Love the Flawed, Faulty, Biased, Stumbling, Sinning Church

This blog is called “love the church” because I do, and also because I am one of those who is concerned that a disenchanted tidal wave of American Christianity doesn’t–and boasts of it.  I almost never write about the topic because in my twisted thinking it seems a little self-serving.  This post is an exception.

Last week on the phone, a service coordinator at a local dealership asked about the significance of my “imcontent…” email address.  I explained that it was from Phil.4:12 and quoted Paul saying he’d learned the secret of being content regardless of his circumstances.  “Must be the NIV,” the man said.  “I’m more of a King James guy myself.”  We began a conversation on the phone that continued an hour later when I picked up my car.  He’s in his 60’s and I learned he had been part of a large church in the area; had been deeply involved.  I don’t know what, but something happened that soured him.  He left the church, and hasn’t worshiped with one since.  I reminded him that what makes the church  hard sometimes is that it’s made up of sinners.  But, “It is Christ’s bride; how can you not love what He loves, and is coming back for?”  He dodged the question by mentioning that He believes the Lord will return soon.

If so, it’s during this time period more than ever that we need the church–need each other: 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 10:25, NLT).  I urged him to come worship with us some Sunday.  When he protested that we were so far from where he lived, I said, “But you drive further than that to work every day!”

Blogger Andy Love stalked out of his church too.  3 years later, he has an interesting take on what happened.  (Used by permission):

Three Things I Need to Say

September 4, 2013

I left First Baptist Church just over three years ago. I had had enough.  I was tired of inefficient committees.  I was tired of worship wars.  I was tired of what I perceived as passive leadership. I was tired of the infighting. I was tired…of the church.  To be clear, I was not just tired of FBC; rather, I was tired of the institutional church.  I grew up at a rural Baptist church in central Missouri that, while smaller, operated much like FBC, the first church I’d really planted myself in as an adult.  A bit of history might be helpful here; there are more good memories associated with the church I grew up in than I can recount, but I most closely associate it with the tumult and upheaval that prompted my family’s exit. It’s probable that the sour taste in my mouth left over from that negative experience may have subconsciously figured into my eventual exit from FBC Bolivar, but I don’t want to over-analogize the two instances.  Though I won’t go into the gory details, my family left that rural church out of necessity (and for what I believe were the right reasons). As an adult, I left my church completely on my own volition.

And it seemed right. I convinced myself  I was leaving for the right reasons. The church was the one with the problems; I was just one of the few with eyes to see them, right?  Of course, I hid my inflated sense of self in a lot of “churchspeak” that allowed me to quietly sneak out the backdoor while my mind continued cycling its laundry list of accusations and complaints on a permanent loop, my own personal negative news ticker.  Funny how my inflated sense of prophetic zeal spent more time in a self-polluting inner monologue than actually working to confront or resolve any issues, real or imagined. How noble, right?

So, off to a new church I went, a frustrated child taking his ball and going home because the game hadn’t played out to his liking. After a few weeks of searching, I landed at Freshwater Church, a new  plant in Bolivar, and by the grace of God, I didn’t poison it with my presence.  On the contrary, many of the lies I’d bit into hook, line, and sinker began to be revealed for what they were, devilish deceptions.  Through the distance obtained by leaving; the humility I gained by entering into a new fellowship of believers in which I had no preexistent identity, status, authority, or say; and a severe work of the Holy Spirit in my heart, I began to realize where my issues with my former church had originated: my own self-serving, self-glorifying, self-worshipping heart.

What I had created in my mind was a church in my own image.  I knew how it should operate; I knew how its leaders should lead; I knew how decisions should be made.  So when reality didn’t line up with my fantasy, my ego balked, my heart hardened, and I stopped seeing the church as a place where God invites us to serve one another and instead commenced to critique it through a me-centered, consumerist standard against which no institution comprised of human beings could measure up.

This time was like a rebirth.  Once I admitted this to myself and repented of my arrogance, my foolishness, my brash egotism…I could breathe again. I could pray again. I began to hunger for the word again. I began to see God’s church once again as a motley assemblage of imperfect saints drawn together not to demand their own needs be met, but rather to celebrate and model the selfless servanthood of the bridegroom, Christ, who is coming back one day to present his church, made holy and blameless through his sacrifice on the cross, to his Father.

Though I’m firmly planted in a new place now, I have since returned to worship with my former church on at least two occasions, both marked by a rekindled love for the people there, a deep and sincere respect for its leadership, and a freedom to worship that had previously been choked nigh unto to death by my own sinful pride. 

A revelation like this is a tough pill to swallow, but a beautiful thing.  Repentance is difficult act, but a beautiful thing.  However, only now, years later, am I realizing that somewhere along the way, I left out a necessary step.  I’d like to take care of that today.

Church, I’m sorry. 

There is nothing impressive about my proclamations of love for Jesus that came while lobbing stones at the church he died to save.  There is nothing impressive about it at all.  It takes little to no effort to be a fault-finder among the people of God.  If one walked into FBC, Freshwater, Southern Hills, Second Baptist, Saddleback, Mars Hill, or (insert name of any church large or small) searching for issues about which to complain, I have no doubt that person could find success quickly. 

But the Bible calls us to something far greater than finger-wagging denigration of his church, his body here on earth.  In the gospel of John, Jesus says to his disciples that the mark by which they will be defined as his body is not their high and mighty ability to condemn; no, he tells them they will be known as his by the love they bear for one another. And what is love?  As the writer says in 1 John 3:16, we come to know what love truly is by looking to the model of a man who laid down his life for imperfect people and, in turn, laying down our lives for others.  What would churches look like if we were simply too busy fulfilling this calling, laying down our very lives for one another, to even find the time to bemoan, accuse, and condemn from atop our illusory pedestals? 

This is not an easy calling; it is part of what Jesus meant when he said that as believers we follow him by taking up our cross daily, an act whose inevitable culmination is the death of our own self-worshipping hearts.  In all reality, it does at times feel much better to eschew Jesus’ command, drop the cross, give release to our own spiritual immaturities, and spew venom rather than giving grace to the church.  But, trust me, such release is a short-lived and hollow pleasure. 

Derek Webb, an artist I often find to be one of the most prophetic voices of our time, recently released a new album whose title track has been on a constant loop in my head for the last 24 hours. Webb, whose history with the evangelical church is an interesting one to say the least, needs only nine words of a chorus to sum up everything I now know I’ve needed to say not only to the church I left, but also the institutional church as well.  To borrow from Webb, I just have three things I want to say:

I was wrong, I’m sorry…and I love you.


Home for Sinners

I’m sure you think of yourselfdeanna-ballman-ftr as a sinner.  But do you think of yourself as a sinner that’s as bad as others?  Are/were totally lost and in need of all the gospel, or just kinda lost in need of a piece of it?  Did you need some makeup, or a total makeover?  Pastor Randy Pope (Perimeter Church, Atlanta) wonders, did all of Adam’s children truly lose it ALL?  He’s afraid that Eph.2:1 may be the American church’s most neglected Scripture; that we think we were just sick with sin rather than dead in it.

Last year Deanna Ballman was murdered in rural Ohio.  She’d moved there after leaving her husband in Colorado, and was trying to make ends meet for herself and her two children.  Plus she was 9 months pregnant.  The ER doctor who pled guilty to killing, raping her, and shooting her full of heroin will be sentenced later this month.  A prosecutor on the case says she needed money and in desperation had turned to prostitution.  Answering Dr. Salim’s suggestive Craigslist ad led to her death.  (Wait, have the Pharisees arrived for the jury?)

What comes to your mind when you read this?  “Well, I feel sorry for her, but she made her bed; guess she has to lay in it.”  What if there was nothing to eat in the house and hadn’t been for two days?  What would you do then?   Are you sure?  “She should have never left her husband”.  Maybe he beat her.  Would you stay?  Or expect your daughter to?  “She should have asked the church for help.”  Maybe she did and was turned down.  Most churches have fairly strict policies about strangers and money, or giving money more than once when they have no relationship with the person.

There’s a nice blank triangle over the entrance to our worship center that I think would be a great spot to declare “Home for Sinners”.  Wouldn’t it be great for people outside to learn that people inside believe that they too are sinners?

Although otherwise completely human, Jesus didn’t have the parity with sinners that I do.  Yet His compassion is obvious with all kinds of people: the floozy Samaritan woman at the well; the cheating wife the Pharisees used to try and label Jesus as anti-law, the spoiled, calculating, wealthy noble who refused to part with his money.  The soldiers in the shadow of His cross.  If the sinless Son of God was kind and patient with sinners, how can someone like me who is a veteran at saying “Yes!” to temptation, who knows the broken sorrow of falling short of what I planned–and God desires, have the audacity to look down on others–who also sin?  Embrace, love, help, forgive, care for them.  We were once them.

No Flight for Anger

Storch attackiert Auto(courtesy Spiegel Online)

The town’s residents have dubbed him “Mr. Adeba” but this angry white stork is wearing out his welcome in northern Germany.  With his long hard beak he (or she; males are usually larger but look exactly like females) has done thousands of dollars of damage to local vehicles.  A Mr. Werth said he chased it away from his car only to have it turn on his neighbor’s car.  One woman awoke to find him banging wildly on her screen door.

Local officials say they’ve got no solution but to endure until it’s time to migrate.

Angry birds might leave at the end of the season but angry people rarely do.  For large or small reasons, real or imagined slights, people with hot tempers live among others like ticking time bombs waiting for the next detonator.  Those in their circles learn to choose their words carefully, eliminate problems that could begin a countdown, and avoid antagonizing words or behaviors.  That those around them must walk on eggshells is OK with angry people because compliance with their own desires is their greatest lust.  If that takes intimidation, so be it.

Researchers blame a particular version of the dopamine-producing gene DARPP-32 for elevated levels of anger and aggression.  But they caution that only about half of our reactions can be blamed on genetics.  The remaining half is in our hands.

Trailing behind angry people is a toxic sludge of crime, fear and unpleasantness oozing across the social landscape.  Following a recent NFL game, a male Jets fan slugged a female Patriot’s fan after the Jets’ win.  A week later a Chinese immigrant in NYC murdered a mother and her four young children because he envied her success in this country.  A man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God requires but it’s sure effective at starting a fight, encouraging abuse, demeaning others, leading to murder, and prompting people to swear and scream.

None of us are immune.  Everyone has an anger button that will be pushed if conditions are right.  Why?  Especially if we don’t have that toxic gene?  Those habitually angry often have roots that started growing in their formative years.  If, for example, a child is coddled and given everything he wants by indulgent parents, there’s going to be a blowup when his wife fails to act like his parents did.  Or, the girl who grew up with insecurities common to those denied love by absent parents, may demand it from everyone around her and lash out when she thinks it’s in short supply.  Children who were abused, abandoned–even adopted can grow up with an anger complex rooted in pain, sorrow or confusion about events and conditions of their childhood.

Some anger is good.  The apostle Paul was angry with the Corinthian Christians at being taken in by a group of “superapostles” who were not sent by God.  Jesus was so angry at the marketing to–and cheating of–pilgrims at the temple that he drove the violators out with whip in hand.  After reading the evidence Thomas Clarkson had accumulated against Britain’s slave trade, an angry William Wilberforce fought against the abomination in parliament for 20 years and finally defeated it.  God’s wrath at man’s rebellion is not due to a bad gene or character flaw in Him: it’s the only possible manifestation of His holiness towards mankind’s sin.

But human history has devoted far fewer pages to “noble” anger than its distant–and much more common cousin–selfish anger.  Which surfaced early.  After learning that God accepted his brother’s sacrifices and not his, Cain murdered his brother in a jealous rage.

By selfish anger I mean getting upset with someone or a situation because things aren’t going my way.

“I can’t believe you did that!!”

“Don’t ever try that again!!”

“You make me so mad!!”

In fact, scratch the yelling, cursing, abuse, taunting, and crimes committed in anger deeply enough, and that’s what we’ll find at the bottom: “I can’t have it that I can’t have my way.”  In other words, like all sins, anger’s foundation is pride.  It was true of Cain, Esau, Ahab, Haman, Jonah, and a billion offenders like you and me since.  (Some of the angriest people are not explosive, but quietly seethe.  Like the exploders, they too are upset that things don’t go the way they know they should.)

An angry person can now actually take a course on anger management (or just watch the movie!).  And with determination and practice, anyone can change their angry habits to some extent.  But the rich, life-giving and liberating work that can actually soften an angry man’s typical reactions–or bring more peace to a volatile woman when her plans are interrupted by someone or something, is done at the heart level where a person begins to accept the rule of a sovereign God who loves His children and this world, and has our good at heart.  If I can relinquish the demand that life must unfold according to my wants and be content with an fully engaged Ruler whose plan might deviate from mine, I can increasingly react with peace instead of anger.  Abandoning the lust to make sure certain things happen and others don’t is not a loss of power, but an embrace of God’s power and His right to exercise it.

Remember the things I have done in the past.
For I alone am God!
I am God, and there is none like me.
10 Only I can tell you the future
before it even happens.
Everything I plan will come to pass,
for I do whatever I wish.
11 I will call a swift bird of prey from the east—
a leader from a distant land to come and do my bidding.
I have said what I would do,
and I will do it.   
Isaiah 46:9-11