars and famines around the world? Do you really think people in Syria or in Egypt truly believe that God has NEVER let them down? Do you really believe the woman who got pregnant at 19 not by choice but because of an abusive relationship really believes that was God’s design for her life?
When I think of my own faults, of which there are plenty, I am thankful that I have met many wonderful Christian people who have always loved me even despite my mistakes and failures. But I have also become distressed by a church that expects certain things of me just because of my educational background and professional experience in ministry. I truly pray that the church would come to accept people regardless of their backgrounds and to see those as possible assets that build up the church, rather than that detract from it.
Dear Church, I love you, but I wish you would stop trying to be the State.
When I posted this question to Facebook, it reached friends from literally all over the world – most notably the US and the UK. Both of these countries have a somewhat tighter understanding of Christendom than Canada does, however, in many Western countries, matters of State because matters of theology. Take, for example the legalization of marijuana – something I myself have not yet come to a conclusive decision about. So many churches have created this mindset that because it once was illegal it is therefore “sinful” but is that truly the case? The Bible does not ever speak of marijuana or drugs at all for that matter (at least in the conventional sense of how we understand them today). We become so fixated on a certain topic, lobbying the government for change when really – to the best of my knowledge anyways, God has called church and state to be two separate entities. This doesn’t mean that Christians should not become involved in politics. I believe it is a wise and responsible choice for Christians to be informed of what is happening locally and globally and to work for change in different ways – nevertheless, I wish the church would resist the idea that we have to be a “mini-state” and instead go back to what the word Christian actually means and just focus on becoming “mini-Christs”.
Dear Church, I love you, but I wish you would stop being so fixated on marriage.
I get it. We need marriage and families in order to continue to keep our church functioning. Children and youth are the very lifeblood of the church and those we need to train to take the gauntlet of leadership for the next generation. I am also pro-marriage. I hold a traditional view of marriage that maintains it as a sacred institution, even despite a society that often opts to live together – to receive all the privileges of matrimony without any apparent level of commitment. Nevertheless, I have been getting frustrated recently over how the church responds to anyone over the age of 25 who is still single. There are many benefits to the single life and in many ways I believe my singleness permits me to give more readily to the church than in marriage. In fact, the Bible itself says that if someone is single their responsibility and devotion is to things of the Lord, but the person who is married is primarily responsible for his or her own family first and thus must learn to balance family life with things of the Lord. In fact this passage even uses the phrase “his interests are divided” (1 Corinthians 7:34). I’ve alluded to this in many other posts, but the Bible actually has a very high regard for singles. It says that some people are born “single” (perhaps because of a disability or a natural temperament that better suits them to singlehood), others were made single because of circumstances beyond their control, and still others choose to become single in order to better glorify God and build up the Kingdom (Matthew 19:12). Think of the Biblical examples of Paul, Jesus, and even Anna – all of who were single for different reasons, but who ministered to God in incredible ways because of their singleness. Think as well about missionaries such as Elizabeth Elliot (single by widowhood) or Helen Roseveare (never married) who also served God on the field by not being constrained by marriage or family life. The Bible actually never says anything negative about singlehood, despite being in a culture where marriage and family were the norm and in which Hellenistic literature at the time stated that the only thing worse than unbelief was to never be married. Therefore, I find within Christianity as it is to be properly understood a great respect and freedom for those who will not or cannot get married. Unfortunately, the church post-Luther has lost this very gift. It has instead chosen a path of toting marriage as an ideal and viewing singles as “less than.” It has become preoccupied with an unrealistic expectation to get married and start a family young. It has not learned to properly reach out to and equip singles – not to match make, but simply to be present with. It has not, for the most part, come to a conclusive and helpful way to properly minister to those who now find themselves single a second time after divorce or death.
Dear Church, I love you dearly. I am glad to have grown up knowing you and I am thankful that Christ married you forever. But, dear Church, I also pray that you may one day accept the full reality of who Jesus is calling you to be. I pray that you may become a safe haven where everyone is welcomed and included. Where people are greeted with a sincerity and warmth that truly pulls them in, rather than pulls them away. That people will be built up in your midst, rather than torn apart. I pray that you may become a place where you live in opposition to the systemic structures that are put in place and instead model a level of servanthood and humility that the world needs to see. I pray that you may live differently and counter-culturally rather than giving in to the whims and debates that currently swirl around our world. I pray that you may accept singles in the same way you accepted marrieds. That you would accept teen moms in the same way as you accept long-lasting marriages. And I pray that just like the words of the old traditional song, people would come to know that we belong to you, that we are a part of you, that we are mini-Christs not by our words, our actions, our theology, or even our mission terms, but by our love.
A young twenty-something churchgoer who loves Christ, loves the fellowship of believers, and loves a church that is willing to get messy and become inclusive.