Episode 1. Why “Church” Is a Four Letter Word
A lot of people like their church and that’s great. But many, many people struggle with the whole concept of church. So much so, that many who passionately believe in Jesus, have opted out of church. And I think that that is something that’s definitely worth talking about. We weren’t made principally, to be cogs […]
A lot of people like their church and that’s great. But many, many people struggle with the whole concept of church. So much so, that many who passionately believe in Jesus, have opted out of church. And I think that that is something that’s definitely worth talking about.
We weren’t made principally, to be cogs in a production machine, you and I. We’re unique, we’re creative, we love encouragement, we love being part of something we believe in, that we value and we love it when we’re valued. But systems, cubicles, targets – they can squeeze the life out of us.
Church – A Four Letter Word
I have often thought, if I were a marketing consultant and I won a tender to run a marketing campaign to give the term ‘church’ a positive position in the contemporary mindset; the secular psyche – if I can use these words, I wonder if I would actually want the job. I mean this word ‘church’ has almost become a four letter word in society today – scandal after scandal. So many people see large parts of the church as being anachronistic, outdated, irrelevant – the vestiges of some old style religion that appear to be alive and well today.
For me, the greatest indictment of the church in my living memory has been the whole issue of child sexual abuse. It seems to spread across so many denominations and so I just don’t want to single any one of them out. And it’s not so much an issue but a string of countless thousands of cases of the most appalling abuse of position and trust imaginable. People who claim to be God’s emissaries sexually abusing children and not just children but adults too and then if that’s not terrible enough, there have been more than one or two systemic cover-ups by denominations.
I was reading a government report into this issue in one major denomination in one particular country and the report concluded that the senior levels of this church denomination had – and I quote – ‘obsessively and systematically covered up the wide-spread sexual abuse of children by its clergy for decades’. And this has happened over and over again.
You Google ‘church sexual abuse’ on the internet and, aside from the fact that you get four million hits – four million – you discover church essays, position papers, enquiries, policy papers, white papers on this whole subject. Now you may well ask, ‘Why is it that Berni rabbiting on about this? Why is he being so critical about this? Well, simply to demonstrate why this word ‘church’ has such an image problem. The easiest thing in the world is for those of us who live inside this thing called ‘church’ to completely lose sight of how people on the outside see and think about this thing we call ‘church.’
Has the whole church gone bad? Of course it hasn’t but there’s enough mud flying around for it to stick. And then there are so many other issues. The church seems to be so anti so many things – anti abortion, anti this, anti that. And please, right not I’m not making any comment or judgement about the validity or otherwise of those positions, one way or the other – that’s not the point of what I’m saying. As it turns out I have very strong views on some of these issues but it’s not the views or the beliefs that I’m talking about right now, it’s the perception of society as a whole, that this thing called ‘church’ can hold itself out to seemingly proclaim judgements on such issues when, I mean, look at the whole issue of child abuse in the church! Is it any wonder that people look at the church and think, ‘What a bunch of hypocrites?’
And then there’s a church not far from me – the denomination that lost one hundred and sixty million dollars on some bad stock market investments recently. These days there are so many Bible believing Christians having been burnt by this thing called ‘church’, they are leaving it in droves, while still hanging onto their faith in Jesus Christ. In fact, the academics are writing text books about this group of people.
Perhaps some of this is treading on some sensitive, even painful ground for someone listening today and the last thing I’m about is dragging down the church. But if you belong to God’s church – whatever denomination; whatever shape or form that takes – do you see the image problem that the church has? ‘Church’, these days, is very definitely a four letter word, out there in contemporary society. The sad thing is that so many good things are happening among this group of people we call ‘church’ around the world.
It’s not bad at all – far from it – but we live in a world today where people both inside and outside the church – many of them are struggling so deeply with what church means, what it is, what it’s supposed to be and what it achieves – that I believe we have to talk about it on this program. So that’s what we are going to be looking at over the next few weeks.
And as you may have noticed, I’m not going to pussy-foot around. Let’s call a spade a spade; let’s see things for what they are. And there’s a good reason for that because, like it or not, whatever you think about this thing called ‘church’, it is part of God’s plan and it’s something that lies at the core of God’s plan for this world – for humanity. Have a listen to what Jesus said to Peter, the Apostle. It comes from Matthew chapter 16, verse 18. He says:
I tell you, you are Peter and on this rock I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.
Jesus said that He would build His church and make her strong. God also refers to the church as His bride. Ephesians chapter 5, verses 25 to 27. If you’ve got a Bible, grab it, open it there. It says:
Husbands love your wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word and to present her to himself as a radiant church without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish but holy and blameless.
God’s Word calls the church ‘His body’, First Corinthians chapter 12, verse 12:
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptised into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we all were made to drink of one Spirit.
And as individualistic as we may have become, in contemporary society, here in the twenty-first century, after the time when Jesus walked this earth; as much as we have focussed on ourselves, God’s plan … God’s plan is for His children to be a family. It’s a powerful plan; it’s a good plan. To be sure, sometimes church hurts; sometimes it disappoints; sometimes it falls such a long way short of what we expect these people of God to be and how we expect them to love us, but it’s God’s plan, never the less.
I saw a sign outside a local church recently that said. ‘Don’t let Christians put you off Jesus.’ As bad a piece of marketing as I think that is, leading with the chin like that, this sign, somewhat clumsily and intensively, puts its finger on the problem we have been talking about today – that church is a four letter word.
So the thing we are going to look at today and over the next few weeks is this: despite so much doom and gloom and obvious failures of this thing called ‘church’, how do we make sense of God’s plan? How do you and I, if we hunger after God, grow and thrive in the body of Christ, the church, despite all the things in this world that scream at us that we should run a mile? How do we do that?
People Are a Pain
The one that is absolutely, without any shadow of a doubt, number one on my list of problems with church: it’s other people. As sure as God made little green apples, you get a bunch of people together and some of them are going to be a pain. They’re going to rub us the wrong way; they’re going to disappoint us and hurt us.
‘You and I,’ as Mary Poppins would say, ‘may well be practically perfect in every way, it’s just all those other people; they’re the ones who are pain and if it weren’t for them, church would be a fantastic place to be. But they’re the ones that ruin it. They’re the ones that rob it of what God meant it to be. To tell you the truth, I’m just not prepared to put up with them any more – that’s it! I’ve had enough – I’m taking my bat and ball and going home.’
And that, my friend, is exactly the attitude that so many people have towards ‘church’ in this consumer oriented world. My expectation of church used to be that it would be something like … like a zoo. You know, when you go to a zoo you go to the different animal enclosures and you see a series of perfect, well fed, well looked after specimens: the lion enclosure – perfect lions, the elephant enclosure – more perfect specimens; the giraffe enclosure – yet more perfect specimens. You see, you experience what you are expecting – what you paid your money for – perfect specimens. That’s what we go to the zoo for; to see what we expect to see.
And that’s how I first approached this thing called ‘church’. I expected to see and to meet a whole bunch of perfect specimens – people who would give me what I came for: the perfect preacher, the perfect pastor, the perfect community, the perfect worship service, the perfect … well, everything really. Boy, was I disappointed!
And as time went by, here’s what I discovered: church isn’t so much like a zoo full of perfect specimens; it’s more like a rehabilitation ward, full of broken people, being restored back into health. Now some of them are pretty healthy, to be sure; some of them are getting closer to being perfect specimens than you and I, but pretty much each person in that church is going to be a broken person, somewhere along that journey of rehabilitation.
Can I be really honest with you? I have met some really, really bad people in churches and that shocked me. Of course, I’ve met some utterly fantastic people too and no matter what churches I’ve visited or been associated with or been a part of, it’s always the same – it’s invariably a mixed bag. And this reality doesn’t fit with our expectation. Deep down we expect them to be perfect and so our natural reaction is to think, ‘Boy, something is seriously wrong with this place!’ But is there?
Interesting that Jesus’ disciples had a similar perception of these people who turned out to be a pain, so Jesus told them a parable to explain what was going on. And just as it explained the reality way back then, it’s still explains so graphically and perfectly, the reality of today. So have a listen to what He said to them and what He’s saying to us two thousand years on. It begins in Matthew chapter 13, verse 24:
He put before them yet another parable. He said: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you will uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, ‘Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’
So, here Jesus is dealing with this idea that we have, that a church should be perfect and if it ain’t perfect, then it’s not the church for me. What Jesus is saying, quite simply, is that in God’s Kingdom – and remember, THE tangible reality of that Kingdom on this earth today is God’s church – in God’s church, there is always going to be a mixed bag. God plants the good seed in His church; He calls good people into His family but the enemy comes along and plants some weeds too.
Remember, among the twelve disciples whom Jesus chose, the enemy, the devil, got hold of one of those – Judas Iscariot – with devastating effect. The enemy’s going to get hold of some peoples’ hearts right in the midst of the body of Christ and instead of delivering a good harvest; they’re only going to produce more weeds. And Jesus was saying, ‘Listen guys, that’s normal.’ And when the servants say to the Master, ‘So do you want us to do some weeding?’ He says, ‘No, no, leave them there; I’ll get them at harvest time.’
The sovereign choice of God is to leave the weeds in with the wheat. Did you pick that? He chooses not to make His Kingdom into a zoo full of perfect specimens but a mixed bag – that’s a reality; that’s God’s choice. And my hunch is, He puts those people there, not so we can be victims but so that we can learn to love and to overcome and to suffer and to give and to serve, even our enemies. Even those people who play ‘politics’ and those who are selfish or nasty or painful or however they rub us the wrong way.
My friend, ‘church’ is never going to be perfect! Ever! There are always going to be some weeds scattered through the crop but what Jesus is saying is this, ‘Leave them to me. I’ll deal with them in due course. I’ll sort the weeds from the wheat on the day of harvest; the day of judgement. Meantime, get on with it. Let the good wheat grow and yield its grain.’ As I said, thoroughly realistic! And when we take this parable of Jesus into our hearts, it puts those difficult people in church, well, it shines a whole new light on things. All of a sudden, the Lord is giving us a licence to just get on with it.
Programs, Programs, Programs
Almost two decades of my life, I worked as a consultant in the Information Technology Industry. Worked around the world and so I have been into hundreds of different organisations – private sector, public sector, in many different places and cultures. And over the years I’ve seen how systems and key performance indicators and the drive towards more and more profits impacts peoples’ lives. What I saw all too often, were workers lined up in small cubicles, driving to targets, to increase company profits.
Nothing wrong with companies making a profit of course; there’s nothing wrong with them having performance targets and incentive schemes and all of that. But after years and years and years of seeing this, I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s a line somewhere that companies and organisations can step over – there’s a ‘tipping point’, to use that familiar term – where the systems and the performance indicators and the profit motive, take people from being ‘free range’ to ‘battery’. Does that make sense?
Some work places I’ve walked into, the people have been working incredibly hard and yet they’re energised and happy and there’s some laughter in the place but mostly, that hasn’t been the case. Insurance companies, banks, call centres – so many of these places, where all that drives management is the profit motive, then ultimately, that line is crossed and the people become like … like battery hens.
We weren’t made principally, to be cogs in a production machine, you and I. We’re are unique, we’re creative, we love encouragement, we love being part of something we believe in, that we value and we love it when we’re valued. But systems, cubicles, targets – they can squeeze the life out of us.
Sometimes when I travel into the city on the bus or the train – something I used to do a lot, in my consulting days – I looked at the faces of people and you don’t see much joy or a sense of anticipation in most of their faces. There’s a greyness; a lifelessness that happens when beautiful, amazing, creative, emotional, intelligent, funny, spiritual, wonderful people are squeezed into a production mould. It’s the issue of balance that’s missing. That’s the conclusion I’ve come to. And here’s the thing – this is something I’ve seen in churches too!
Over the course of this week and the next few weeks on the program, we are taking a really frank look at this thing that we call ‘church’ and one of the things that appears to have emerged in contemporary church is the ‘program’. What do I mean by that? Well, we grow and so we organise ourselves and our activities and the members of the church and the way we organise things is that we institute programs – we have the weekly home group program, the ladies meeting on a Wednesday morning, the young mothers meeting, we implement a number of evangelism programs, we set budgets, we look at outcomes, we assess the return on investment, we run events – the Easter event, Carols by Candlelight at Christmas, we have food appeals, we go door knocking around the neighbourhood.
Now, let me say something at this point. There is nothing intrinsically wrong or bad or sinful about any of those things – their all good, in and of themselves – okay, so I’m not knocking any one of them, per se, but just as in everything else, there’s a line we can cross. You know, you can step over this line … the line where we turn church into purely an accumulation of events and activities and meetings and committees and programs … I think some people know what I’m talking about. And that point – and I’ve been to churches where I’ve seen this happen – where the only way that you can be part of the church is to participate in programs.
I’ve heard this come from the pulpit – ‘If you want to develop friendships and relationships, you have to sign up to join a home group.’ Now, program driven may have worked at some point in time at some place, but remember that so many of the people who come to our churches – are these same people who spend their lives working as virtual ‘battery hens’ at the office.
If there’s one thing … just one thing – that so many people are looking for in a faith community, is just that – a genuine sense of community. And community … community isn’t an accumulation of programs and events – it’s not a by-product so much, of signing up for this program or that program, because we can have as many programs as we like at church – listen to this – we can have as many programs as we like at church and have almost a nonexistent sense of community.
See, community is a mindset; it’s a heart attitude. I’ve been to a church where it took them nine months – listen to this – NINE MONTHS to invite us to anything and then it was a programmatic newcomers luncheon. That’s not community – community is when you walk in and someone greets you and smiles and they are interested in you and they share things with you and they get to know you over a coffee or a lunch or a dinner.
Jesus didn’t say that, ‘By this you will know that you are my disciples if you have effective church programs.’ He said, ‘By this people will know that you are my disciples if you have love one for another.’ There’s something organic and spontaneous about that sort of love.
The two words used for ‘church’ in the New Testament are ‘ecclesia’ and ‘koinonia’. The first ‘ecclesia,’ means ‘a meeting’ – that’s what churches do when they meet. And the second, ‘koinonia’, it means literally, ‘a fellowship’; a joining together – it’s a relational word – it’s a word of organic love and organic community.
My friend, I know that you may have walked into churches like this before. I know that you may even be part of a church like this and it feels like a little bit of a straight jacket. And you haven’t maybe quite understood why that is and now all of a sudden it’s as though we are putting our finger on something that’s been there, under your nose the whole time, staring you in the face but you haven’t been able to put a name to it. This sense that in order to participate in the church, we have to sign up on the sheet for the programs that someone decides we’re going to run.
That’s not community! Community is about being together. Community is about disconnected people … people who sometimes work as battery hens by day, coming together. That’s what people are looking for. They’re looking for a sense of welcome and fellowship and spontaneity; a sharing of lives together.
The Apostle Paul put it this way when he was talking about each one of us being part of the body of Christ. Have a listen: First Corinthians chapter 12, verse 26:
If one member suffers all suffer together with it. If one member is honoured all rejoice together with it. Now you are the body of Christ and individually you are members of it.
That’s community!! Rejoicing together, laughing together, suffering together, crying together. If there’s one thing … just one thing that people are hungering for in this increasingly technological, disconnected, individualistic world in which we life … just one thing it is this: it is a genuine experience of the love of Jesus Christ through community. And the place they’re meant to find that is the place that you and I will call ‘church’.