Since I read Whitney Capps blog post about a week ago, I have wanted to write a response to it. If you haven’t read her post, follow the link and read it first. “An Open Letter to All the People Writing Open Letters About What is Wrong With the Church.”
It’s taken me a while to figure out how to clearly state and address my issues with Capps post in a productive manner. On the one hand, I understand where Whitney Capps is coming from. The church needs its defenders, and it needs to defend itself against an age that feeds off of pessimism and scandal. But the fragility she assigns to the church’s reputation, and the us versus them mentality she spins her whole argument out of, seems a bit off point.
The church could always use positive exposure as opposed to yet another negative gripe. And certainly complaining about something is the least productive way of fixing it. Still, the manner in which she approaches a very real issue for many young Christians is callous if not caviler. To be sure, the people she finds herself in opposition against could very easily be accused of the same thing. Capps calls them “spoiled, selfish, uneasily satisfied, hypercritical, consumeristic and socially enlightened but biblically light-weight.” And that’s where this leaves us, Christians at odds with each other.
Much of the bible deals with Christians at odds with each other. We forget that. We forget, for example that Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, and other epistles specifically as guidance in dealing with these situations. If you know little about the historical Church of Corinth, I encourage you to look it up, as I encourage you to revisit the book of 1 Corinthians.
The thing is, as much as any of us would like to believe that the debates centered on the church are new, it’s been going on since before us selfish millennials became the problem.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not dismissing the issue as something that has always been a problem and will never be fixed. Undoubtedly, it needs to be fixed, and it is our job to fix it. Really, all I’m trying to say is the problem is less than simple. Fixing it is less than simple.
The main purpose of Whitney Capps blog post is to tell people to stop writing open letters about the Church, to stop airing their dirty laundry on social media, so to speak, about negative experiences they have had at church institutions1. Her fear is that these letters give the Church2 a bad rap and wound the leaders of ministries everywhere, harming the Church as a whole.
(1church institutions referring to the local, physical building and assembly, 2Church referring to the unified Body of Christ that is all believers)
While it is hard for me to see how any individual at any given local church can be offended by someone blasting on Facebook or Twitter that women’s ministries these days are too old fashioned (unless names are named), it is easy to see how the complaints of most of these letters seem petty and capricious. Capps catalogues a list of common complaints about local churches that can be found on almost any social media site:
The ladies ministry is too old-fashioned, and yet the worship is too flashy and fake. The pastor doesn’t use enough technology, and yet he’s trying too hard to be relevant and contemporary. The Church is too inwardly focused, yet not focused enough on your needs.
To be sure, these are shallow and seemingly contradictory complaints. And at first glance, they seem like issues of mere preference. It sounds like people are saying, “I’d prefer a church that does this…” or “I’d prefer my church to not do this…” The problem with dismissing these letters as petty criticisms is the fact that most people, especially young people, don’t spend half a second, yet alone the time it takes to write a well-planned, multipage letter, about an issue of mere preference. If the issue didn’t matter to them, they wouldn’t be writing about it. We can assume then, that for at least some of the people that write and share these open letters, it’s coming from a place of importance.
I’m not saying that churches need to try and accommodate every piece of advice or every gripe that is out there. It is never the place for a church to simply accommodate people or fads (that would be easier than what the Church’s real responsibility is). I’m advocating that local churches, that the body of Christ that is the Church, actually listen to these complaints. Don’t take the attitude of Whitney Capps’ blog post and admit that you’re not impartial, that you probably don’t give these grievances and their arguers the benefit of the doubt. Listen to them. Not to the words they are saying, not to the shallow list of tangibles they are trying to identify as the issue, but the underlying issues that have caused them real pain.
Understand that, like any argument between people, arguments and complaints about churches usually have nothing to do with the initial complaint. In fact, most people don’t even honestly know exactly why they are mad or hurt by in the first place. This doesn’t mean that their isn’t a good reason, it just means they haven’t been able to put it into words yet. Which is why people grasp at the first thing that comes to mind.
Don’t dismiss them as petty, stupid arguments. Don’t do what comes easily and start calling names or tell them to shut up. And don’t play the victim card and explain how much it hurts you and the church for them to be saying and doing what they are saying and doing. No one likes friends or loved ones to tell them that their feelings are invalid. We especially don’t like being called “spoiled, selfish, uneasily satisfied, hypercritical, consumeristic…” If you want to prove my point, try using any of these terms in your next argument with your spouse or best friend and see where that leads you.
We have to respect the fact that if the argument process is good for anything, it’s a good (and sometimes) healthy way to identify real underlying issues. Of course, it’s usually only healthy if both sides argue in a mature manner.
I’m not saying that social media is the best format to have an argument. It’s not. But it is a place that people go to vent and to receive comfort, so the desire to post a heartfelt gripe online, at the very least, makes sense in explaining why people do it.
We all know that a couple that brushes their issues aside instead of talking about them, at the very least, never deals with them, and at the most, creates an unbearably toxic environment to live in.
Our relationship with our individual churches and the Body of Christ (which is the Church), is no different. Except we need to remember that we aren’t arguing with or against someone. Strictly speaking, as the body of Christ, we are arguing with ourselves. To not listen then, seems much more absurd. (Refer to 1 Corinthians 12:20-27)
So what are these “petty complaints” really about? I can’t speak for everyone, but some of these complaints seem to stem from not being able to build meaningful and lasting relationships at church. Many people leave churches (not necessarily the Church) because they don’t feel welcomed, accepted, or useful; or even worse, they are told that they aren’t accepted or are marginalized.
Capps list of grievances all sound like ways of saying I don’t feel like I matter. Granted none of these complaints are the best way to voice these feelings, but they sound eerily similar to “you always leave the toilet seat up,” “you never recap the toothpaste” or “you never help me with the dishes.”
We all need to feel like we matter. For Christians, we know that we matter to God, but we still need to know that we matter to each other. Our churches are broken not because we complain too much, but because, as a whole, we don’t prove to one another that we matter to each other. We create factions. We create us vs them mentalities. We focus on how much we do and not how much someone else does for us. Worst of all, we tend to do things without the most important ingredient.
Now, I’m going to reference probably to most cited and recited chapter of the bible here, not because it’s the only part of the bible that I know, but because it’s entirely key to this discussion, and it leaves both sides of the issue with an overwhelmingly heavy responsibility.
1 Corinthians 13, talks about love. Mostly people apply this chapter to individuals, but Paul wrote it in address to the Church (notice I use the capital C). He states:
1Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. 2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing. 4 Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; 5 does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; 6 does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; 7 bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8 Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part. 10 But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away. 11 When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known. 13 And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
Churches and people can do great things. There can be great revivals and movements in churches, but without love, the worship and sermons are nothing but flash, the pastor is trying too hard but comes off fake, and/or the church is too self-centered but not focused on its members’ needs…
Love is the greatest responsibility of the Body of Christ. Notice, I didn’t say it was the greatest gift. We don’t merely gift it or receive love, it’s our responsibility. Everything we do must be done in love.
This means that when we step into a church, we have the responsibility to step into that place with love and an open heart. If we go to a church (building/assembly) but don’t go with love, if we show up with no desire or motivation to build relationships with the people there, we’re nothing but an obnoxious, out of tune noise and we’re better off not being there. If our hearts aren’t right every Sunday, we have the responsibility to set them right instead of bring others down. Disgruntled Christians, if we are truly part of the Body, this means us too. Maybe the issue isn’t just the churches we left, but the way we entered those doors to begin with.
Likewise, if a church leads a ministry, no matter how grand or momentous, without love, it’s nothing but noise. Noise is confusing. Noise is what turns people away from the Body of Christ. Noise is the true detriment to the image and reputation of the Church, not its grievances. “For God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.”(1Corithians 14:33)
If churches proceed with love and focus on building relationships, and if Christians enter these churches with love, people wont leave no matter how low the production value is, no matter how horrible the worship leader sounds, or how dilapidated the building is. However, you cant blame people for wanting to abandon institutions that greet people with an attitude of I don’t want to hear it, everything is fine and dandy for me and if you’re a true believer you wont leave because God’s work is being done here…
There is one more point I want to make in this already long blog post (I promise they will be shorter in the future). Christians aren’t the only people that show up in churches. Christians aren’t the only people that belong in churches. In fact, if a church is holding up to its responsibility to go out into the world and make Him known (Matthew 28:16-20), if a church has ministries that reach beyond serving itself, the pews and chairs should be filled with non-believers.
If this is the case, then a church must also realize that it can’t instruct people to make changes in their lives without it coming from a path first paved and tended carefully by a personal relationship. I’m not talking about the attempt to get someone’s contact information on a registry, but a genuine relationship. I strongly feel many churches shortcut this step.
I know, I know, it’s easy for me to speak, after all, I am not a church leader. I’m simply speaking from what I have experienced at the churches I have been a part of, as well as what I have learned as a classroom teacher.
As a teacher, I understand that the most effective way to teach and for my students to genuinely learn is to build and foster respect, a respect based on the foundations of a relationship. I can’t just stand at the front of a room and tell my students what they need to know or do. Genuine learning doesn’t happen by threats or consequences. It is my job to show my students that I care about them. I can’t do this by simply telling them that I care, I have talk to them, understand things about them, allow them to speak, to share, to question and to be themselves.
Loving churches and loving Christians don’t write people off that they don’t agree with, they don’t assume that one’s “membership card” to the Body of Christ is revoked because they leave a church institution, rather, we pray and love and carry on even if we don’t understand their decision.
We need to remember that there are valid reasons to leave a church. People move. God moves people. This doesn’t mean that they have left the Body of Christ/ the Church. The flip side is, us disgruntled Christians need to remember that churches are a great place to build, learn and grow. They are places we can find connections and develop deep bonds and relationships with other Christians.
Lastly, it’s also important to acknowledge that there are good and bad church institutions. Churches make themselves known by their fruits. Certainly we agree that a church should meet intellectual as well as spiritual needs. A church should have opportunity and make effort to build relationships consistently. A church should reach beyond its four walls and the message should be love driven, not abusive, hateful or degrading in its polices or practices… surely we all know that we will be recognized by our fruits…