Episode 1. Why “Church” is a Four Letter Word
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When we hear the word “church” – well, so often we load it with a whole lot of baggage – our ideas, perceptions, experiences. “Church” – it’s almost become a four–letter word. But …
When we hear the word “church” – well, so often we load it with a whole lot of baggage – our ideas, perceptions, experiences. “Church” – it’s almost become a four–letter word. But my hunch is – it wasn’t meant to be so.
Church – A Four Letter Word
I’ve 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 those words – I wonder whether 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 So many people see large parts of the church as being anachronistic – outdated, irrelevant.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 old style religion appear to be alive and well.
For me – the greatest indictment of church in my living memory has been the whole issue of child sexual abuse. It seems to spread across so many of the denominations – and so I just don’t want to single any of them out. Only it’s not so much an issue – but a string, countless thousands of cases of the most appalling abuse of position and trust that is imaginable.
People who claim to be God’s emissaries sexually abusing children – and not just children, but adults too. And then, if that isn’t terrible enough – the cover–ups by major 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 widespread sexual abuse of children by its clergy for decades.
And this has happened over and over and over again. You Google church sexual abuse on the Internet, and aside from the fact that you get over 4 million hits – 4 million – you discover church essays, positions, enquiries, policy papers, white papers on this whole subject.
Now – you may well ask – why is it that Berni’s rabbiting on about this? Why’s he being so critical about this? Well, simply to demonstrate why the “church” has 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 not. But there’s enough mud flying around for it to stick. And then – there are so many other issues. The church seems to be anti–so many things. Anti–abortion. Anti–homosexual. Anti this and anti that. And please right now I’m not making any comment or judgement about the validity of those positions one way or the other. As it turns out I have very strong views on some of these issues. But it’s not the views and the beliefs that I’m talking about right now. It’s the perceptions of society as a whole, that this thing called the “church” can hold itself out to proclaim judgements on such issues when – I mean, look at the whole issue of child abuse. Is it any wonder that people look at the church and think – what a bunch of hypocrites. Then there’s the church not far from me – the denomination – that lost $160 million on some bad stock market investments recently. And the other small local church sitting on well over $20 million worth of real estate, with less than a dozen members showing up every Sunday morning.
These days there are so many Bible believing Christians having been burnt by this thing called church, that they’re leaving it in droves whilst still hanging on to their faith in Jesus – that the academics are writing text books about this group.
Perhaps some of that is treading on some sensitive even painful ground for someone listening today. And the last thing that I’m about is dragging down the church. But if you belong to God’s church – whatever denomination, whatever shape of 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! Hmm. The sad thing is that so many good things are happening amongst this group of people we call “church” around the world as well. It’s not all bad – far from it – but we live in a world today – where people both inside and outside the church are struggling so deeply with what church means, what it is, what it’s supposed to be, what it achieves – so many people are struggling so deeply and in many cases painfully with this issues – that I believe we have to talk about it on the program. So that’s what we’re going to be doing over the next couple of 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 of this thing called “church” it is part of God’s plan and it is 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:
And 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. (Matthew 16:18)
Jesus said He would build his church and make her strong. God also refers to the church as His bride:
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. (Ephesians 5:25–27)
And His body:
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. 13 For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:12)
And as individualistic as we’ve become in contemporary society here in the 21st century after the time when Jesus walked this earth – as much as we’re focussed on ourselves, God’s plan, God’s plan is for His children to be a family.
It’s a powerful plan. And it’s a good plan. To be sure – sometimes being a 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 is God’s plan nevertheless.
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 insensitively puts its finger on the problem we’ve been talking about today. That “church” is a four letter word. So the thing we’re going to look at today and over these coming 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?
People are a Pain
You know the biggest problem I find with Churches? The one that is absolutely, without any shadow of doubt number 1 on my list of problems with church – is 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 up the wrong way. They’re going to disappoint us, hurt us.
You and I – as Mary Poppins would say – may well be practically perfect in every way. It’s all those other people – they’re the ones who are pains. 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 who rob it of what God meant it to be. To tell you the truth – I’m just not prepared to put up with them anymore. That’s it. I’ve had enough. I’m taking my bat and ball and going home.
And that my friend – that 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 a zoo. You know when you go to the zoo, you go to the different animal enclosures and you see a series of perfect, well fed, well looked after specimens.
The lion enclosure – prefect specimens. The elephant enclosure. More perfect specimens. The giraffe enclosure – yet more prefect specimens. You see, you experience what you’re 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 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. n And as time when by, here’s what I discovered. Church isn’t so much like a zoo full of perfect specimens, it’s more like … like a rehabilitation ward full of broken people, being restored back to health. Now some of them are pretty healthy to be sure, some of them are getting much closer to being perfect specimens than others, 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’ve met some really, really bad people in churches. 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 all to be perfect – and so our natural reaction is to think – boy, something seriously wrong in this place. But is there? Interesting that Jesus’ disciples had a similar perception of these people who turn 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 still explains so graphically and perfectly the reality today. So – have a listen to what He said to them … and what He’s saying to us, 2,000 years on:
He put before them another parable: “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 would 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’s Jesus saying – quite simply this – that in God’s Kingdom – and remember, the tangible reality of that Kingdom on this earth is God’s Church – in God’s Church – there is always going to be a mixed bag. God plants good seed in His church He calls good people into His family. But the enemy comes along and plants some weeds too. Remember amongst the 12 disciples whom Jesus chose, the enemy the devil got a hold of one of those – Judas Iscariot – with devastating effect.
The enemy’s going to get hold of some people’s 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. Jesus is saying “that’s normal”. And when the servants say to the master – so – do you want us to go do some weeding – He says, no, no, leave them. I’ll get to them at harvest time.
The sovereign choice of God is to leave the weeds in place – did you pick that? He chooses not to make His kingdom a zoo – full of perfect specimens, but a mixed bag. That’s the reality. That’s His choice. And my hunch is that He puts those people there – not so that 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 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. 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 that 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 license – just to get on with it.
Programs, Programs, Programs
For almost two decades of my life, I worked as a consultant in the information technology industry. I worked around the world and so I’ve 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 impact people’s 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 profits 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 workplaces 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, when all that drives management is the profit motive – then ultimately that line is crossed and the people become like battery hens.
We weren’t made principally to be cogs in a production machine. You and I – we’re unique and creative and we love encouragement and we love being part of something we believe in and that we value and 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 of in my consulting days – I look at the faces of the people – and you don’t see much joy, or sense of anticipation. There’s a greyness, a lifelessness that happens when beautiful, amazing, creative, emotional, intelligent, funny, 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 that I’ve seen in churches too.
Over the course of this week and the next few weeks on the program – we’re taking a really frank look at this thing we call “church”. And one of the things that appears to have emerged in the 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 lady’s meeting on Wednesday morning. The young mother’s meeting. We implement a number of evangelism programs. We set budgets, we look at outcomes we assess the return on the 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 these things. They’re all good in and of themselves. OK – so I’m not knocking any of them per se. But just as in everything else – there’s a line we can cross over – the line where we turn church into purely an accumulation of events, activities, meetings, committees and programs. That point – and I’ve been to churches where I’ve seen this happen – where the only way that you can be a part of the church – is to participate in the 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 homegroup. Now – program–driven may have worked at some place and at some time – but remember so many of the people who come to our churches – are these same people who spend their lives working as virtual battery hens.
And if there’s one thing – just one thing – that so many people are looking for in a faith community – it’s 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. Because we can have as many programs as we like at church – and have zero community. Community is a mindset. It’s a heart attitude. I’ve been to a church where it took them 9 months – 9 months – to invite us to anything – and then, it was a programmatic “new comer’s luncheon.” That’s not community. Community is when you walk in and someone greats you and smiles and shares and gets to know you and has you over for coffee or lunch and is there for you.
Jesus didn’t say – that by this people know 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 NT are ecclesia and koinonia. The first means – a meeting, that’s what churches do as they meet once a week. And the second – koinonia – means a fellowship, a joining together. It’s a relational word. It’s the word of organic love and organic community.
And that – that is the one thing more than any other – that disconnected people, people who work as battery hens by day, are looking for. Welcome. Fellowship. Spontaneity. A sharing of lives. The Apostle Paul put it this way when he was talking about each one of us being part of the body of Christ –
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 members of it. (1 Corinthians 12:26)
If there’s one thing people are hungering for more than anything else – it’s this genuine experience of Christ’s love through community.