My post, Lonely in a (Church) Crowd, clearly hit a nerve. There is no question that there is a problem with this issue in churches today. In this follow-up post, I wanted to address a few things based on messages and comments I have received.
My own experiences with this problem, as everyone’s experiences are, are made up of a unique history and set of circumstances. I do bring to the subject matter, due to my age, more than a little experience. I have a lifetime of living this, including those experiences of my childhood in various churches, and also the added insights gained by talking with countless people through my 23 years in Christian radio. I know that which I am addressing.
There are some things I am not saying in my comments about the subject. I received a message from a new church elder from a denomination I am personally familiar with. The message, in essence, put blame and responsibility on me, dismissed the importance of what I mentioned and then went a step farther to say that Tom and I should start a home church, so the imperfections of the average church wouldn’t make their way in. It was pure sarcasm, of course. Duly noted. (I would add that this man has no knowledge of my husband or me and our lives.)
So what wasn’t I saying in my first post? I wasn’t saying that churches must reach a state of perfection before they are good enough for me or others. Hardly. I do have a problem with a church where a pastor’s wife can walk up to tithing members of many years and ask them their names and if they are visiting. (True story from a family member.) I do have a problem with churches where people shuffle in, week in and week out, nodding politely at people whose names they don’t even know, and that’s OK with them. For decades.
I do have a problem with pastors (or elders) who can make trips for the sake of teaching those in other states or countries and yet seem unable to drive 2 minutes down the road to visit those with clear spiritual struggles, or just visit them at all. There isn’t much glory in that kind of thing, visiting those who can’t do much for you. It is, however, where real ministry begins.
I have a problem with loveless places of worship and loveless faces, and women who can talk endlessly with their BFF’s, while all the stranger gets is the sight of their backs in the Narthex (lobby, or whatever you call it in your church.)
I also have a problem with elders like the one who wrote who dismiss, callously, the concerns of a Christian woman like me who writes of something that is a reality, a tragic reality, for many. What’s missing? Loving concern. It’s amazing how far that goes in staunching the bleeding in hearts, it’s amazing how that balm of kindness can heal wounds. Suggesting that it is a woman thing, with hysterical females sobbing into their hankies at not being liked, is exactly the spirit that drives many from the church entirely. And I have another bit of news: The experiences I have written about are not just those of women, as evidenced by the comments on social media to this article and here at the blog. I spoke with someone last week who described the treatment her husband receives from others in the church. They’ve been there for several years, but he’s quiet and humble. The kind nobody notices or bothers with. No, it is not just women experiencing the problem in churches that are too busy with their church programs, activities, etc. to notice their own right in front of them.
It’s a lack of love. That’s the real problem. Not public relations or manipulation towards the end of membership growth, but love. That kind of love has to be placed in hearts by God, the one supposedly being worshiped in church each Sunday. If you can’t reflect that in the house of God of all places, something is terribly off.
Additionally, for those who recommend trying to find others in the same boat within a church, that’s one suggestion, and a good one. But realize that not everyone is equipped physically or emotionally or spiritually to continue to try in the face of ongoing failure to break in. Some will just give up.
I always believed that “church” was supposed to mean more than an hour on Sunday morning, a brief crush in a crowded hallway and then the car. A family should mean more than that, or am I wrong? After the preaching of the Word, shouldn’t it mean relationships, shared burdens, shared rejoicing over things, a place to serve and a place to find help when you are in need? If so, than why are so many not finding that?
Anyone can slide in and out of a pew or seat each week. Whether “church” in the fullest sense goes beyond that takes more than a lonely person wishing things were otherwise. I commend those with the tenacity to keep trying. Not everyone can do that. Do we care about those who can’t or even recognize them?
The elder who wrote to me insisted that “Word and Sacrament” were all that was needed. Stuff and mortify your hurt and shut up. But Word and Sacrament are given in a context. When that context is unloving, uncaring, and it functions like an assembly line in a factory, (here’s Communion, you’re good to go for another week) when Christ’s love for us is the whole point of the Sacred Meal, you create stumbling blocks spiritually. Rather than open hearts to God’s Word, you shut them down. The elder who wrote to me doesn’t have to like that fact, but it’s the truth. And God help those in clerical clothes and professing Christian leaders who put stumbling blocks where there don’t have to be any.
A lack of love is the hallmark of our dark times. It’s no surprise that the church is this way as well, as it seems to take its clues from the culture, rather than from the Scriptures. And yes, Orthodoxy is crucial, but putting that into practice in our lives is where ministry begins.
We can only try to run counter to that spirit in how we treat those we meet in a church and out of it, for those who have no church. Program heavy institutions calling themselves “churches” can do what they want. The real ministry of the church – meaning the people – is still one on one, person to person, in good times and bad. God seems to be using many of us outside the institutional church in various ways. Small lights out there where there aren’t any. And it’s a shame that these things even have to be said. Consider it said.