Lonely In a (Church) Crowd

If the world can be a lonely place, it can be at its loneliest in a church. Through the years I have had conversations more than once with those who, like me, have  experienced this first hand. With the advent of the evangelical ultra, super, gigachurch (that’s actually a term), the loneliness experienced only gets more pronounced. When church feels like an airport terminal, and everyone but you has somewhere to go, the feeling of being alone is intensified.

But big churches don’t have a corner on that. It can be that way in any church. Humans tend to flock to groups or cliques according to their pecking order in the social hierarchy. All sorts of unspoken social rubrics come into play, and for an outsider, for someone who doesn’t understand the rules, there isn’t much you can do to find a place to fit in. After a while, you become truly invisible, like the pews or the table with promotional brochures in the lobby.

I’ve written before about how the shiny people, as I call them, the “high capacity”, attractive and talented ones set the rules. As newcomers, they are actively pursued. Pastors love seeing this type come in the door. After giving up hope long ago about ever fitting in, I have watched these dynamics at work for years. At one church Tom and I visited several years ago, the Corvette-driving flashy man who was the pastor greeted us warmly at the door. I call these the “all teeth and hair types” who have enormous, attractive smiles and great hair (I laughed  out loud typing that, because there isn’t always the hair), but their eyes are roving around at the door after church, even as they shake your hand, looking for more exciting prospects to pursue. If you’re looking for exciting, Tom and I don’t cut it!

But it isn’t always the pastor’s fault. (Nothing wrong with Corvettes if your ministerial salary runs to that, I guess), because church is far more than the man in the pulpit. That’s what I wanted to write about today.

I found myself in a new church recently. It was a very small congregation, very small, as in about 30 people all told. After the service, I was about to leave when an older lady who had caught my eye during the handshake portion came up to me and invited me to come back to the fellowship hall for coffee. I was surprised. I’ll be honest, I was pleased at the invite.

I sat down at a table with about 7 others, all of them a good 20 years older than me. Quite frankly, I felt very much at home with them. I explained that I had hearing loss and might have to have something repeated (room noise makes it a lot worse), and they all laughed and said they did also. We sat and chatted for a while, the lady who invited me kindly included me in the conversation.

When I finally got up to leave, she asked me for my name and phone number which I gave her. It was something that is certainly a normal thing to do for any visitor, a formality  that usually happens when you fill out your name on a card. But it meant a great deal that she asked–that a human being asked.

“I hope we’ll see you again,” she said.

Why is this so difficult in churches? I have spent a lifetime in evangelical circles through the years, including my childhood, in churches of nearly every brand and description. The ones where the people themselves made an honest effort to be inclusive and interested in the stranger at their door can be counted on one hand. Everyone stays where it’s comfortable. Yes, they do.

We have no idea who is around us. Sometimes there is someone we cross paths with who is living in deep depression. They make a last trip to the surface, to use that analogy, before going under the final time.  (I could write a great deal on that topic having lost a friend to suicide.) That darkness can be so all encompassing that only a sudden encounter with the bright light of kindness can break in. Why would we not want that kindness to be extended in the house of God? Why should anyone leave a church feeling lonely?

I don’t care about how many theological symposiums, conferences, work-shops, missionary banquets, women’s retreats, men’s prayer breakfasts,  etc. etc. you want to hold in a given year. Who is lonely? Who cares that you came in the door? Who is actually coming to your church and why? If the pastor is too busy doing pastor things, surely someone in your church could be on the lookout. Right? It can sometimes be just one person who makes the difference.

That small church followed through with a phone call. The pastor wanted to know if he could do anything to help and just wanted to make contact. They have the treatment of a visitor right there. Whatever else the church might lack, it has that right.

I have a growing intolerance for churches, regardless of their doctrinal rectitude, who do not get this. I remember posting the sermon clip from Richard Owen Roberts a while back. “No man cares for my soul.” He tells of the loveless churches we have today, and how in Wheaton, Illinois, a simple invitation from his wife to an international student there at Wheaton College saved him from a planned suicide. A simple invitation to lunch and conversation.

If you don’t care for the humans you encounter in your church, why would you care about anybody outside of your church? And if you don’t care about them physically, why would you care about their souls? Answer: Most Christians don’t care about either. I know, because I have experienced it myself.

Nothing I’ve said here is unique or original, but it’s what’s on my heart and mind today. Don’t talk about the love of God in your church if you have no intention of showing it.

Stop Enabling Bad Churches

Over the years, I’ve noted that not enough has been written on the topic of Bad Church Enablers. Much is available on enablers of dysfunctional and abusive people in family relationships, but not so much has been written about those who enable and support churches that have an established pattern of injuring church members–not the shiny people, but the little people who always end up getting hurt. There is a time to pray and stay. There’s also a time to head for the parking lot one last time and hit the gas without looking back.

If your church’s inner workings have more in common with an organized crime family, with circles of secrecy, political maneuvering as a matter of practice, free speech crackdowns driven by paranoia and so on, it just may be time to find the exit sign. If the ongoing climate at your church is a foretaste of hell with defrauding, injustice,  lying,  backstabbing, betrayal and eternal conflict, what in the world is the point? Do you seriously think God is going to allow any of that into heaven? Seek peace, and if you can’t find that in a Christian church, of all places, than head for the door.

Those who stay and keep these temples of doom afloat are part of the problem. You pave the way for others to be injured by staying and supporting a  church that refuses to address sin in a biblical manner. They never get away with it, and the conflict always follows the corruption. Always. Sin’s cancer grows and metastasizes in these places. It gets in the spiritual lymph system and ultimately kills whatever good there is.

Corrupt churches are the hallmark of our bleak times, and leadership policy and practice not based in the Scriptures quickly creates a spiritual destruction machine that takes in Christ’s sheep at one end and spits out their bleeding remains from the other. That is not too extreme a picture. Bullies, frauds, the entitled, the power hungry and their self-serving followers would soon find themselves with a much reduced ability to harm others if the good people, God’s true people, removed themselves from the seats and drove away once and for all.



When Pulpits Loomed Large

german-pulpit.jpgTom, I and our 11-year-old William attended an organ concert yesterday afternoon at the historic Trinity Lutheran Church in downtown Milwaukee. Built in 1878, the old church still has all the original pews and pulpit and flooring. (Charles Spurgeon was in the prime of his ministry across the Atlantic when this church was built.) It is one of the most gorgeous and acoustically perfect churches in the city with a marvelous old organ.

We went to hear a renowned organist from Germany, Uwe Karsten Groß, and it was a lovely hour and a half. We arrived early, uncertain of available seating but we were the first ones there. Tom met a music colleague, Dr. John Behnke, from Concordia University Wisconsin, and Dr. Behnke graciously took us upstairs to the organ loft to meet Professor Groß. William, who is a serious piano student and aspiring organist, was thrilled to have him explain the pipes and the stops and demonstrate the various colors of the organ’s sound. What a treat.

As we sat waiting for the concert to begin, we noticed the huge old German-style pulpit that felt like it loomed out over the congregation. The pastor would ascend the pulpit from a little staircase at the back. Above the pulpit is a little roof designed underneath in the shape of a shell to help spread the sound of the pastor’s voice long before microphones and speakers existed. The photo on this post is a similar design from another German church. (See photo of Trinity in comment section.)

“Imagine preaching Dr. Seuss from that pulpit,” Tom commented. His reference to Dr. Seuss comes from a very bad experience we once had at a church Thanksgiving service where a young pastor got up in the pulpit and began his sermon with the words from Green Eggs and Ham. We consider it a low water mark in our church experiences. I have been thinking this morning about Tom’s remark and how apt it was. The pulpit at Trinity was dominant in the church because it represented the dominance of the preaching of the Word. The early Lutherans (and, of course, conservative Lutherans today) very much believed in the preeminence of the Word of God, and even their architecture spoke of it.

What a serious matter it is for a man to ascend into a pulpit and minister the Word of God to a congregation. How could any pastor view his role with anything but holy fear and trembling when you consider what an awesome thing it is to pastor a flock of Christ’s sheep? When I read of Scottish preacher Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s weeping before the Lord over the names on the church roll, it makes me glad for the people that were under his care. M’Cheyne understood what so few pastors today understand—it is a holy calling, and it should be carried out with intense prayer.

We live in an age when a rebellious church is being pastored by equally rebellious pastors, men who are stained by the world and the flesh and who care only about their own temporal, numerical success. They use the name of Jesus, but desecrate it by disobeying the commands of Christ. It is a time of wandering for many serious believers who find themselves without an earthly shepherd, and without a congregation of like-minded believers in some parts of the country. Many long for a day once again when the pulpit looms large in our churches; when pastors have utter confidence in the power of God’s Word to change hearts and lives. We long to see faith in action, answers to prayer and souls converted by the power of the Gospel.

When I find such a pastor’s ministry, I always feel tears prick my eyes. Here’s another that hasn’t bowed his knee to church-growth Ba’al! May God give us many more.