I mentioned in yesterday’s post that two books in particular have served to help me focus my discernment for ministry with folks who have been turned off by, or simply turned away from, churches.
The first of these tomes, Angry Conversations with God, is a memoir by Hollywood actress and writer Susan Isaacs. It’s a quick and fascinating read in which Isaacs chronicles her struggles with staying in relationship with God in the midst of personal and cultural stresses. Isaacs’ “Angry Conversations,” while directed at God, are really more accurately aimed at the various churches that offered hope and healing, but eventually delivered pain and distress.
At the heart of Isaacs’ “Angry Conversations” is, predictably, a childhood wound. She recounts her mother telling her that nobody would ever like her if she was angry all the time. Of course, she believed and internalized that statement. And so over time she found it difficult to even like herself because of her own anger. Which cascaded into other relationships, including her relationship with God. Eventually she learns that it is her desire to shape God in her own image, to love him for what he can do for her rather than for who he is, that is the root cause of her pain.
I think for many of us, both inside and outside the church, some sort of wound like that exists. In whatever form it takes, it causes us to distrust ourselves and distrust others, because we somehow never really believe that we deserve happiness.
And if you don’t think you deserve happiness, it’s very, very difficult to accept grace. Even from God. If you never see the best in yourself, you’ll never see it in others. And, if you expect God to fix your unhappiness problem and he doesn’t, you begin to distrust even him.
Every relationship, in some way then, is primed to let you down…including your relationship with the church and with God.
For many who are in that category I referred to yesterday as “de-churched,” something like this is at work. Either we grew up in a church we never really learned to trust because it never seemed to deal with our problems, or we went to a church looking for help but never received the help we expected, or the church itself was hostile to the particular issues at the heart of our unhappiness problem.
Which brings me to the second book.
The Prodigal God by Timothy Keller is perhaps the single best exposition I’ve ever encountered on what the Gospel actually is in all its fullness (beyond the “believe in Jesus so you can go to Heaven when you die” gospel most of us grew up with). Keller uses the familiar story of the Prodigal Son from Luke 15, and peels back the layers of it to reveal the entire scope of the Biblical narrative in 22 verses.
Those of us who identify with the idea of being “de-churched” will, most likely, find ourselves in the younger son, who flees his home in search of something better, but never finds it.
But Keller has amazing insights for us regarding the older son, the one who stays home and is loyal, but ends up bitter and resentful of his father’s generosity when the younger son returns.
Jesus directed the character of the older son at the Pharisees, the religious leaders of the time who advocated strict adherence to moral and religious codes. What Jesus so brilliantly reveals, and Keller exposes, is that the Pharisees’ “love” for God was really only to serve themselves. They performed good deeds so that God would notice them and reward them. They shunned those who failed to live up to their moral standards in order to maintain their sense of superiority in the eyes of God.
Love that seeks to serve self, though, is not real love.
It’s tempting, if you find yourself in that category of “de-churched” (or maybe, like me, “recovering de-churched”) to say, “YES! Exactly! That’s why I don’t want anything to do with churches! They are self-serving, their love is really for themselves and they only extend it to me for what I can do for them!”
And in many cases, you’d be right.
But that gets us to the meat of the question I posted yesterday: Can you be part of THE church (the Body of Christ) without being part of A church (a particular organization)?
Keller’s conclusion, and I believe the conclusion Jesus leads us to in the story of the Prodigal and the entire sweep of scripture, is, in essence, “No.”
That’s a hard answer for many of us in the de-churched community to hear. We desperately want to find a way to connect to Jesus without having to deal with the baggage of churches. We want to be “spiritual, but not religious.”
But you can’t fully engage Jesus on your own. It requires community. That may or may not look like the traditional organized churches we’re all familiar with, but it is inescapable. And community requires people. And people are messed up, flawed, broken.
My hope is for those experiencing disdain for churches is that you will find a community of believers that helps you see God for who he is, not who you want him to be, and to discover a joy that transcends whatever circumstances burden you in your life. Find people to help you forgive the churches that have damaged you. Find spiritual guides to help you connect to communities that value the fullness of the Gospel.
And my hope for our churches is that we will stop preaching a Gospel based on what God can do for you, and instead help people discover the transcendent experience of the fullness of God’s love.
And my prayer is that all of us, together, learn to accept that love for what it is, to love God for God’s sake and not our own sake, and to respond with the same kind of love for one another.