One slightly unhinged pastor’s attempt to love (and laugh with) a slightly unhinged church, from the inside out.
Why would I join a church where that happens?
It’s time to stop giving people reasons to doubt our Christian faith.
by Joshua Bower
I’ve been a pastor in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) for 10 years. I was baptized in the PC(USA), and I have every intention of dying in it. But I almost didn’t join the church.
Growing up in the church is a double-edged sword: you sometimes see Christians at their best, but often you see them at their worst. The “at their worst” part is what almost made me leave the church. And I’m guessing I’m not the only one.
I was about 14 years old at the time. Nobody liked our church’s pastor of two years. His sermons were boring. His prayers were too long. He didn’t visit enough. You know the song and dance when a congregation turns on its pastor. Eventually, the session decided to “get rid” of him. On the day of the congregational meeting, there was a morbid kind of excitement in the air. The younger crowd was ushered out of the sanctuary before the meeting, but I snuck upstairs to the balcony. I wasn’t going to miss the show!
One by one, members stood to accuse the pastor of failing in his call to our congregation. It wasn’t so much a debate on whether or not to retain his services as it was a time for people to vent their frustrations. There was fierce anger and disgust in their voices. At one point his wife stood up. She screamed, excoriating the church for how they had treated her husband. Her outburst only stiffened the resolve of those berating their soon-to-be-former pastor.
I was stunned. Here was a group of people who said they believed in Jesus’ way of love and grace tongue-lashing each other. For the record, I didn’t think he was God’s gift to the ministry of Word and Sacrament. (For his final benediction he said, “I can’t in good conscience give a blessing to this church.” Seriously.) But I was disturbed that the people who had taught me such high standards for Christian character would act this way.
A year or two later, we got a new pastor. She organized a confirmation class and asked me if I was planning to join the church. I told her, “no.” When she asked why, I related the story of that day and said bluntly, “Why would I join a church where the congregation treated somebody that way?”
‘Growing up in the church is a double-edged sword: you sometimes see Christians at their best, but often you see them at their worst. The “at their worst part” is what almost made me leave the church. And I’m guessing I’m not the only one.’
To be clear, I love my home church. I love the people there. They raised me in the faith and nurtured me from birth through seminary. Without them I wouldn’t have doubted the church, but I also wouldn’t have had such a strong desire to commit myself to it. Church is a messy place full of beautiful, complicated, and sinful people.
I bet there are plenty of others out there who have had a “Why would I join a church where . . . ?” moment. Here are some of the responses I’ve heard.
Why would I join a church where . . .
. . . laughing in worship gets me the stink eye?
. . . the sign out front says “All are welcome” but the members look at me like I might try to bite ‘em if they get too close?
. . . any discussion of changing anything has the potential to split the church (because Great Aunt Maude gave those drapes in honor of Uncle George!)?
. . . children are hushed so people can better hear the organ prelude? (See also: . . . there’s a group willing to keep the sheet on the Communion elements bleached and starched, but no one willing to keep the nursery?)
. . . the main reason for celebrating the Lord’s Supper as infrequently as possible is to minimize the chance of spilling juice on the upholstery (or being late to brunch)?
. . . the members celebrate balancing the church budget, but don’t seem to care that the last adult baptism was five years ago?
. . . everyone knows what party the good Christians will be voting for in 2016?
. . . they have the money to buy a [insert extravagant purchase for the sanctuary], but can’t find the money to feed the poor folks down the street?
How many people do you know who have left the church over these experiences or who will never darken the church’s doors because of it? C.S. Lewis got to the heart of it in Mere Christianity: “When Christians behave badly . . . we are making Christianity unbelievable to the outside world. . . . Our careless lives set the outer world talking; and we give them grounds for talking in a way that throws doubt on Christianity itself.” People are watching: the unchurched, dechurched, the “nones,” and everybody in between. Are we giving them a reason to believe?
And yet, even with all my finger wagging at the church, I did join! Why? Because I’ve seen God’s Spirit work in me during the times I screw up the worst.
In my version of the story I was an innocent bystander, a silent observer. The truth is that I made fun of that pastor and criticized him just as much as anybody else—always behind his back, of course. That’s why I went to the balcony that day: to watch him squirm. And God used my guilt over that to make treating other people with love and respect (and striving for unity in the church!) one of my deepest goals in ministry. By God’s grace, my “Why would I join a church where . . . ?” moment became my motivation to work to forge a new way of living in the church. And if God was willing to do that in my life, then I expect God is willing to do that in every life and in every church. So why should I not follow God and help make that happen for as long as my heart keeps beating?
What about you? My challenge to you is to fill in the blank for yourself: “Why would I join a church where . . . ?” And then dedicate yourself to changing the answer so that nobody else has to ask that question again. Let it motivate you to transform the church from the inside out. How we act makes a difference. For some it makes all the difference. Let’s give the world a reason to believe.
Joshua Bower is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Albany, Georgia. His passions include laughing (especially in church), Starbucks Italian Roast, the Buffalo Bills, trying new things in old churches, empowering those in poverty, and being half of a clergy couple raising two kids who touch his soul and try his patience daily. Josh is on Facebook at facebook.com/jleebower.